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Bengals' top priority against Steelers will be establishing run game

| Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, 9:36 p.m.
Bengals running back Jeremy Hill (32) runs for a touchdown in the second half against the Ravens on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, in Cincinnati.

CINCINNATI — The focus has been on Cincinnati quarterbacks Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron all week. McCarron is the likely starter in the AFC wild-card game against the Steelers on Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium.

However, it hardly matters who's behind center. The Bengals have decided that a potent ground game is the remedy for the postseason blues that have haunted them for 25 years.

While the Steelers are uncertain about the status of running back DeAngelo Williams, who suffered an ankle injury in the regular-season finale in Cleveland, Cincinnati is confident its 1-2 punch — Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard — will influence the outcome of the third meeting this season between the AFC North rivals.

Admittedly, the Bengals will need to run the ball far better against the Steelers than they did during the regular season in hopes of making McCarron comfortable in the pocket. They must run effectively, too, to slow down the Steelers' blitzing linebackers.

“It'll definitely make things easier for the offense and it'll take a lot of pressure off of AJ,” said Hill, who had a 38-yard touchdown run in a 24-16 win over Baltimore last Sunday. “It'll help us keep the time of possession in our favor, which is very important.”

In their regular-season meetings, the Steelers controlled the clock. They had a decisive time of possession advantage as they held the ball 11 minutes, 34 seconds longer than Cincinnati in a 33-20 win in Week 14.

The Bengals figure they can take control of the clock by running more effectively. They ran for 78 yards in a 16-10 win at Heinz Field and were limited to 64 yards in the rematch six weeks later.

Those rushing numbers have unsettled offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who figured that rotating Hill and Bernard would make both stronger in the fourth quarter. Instead, both have been mostly ineffective against the Steelers with a combined 29 carries for 128 yards.

“If you can't run the ball in the playoffs, you're in trouble,” Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “We need to give AJ some third-and-manageable situations because the defenses at this point are too good to put yourself in third and long.”

Hill had 16 rush attempts in the first game while Bernard carried the ball only once. It's not exactly the balance Jackson is seeking — or the balance they'll need to keep the Steelers' aggressive defense on its heels.

“For me, I'm willing to do whatever it takes to win the football game,” Hill said. “Whether that's 20 carries or one carry, all that matters is having more points. All the stats don't matter.

“We've rotated all year with the idea of keeping us both fresh. So I don't expect that's going to change anytime soon.

“We've done some things in practice to respond to what the Steelers have done defensively, so I'll be interested to see how (offensive coordinator) Hue (Jackson) calls the game,” Hill added. “It's something we talk about all the time, but we have to be better in the playoffs, especially with our running and pass protection.”

The Steelers, too, have evolved since their last meeting four weeks ago. They are using three safeties and playing linebacker James Harrison far more than Jarvis Jones, in part, to put more pressure on the quarterback and shore up the edge against the run.

“We think they'll put a lot of guys in the box, which makes it tougher to run the ball,” Hill said. “It's a little easier to run the ball against some teams, but Pittsburgh has a good run defense. I'm sure our coaches have the right game plan to get us going.”

The Steelers want to force the Bengals away from the ground game and make a relatively inexperienced quarterback beat them through the air. But Jackson said the offense will change only slightly without Dalton.

“I can't change my personality because it's the playoffs,” Jackson said. “My players would look at me and ask, ‘Coach, what are you doing?' ” We are going to play the way we play. That's what we think we are. That's what we are going to do.”

The Bengals will have tight end Tyler Eifert, who played only eight snaps in the home defeat to the Steelers. With Eifert, the linebackers can't focus solely on the run.

“I'll need to block when I need to block, and help the offense that way,” Eifert said. “I'm excited to get another chance to play Pittsburgh, but we can only win if we have balance on offense.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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