Can Bengals block the Steelers?

James Harrison (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Steelers are looking to take an 8-3 record into the weekend against the 1-8-1 Cincinnati Bengals tonight at Heinz Field. The Steelers hope to take advantage of their big edge along ... the offensive line?

PITTSBURGH – Think the Steelers have offensive line problems this season? Better check out the Cincinnati Bengals tonight at Heinz Field for some real problems.

At full strength, the 1-8-1 Bengals would pit their last-ranked offense against the 7-3 Steelers' top-ranked defense. It'd be a mismatch, even without the Bengals' injury woes.

The Bengals, for tonight's game, have ruled out left tackle Levi Jones (back), left guard Andrew Whitworth (ankle) and top line backup Scott Kooistra (knee).

In Jones' place at left tackle, opposite James Harrison, will be rookie fourth-round pick Anthony Collins, who'll make his first start.

The new left guard is undrafted rookie Nate Livings, who has never played an NFL game.

In reserve, the Bengals have only two players available: Andrew Crummy and Dennis Roland. Neither of them has played an NFL game. In fact, Livings, Crummy and Roland were all members of the Bengals' practice squad at various points this season.

Johnstown native and former Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins summed up the situation this week when he told a Cincinnati radio station, "I think the kid's going to die."

"The kid" is Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who replaced Carson Palmer in the Bengals' lineup five games ago against the New York Jets. The following week he started against the Steelers and couldn't lead the Bengals to a first down until late in the second quarter. Fitzpatrick, though, finished strong and has since led the Bengals to a win over Jacksonville and a tie last Sunday against Philadelphia.

If Fitzpatrick has enough time, he hopes his receivers -- T.J. Houshmandzadeh (73-726), Chad Johnson (41-283) and Chris Henry (8-82) – can beat a Steelers secondary that'll be without Bryant McFadden (forearm) and Deshea Townsend (hamstring), the Nos. 2 and 3 cornerbacks. William Gay will make his second start for the Steelers opposite Ike Taylor, with Fernando Bryant and Anthony Madison in reserve.

The Bengals will miss two starters on defense. Frostee Rucker replaces Antwan Odom (shoulder) at right defensive end, and Chris Crocker replaces Chinedum Ndukwe (foot) at strong safety.

The Steelers' offensive line, meanwhile, hopes to build off its final and game-winning drive against the San Diego Chargers last Sunday. Tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon fired off the ball to create room for Willie Parker on the final five plays of the drive, leaving Parker to exclaim afterward, "That's Steelers football."

The Steelers are 23rd in the NFL in rushing. They're averaging 3.6 yards per carry – their worst average since 2003 (3.3) – and have averaged only 2.9 yards per carry the last three games. It got to the point last week that, in blustery winter weather, the Steelers called 45 passes and 28 runs.

"To pass the way we did, that's not normal, but that's what the defense was giving us," said wide receiver Hines Ward.

Ward was asked if the Steelers are now using the pass to open up the running lanes.

"No. It's not where we want to – I mean, those weren't great weather conditions to go out and pass the ball," Ward said, before adding. "I've been here when we were passing crazy."

Ward was with the "passing crazy" Steelers in 2003 and went 6-10, so he knows where this slippery slope leads. So does Parker, who, in a reversal from last season, might benefit from an increased work load late this season.

"I hope so," Parker said. "I hope that's the case because I want to run. I feel like running now. I'm tired of all the passing. I want the ball."

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