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Bengals vs Steelers: Behind Enemy Lines with Behind the Steel Curtain, Round 2

We caught back up with Jeff Hartman of Behind the Steel Curtain as the Bengals prepare to host the Steelers this Sunday.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Bengals vs Steelers round two takes place on Sunday, with both teams riding winning streaks heading into a divisional matchup at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati is looking to play spoiler on its home turf and put a damper on Pittsburgh’s recent success while building on the team’s late-season improvements. We spoke with Jeff Hartman of Behind the Steel Curtain to see what has helped Pittsburgh play so well as of late and hear what he thinks will happen on Sunday.

Connor Howe: Le'Veon Bell has been the best running back in football this season, and I don't think it's a remotely close competition, despite monster years from David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott. With over 160 yards from scrimmage per game, Bell has been remarkable. What has made Bell the player he's become over the past few seasons, and this season, in particular?

Jeff Hartman: Bell has completely changed his game, and himself, since entering the league. He had the patience and vision coming out of Michigan State, but he was heavier and not as quick. Challenged by Mike Tomlin, Bell completely altered his physique and came into the 2014 season a different player. Faster, quicker cuts, and the hands of a receiver...Bell is now the complete package. This isn't a homer comment, but the only knock on the guy is he doesn't possess true breakaway speed, one of the reasons he has only a handful of runs over 20 yards, but other than that...he can do it all.

CH: How has Ben Roethlisberger fared this season? He hasn't had the best season on paper — some of that can probably be blamed on Martavis Bryant's absence, but does he appear to be slowing down in any way?

JH: Roethlisberger hasn't changed at all, and he doesn't look to be slowing down either. His weapons have changed, and the offense is changing as well. The Steelers don't have to run a pass-happy attack anymore, nor should they with Antonio Brown being the only proven commodity at the wide receiver position. The Steelers, and a very good offensive line, are turning into a very balanced attack. When the team can give Bell the ball 25-30 times, and limit Roethlisberger's throws to 30-35, that is the recipe for success. The team misses Martavis Bryant, but they also miss Markus Wheaton (placed on IR) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot injury) as well.

CH: Give us on guy on either side of the ball who fans don't know but probably should know, due to their 2016 success.

On offense I would say look out for Ladarius Green. Fans might know him, but the Bengals have yet to face him in a black and gold uniform. Without Bryant, Wheaton and Heyward-Bey, Green is the man who can take the pressure off Brown by attacking linebackers down the seam. He has been coming along nicely since starting the season on the PUP list, and the Steelers look to get him the ball in key situations.

On defense watch out for a duo, possibly a trio, of rookies who start. Artie Burns at cornerback has 3 interceptions and is really coming into his own at the NFL level, Sean Davis is the new strong safety and has registered multiple sacks and an interception in the past two games and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (currently in the concussion protocol) has anchored the defensive line opposite Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers hit the proverbial jackpot with those three players, their top three picks in the 2016 draft, and they very well could be household names before long.

CH: Pittsburgh's defense has played surprisingly well, especially considering it lost standout defensive end Cameron Heyward for the year. Who have been the Steelers' best players on the team's unheralded D?

JH: It really has been a complete unit and not just one or two players. Ryan Shazier is as dynamic as you will find at inside linebacker, Lawrence Timmons is his usual steady self and Stephon Tuitt has picked up his game in Heyward's absence. The defense still lacks quality OLB play, but have turned to the ageless wonder James Harrison and 2nd year pro Bud Dupree (was on IR to start the season) as their main pass rushing duo. It worked out well for them in Week 14 vs. Buffalo. It is a complete defense, which does have its warts, but is improving by the week.

CH: Pittsburgh remains in first place in the AFC North, though the Ravens aren't far behind. Are Steelers fans at all concerned that Baltimore is nipping at Pittsburgh's heels, and do you think the Ravens would be a legitimate playoff threat?

JH: Any honest Steelers fans doesn't want to play the Ravens a third time. Barring a loss by the Steelers or Ravens in Week 14, the game against Baltimore on Christmas day will either clinch the division for Pittsburgh, or leave the door open for Baltimore. Baltimore is a threat this time of year, but the Steelers play them at Heinz Field in Week 16, hopefully with a playoff berth on the line. Should make for good television.

CH: What's your final score prediction?

JH: The Steelers are a different team now. Very confident and cohesive. I don't think the Steelers lose this game, and I actually think it will be close in the first half, but in the second half I see Bell and the Steelers ground game grinding out the game in dramatic fashion. I'll say Steelers 30, Bengals 17.