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Bengals' balanced offense poses threat to Steelers

| Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, 10:27 p.m.
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Cincinnati's BenJarvus Green-Ellis runs with the ball during the NFL game against the Indianapolis Colts at Paul Brown Stadium on December 8, 2013 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Cincinnati Bengals possess one of the most balanced offenses in the NFL. They have the talent to lean on the run or the pass.

Yet, even as wide receiver A.J. Green has developed into a prolific big-play threat, the Bengals offense is fueled largely by a resilient ground game that features two running backs — BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard — with contrasting styles.

Bernard torched the Steelers in the Bengals' 20-10 victory at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 2. He scored on a 7-yard run and put the game out of reach with a dazzling 27-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter.

“They have running backs with different styles, but they have the same goal,” said defensive end Ziggy Hood, who for the third time in four weeks likely will start for injured Brett Keisel when the Steelers host the AFC North leaders on Sunday at Heinz Field. “We have to be aware of who's in the backfield and what they're capable of doing.”

When the Steelers have been able to stuff the Bengals' run game, they often frustrated Andy Dalton. The third-year quarterback threw the ball 45 times in the teams' first meeting, but the Bengals rushed 34 times for 127 yards to keep the heat off Dalton.

“It's our job to frustrate Dalton,” said Hood, who sat out Wednesday's practice with a sore ankle. “They don't abandon the running game. They'll keeping pounding and pounding. If it doesn't work, they'll try something else but come back to it.”

The goal for the Steelers, said defensive end Cam Heyward, is to put the game into the hands of the sometimes-erratic Dalton, who endured a rough two-game stretch before leading the Bengals to their current three-game winning streak. He completed 24 of 34 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-28 win over the Colts on Sunday.

“We want to make them one-dimensional,” Heyward said. “They can sometimes catch defenses off guard because they have a north-and-south runner (Green-Ellis) and an edge runner (Bernard) who helps in the pass game, as well.

“If we can turn back the run game early, it can change the whole game. They do a good job when Giovani's in the game with two tight ends, running the toss cracks and sweeps. When BenJarvus is in, they go straight up the middle.”

If the Steelers are to snap a two-game slide and keep alive their fading playoff chances, the defensive line must win the trench war. Specifically, Heyward and Hood will have the dual responsibility of funneling Green-Ellis and Bernard inside the tackles and applying enough pressure to disrupt Dalton's rhythm.

The Steelers rush defense has improved over the second half of the season, in part, because of the improved play of Heyward. The former No. 1 draft pick was practically unstoppable in a 34-28 loss to Miami, recording a sack, a tackle for loss, one quarterback hurry, a pass defense and 10 total tackles.

The Bengals (9-4), two games clear of reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore (7-6), aren't likely to go away from what has worked for much of this season. Green-Ellis and Bernard will share the load with the purpose of setting up a passing game against a sometimes-vulnerable Steelers secondary.

“If you have a number of guys who can help you, we should never have a guy say he's tired,” Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. “We can sub guys in and out, and guys can be fresh and playing fast.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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