As if climbing out of an 0-3 hole to claw back to .500 isn’t tough enough, the Cincinnati Bengals are tasked with completing the ascent by scaling their own personal Everest in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bengals (2-3) have lost four in a row, seven of eight and 12 of 15 against their AFC North Division rivals.
So a win Sunday at Heinz Field would mean so much more than just getting even on the win-loss ledger.
A loss, and it’s a rocky, jagged tumble that could inflict damage which might not heal until 2018.
The Bengals can’t afford to fall 2 1/2 games behind the Steelers (4-2), so this already fierce rivalry could have somewhat of a December desperation feel to it, which could mean even more trash talking and pad crashing than usual.
Here are 5 things to watch for:
The Steelers are third in yards allowed, fourth in points allowed and first in pass defense.
The Bengals are second in yards allowed, second in points allowed and second in pass defense.
All told, the Bengals rank in the top five in seven defensive categories, and the Steelers are top 10 in eight.
You don’t have to be an expert to know what kind of game this is going to be.
But aside from the comparable numbers, the defenses are similar in makeup, with a huge infusion of youth.
Four Pittsburgh starters are in either their first or second year, and with veteran defensive end Stephon Tuitt out with a back injury, it means eight of the 11 starters Sunday will be age 24 or younger.
The young Bengals — who have 21 players who have never played in a Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game, including 11 on defense — likely will be even younger as well with cornerback Adam Jones listed as doubtful and 2016 first-round pick William Jackson expected to start in his place.
“You have to play great field position ball from a team standpoint,” Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “We can’t turn the ball over and give them short fields. A couple of the touchdowns we gave up last year we were just off on the coverage – simple little things that we should have been in great position to make a play.
“I think the second ballgame they scored one and kicked five field goals so that was a big field position game where we’re holding them and they were kicking long field goals. They were chipping away at the lead. It’s a division game and grind out deal and we know that.”
Looking for Le’Veon
Since the Week 14 game in 2014 when Le’Veon Bell ran for 185 yards and two touchdowns, the Bengals have done a decent job against Pittsburgh’s Pro Bowl running back.
In the last three meetings, Bell has 41 carries for 158 yards (3.8) and no scores.
“The nature of his runs, he’ll get behind the line of scrimmage and look for a crack and hit it,” Guenther said. “If a guy’s peeking here or peeking there and if a linebacker is a little bit away from his fit he finds them and does a good job with that. He’s a good back.”
Given all the youth Guenther employs, staying disciplined could be an issue.
But he doesn’t think it will.
“I love our discipline,” he said. “Our guys have been great. They’re great technicians. They’ve taken to the techniques that we’ve taught here and the scheme that we’ve taught here and really understood and that’s why they’re playing as much as they are. They’ve shown what they can do and they understand exactly how we’re teaching it and they’re only going to get better the more and more they play.”
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Bell is coming off his biggest game of the year. After a slow start that probably was related to his offseason holdout, Bell ran for 179 yards a touchdown last week at Kansas City.
The Bengals enter the game tied for fifth in sacks (every team ahead of them has played one more game than they have) and second in sacks per pass play.
Whether they can continue to not only bring pressure with just a four-man rush, but actually get to Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger and get him on the ground could be the difference in a win or a loss.
In their last 10 regular-season games against the Steelers, the Bengals actually have more interceptions (nine) against Roethlisberger than sacks (eight).
It doesn’t have to be an all-day beating to transform Roethlisberger into a below average quarterback. Dating back to December 2012, the Steelers are 15-23 when Roethlisberger is sacked at least twice. Three of those losses have come against Cincinnati — the only three wins the Bengals have in the last 15 games against Pittsburgh.
The commitment has been strong even though the improvement has been incremental.
In three games with Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator, the Bengals are averaging 29 rushes per game, even though the backs are averaging only 3.0 yards per carry.
Getting rookie Joe Mixon going should be one of the focal points, but don’t be surprised if Giovani Bernard has a more expanded role.
Bernard has five touchdowns in seven games against the Steelers, including one in his most recent meeting in Week 2 last year, when he caught a career-high nine passes for 100 yards, which was the second highest total of his career.
He went from playing 50 percent of the snaps under former coordinator Ken Zampese to 29.4 percent with Lazor. But Bernard is one of the best backs in the league at blitz pick-up, which should result in his being on the field more often against a Steelers defense that loves to bring the heat.
The Bengals listed rookie first-round pick John Ross as questionable on the injury report, which means he has a 50 percent chance of playing.
If his knee is well enough, Ross will add the type of game-breaking speed that will be key in a game where points and yards are expected to be hard to come by.
If Ross is unable to go, it likely would mean rookie fourth-round pick Josh Malone will be active for the first time with second-year receiver, and Pittsburgh native, Tyler Boyd already ruled out with a knee injury.
With the Steelers expected to throw a lot of attention toward A.J. Green, receivers such as Malone, Cody Core, Alex Erickson and Brandon LaFell could emerge as primary targets for Andy Dalton.
Green has had his share of big games against the Steelers, catching touchdowns in four of the last six meetings while posting single-game totals of 224, 138 and 118 yards in that span. But in the two most recent games, Pittsburgh has held Green to a combined seven catches for 109 yards.
Despite winning just eight of their last 22 games overall, the Bengals have found success in areas where it is typically scarce — on the road in the division.
In the last 10 road games against AFC North opponents, the Bengals are 7-3.
In the last 10 home games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland, they are 5-5.
“It’s just us in terms of our preparation and how you go about it and the poise we have through it,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “That’s what counts, the focus of us.”