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12-03-2011, 09:46 AM
Steelers defense won't look past Bengals' rookies

By Ralph N. Paulk
Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Steelers defense has turned things around since giving up a late touchdown in their loss Nov. 6 to Baltimore.

They have forced six turnovers in the last two games - including four in a 13-9 win at Kansas City last Sunday. The tide began to shift during the Steelers first meeting with Cincinnati on Nov. 13. They entered that game with only two interceptions before rookie quarterback Andy Dalton came unglued in the fourth quarter.

Dalton, considered by some as the leading rookie of the year candidate, tossed interceptions to linebacker Lawrence Timmons and cornerback William Gay. Gay's pick, his first of the season, clinched a 24-17 win when the Bengals seemed poised to send the game into overtime.

The secondary faces a stiff challenge again Sunday after intercepting Kansas City quarterback Tyler Palko three times. If the Bengals can't crank up the running game with Cedric Benson, expect Dalton to try to pick apart the league's third-best pass defense with the help of fellow rookie sensation A.J. Green.

The receiver made a remarkable 36-yard touchdown catch that helped the Bengals erase a 14-0 deficit in the first meeting but was injured on the play. He missed a game before returning to catch a clutch 51-yard pass to help propel the Bengals to a 23-20 win over Cleveland this past Sunday.

"(Green) is their go-to guy, so they are going to give him a chance to make plays," Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said. "He's the guy they're comfortable with. Whenever you draft a receiver in the top five, you expect production."

Tight end Jermaine Gresham has become a reliable target for Dalton, especially in the absence of Green. Gresham, who missed nearly all of his senior year at Oklahoma, has totaled 12 receptions and two touchdowns in the past three games.

"I think Dalton learned something about Gresham when A.J. was out for a game," Clark said. "For a young quarterback, having a special talent like Jermaine Gresham is a key. He's going to get singled up against linebackers, and they are taking advantage of that matchup."

Still, anyone who draws the assignment of covering Green will be challenged.

"Anytime you give a person that much talent an opportunity to make plays, he's going to come through for you," Clark said. "He as the body control and ability to adjust to the ball, and they will throw him the ball down the middle."

Clark and strong safety Troy Polamalu have policed the middle of the field all season. They have allowed few long completions, especially down the seam. Green, however, is expected to draw the attention of cornerback Ike Taylor, even though Gay arguably has been the more effective shut-down corner this season.

"(Taylor) shadowed me the whole game when I was in," Green said. "He's a great player, a veteran. I am really going to have to work. I am up for the challenge."

The Bengals are confident their passing game can bolster a running game that hasn't been nearly as effective as it was earlier this season: With Green back on the field this past Sunday, Benson carried the ball 21 times for 106 yards - his first 100-yard effort since Week 4.

"I think (Green) provides, obviously, an opportunity to make big plays, and little plays, and consistent plays all the way through," Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. "He is a good football player, and we are a better team when he is on the field."

Ralph N. Paulk can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923 .

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