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Bengals vs Steelers Week 8 Game Preview: Seventh Heaven

It's difficult for us to call Week 8 a critical game, but it's one that could truly define the outlook of the AFC North this year. Will the Bengals grab a historic seventh consecutive win to start a season?

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

"Steelers Week".

It's a moniker Bengals fans have given to the two annual games and the days leading up to the affairs. Since Marvin Lewis arrived in Cincinnati to prompt a change in the culture of the city's football franchise, fans of the team have reignited the lust for a heated rivalry. While the cross-state hatred of the Browns remains strong, it's a number of dubious historical events that has Bengals faithful pointing to the Steelers as the ones with the bull's eye on their back.

The sad irony is the lack of reciprocation Pittsburgh fans have when regarding the "rivalry" with the Bengals. The Baltimore Ravens are Pittsburgh's annual primary target because of the sheer brutality of the matchups over the years. It's been coined as one of the best rivalries in the NFL, though many are field goal fest defensive battles. Even with the Bengals sitting at 6-0 through the first seven weeks, and are the healthiest they have been in a very long time, Steelers players and fans point to the history.

While Lewis has had success over both the Ravens and the Browns, it's been the Steelers (along with a lack of postseason success) that has been the major mar on his head coaching resume. Lewis' Bengals are 7-18 against Pittsburgh, including the 2005 Wild Card loss. For all of the success Andy Dalton has had in his relatively young career, he's just 2-6 against the Steelers, and his predecessor, Carson Palmer, was a paltry 5-16, again including the playoffs (Palmer didn't play against Pittsburgh in 2008 because of injury). It's Cincinnati's .390 winning percentage against the Black and Yellow that has the Steelers feeling like they have the Bengals' number.

It's also in the fashion of how Cincinnati has lost to Pittsburgh over the years. Some have been in embarrassing fashion, with the Bengals tripping over their own feet in the form of mistakes they hadn't made in other games throughout that particular season. Other losses have been via the Steelers flexing their muscle and embodying their inner bully to pound past flashy Bengals teams into submission.

But, as everybody says at the beginning of autumn, it's a new year. Cincinnati has a renewed vigor, particularly on offense, because of the aforementioned collective health of the team. Steelers sports writer, Neal Coolong, now with USA Today and formerly with SB Nation's Steelers site, Behind the Steel Curtain, touted Tyler Eifert as "the second best tight end in the NFL right now" on this week's Inside the Jungle podcast. It's not that big of a stretch, given his six touchdown grabs and 21 first downs on 28 catches in 2015.

Wide receiver Marvin Jones has provided another spark to Cincy's offense, and not just in his own stat line. He has opened up plays for Eifert, A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu. All of which has led to an AFC Player of the Month award and possible MVP consideration. Really, Cincinnati's quarterback has been the major reason for the franchise-tying best start in team history.

In years past, it's been the Bengals defense that has carried the team to the playoffs. The excuses around a pedestrian-like performance from the Cincinnati defense last year came with an unprecedented loss of personnel and the ongoing recoveries of a couple of key players who simply weren't the same as they were in previous seasons.

This year, one glaring vacancy has remained in the Bengals defense in linebacker Vontaze Burfict, but they've made due. The revamping of the front four on the defensive line, along with the renewed health of Geno Atkins have masked the absence of the playmaking linebacker. Currently, the Bengals rank tied for ninth in quarterback sacks, with four of those ranked ahead of them playing one more game to this point in the season. Last year, the team finished last in the category. If Dalton has been the major reason for the Bengals' early season spike, the defensive line's performance isn't too far behind.

However, the Bengals' back seven will be tested early and often by the Steelers on Sunday. While Burfict is a maybe to play on Sunday, it seems more likely that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be back after a four-game hiatus because of injury. Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has had big shoes to fill in the wake of Mike Zimmer taking the Vikings' head coaching job, and while he's kept the unit afloat amidst turmoil, there tends to be a different game plan within the same scheme.

Zimmer's defense thrived creative and opportune blitzes, while using creative coverage looks at other times and relying on just the front four to apply pressure. Guenther prefers to use the latter strategy, while preaching a bend-but-don't-break philosophy in the secondary. Maybe get a tackle-for-loss or sack in the early downs, creating a third and long situation, and don't let short routes get past the sticks. It's worked a good chunk of the time through the first six games, but will it be effective against Pittsburgh?

To the Steelers' credit, they found a way to go 2-2 in the games Roethlisberger missed, as well as finishing out the win against the Rams after he sprained a knee ligament. Michael Vick and Landry Jones each pulled out wins, but each were also responsible for a loss apiece. Pittsburgh also managed to go 1-1 without two other major offensive weapons in Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, who were serving suspensions for different reasons.

Now, in their most critical game so far this season, the Steelers' gang appears as if it's going to be back together. Big Ben is playing coy, but if you want to be a revisionist historian, he'll be there under center even if he's dragging a leg behind him. Bryant and Bell are back and have been heavily contributing without Roethlisberger and we haven't even talked about Antonio Brown yet.

The special teams Karate Kid has made the Bengals pay in the past in a variety of manners. In his career, Brown has four receiving touchdowns and two punt return touchdowns against Cincinnati. When he isn't in the end zone, he's racking up yards and is the most recent in a line of Bengals killers from Steelers wideouts, such as Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and so many others.

Pittsburgh has experienced some attrition on the defensive side of the ball themselves over the past couple of years. Gone are many of the mainstays who made up the newest era of "The Steel Curtain", with the lone exception being the ageless wonder, James Harrison. In uncharacteristic fashion, the Steelers rank No. 23 overall in total defense, including a shocking 27th against the pass, but a familiar No. 9 ranking against the run.

And that is what makes this upcoming game so different from many others in the past. It was always a bruise-fest against the Steelers--a test of wills on who wanted it more. This time around it seems as if it's more about the skill positions. With the Bengals able to burn a defense with four capable receiving options and two exciting backs, they've brought matchup nightmares this year. The Killer four B's (Ben, Brown, Bryant, Bell) give fits to any defense, no matter how well they have played to that point.

Will the rejuvenated Bengals defensive front, possible return of Burfict and glut of former first round picks in Cincinnati's secondary keep Pittsburgh's offensive weapons at bey? Or, will Pittsburgh continue to find a way to frustrate Dalton and Co., even though the juggernaut they've created in 2015 seems unstoppable?

Can both and neither happen?

Bengals 31, Steelers 28

AC -- Bengals fans, watch your knees this Sunday.