PITTSBURGH -- Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is expected to return to the lineup when the Pittsburgh Steelers play host to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. If the Steelers have any designs on winning the AFC North they probably have to beat the Bengals, who hold a 2 1/2-game lead over Pittsburgh.
The Steelers let another game against an inferior opponent slip through their hands in Week 7, falling to the Kansas City Chiefs, 23-13. Two of the three Steelers losses have come against teams with a combined 3-10 record. They also fell at home to the 1-5 Baltimore Ravens.
Both of those losses came when Roethlisberger was out with a sprained left knee and bone bruise. The Steelers are 2-2 without Roethlisberger, but all signs point to his return this week.
Roethlisberger practiced on a limited basis last week and should be well enough to be a full participant this week.
"We'll move forward with Ben as we prepare this week," coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Steelers might need Roethlisberger to be his usual self against the Bengals, who carry a 6-0 record into the divisional showdown Sunday at Heinz Field. The Bengals are fourth in the NFL in scoring (30.3 points per game) and third in total offense (410 yards per game).
Even if Roethlisberger is back and picks up where he left off, Pittsburgh's defense has to show improvements in some areas.
The Steelers are allowing opponents to convert third downs at a better than a 41 percent clip. That ranks 25th in the NFL. The Chiefs entered the game converting only 27 percent of their third downs, but they converted 56 percent on Sunday.
The Steelers had better fix that because the Bengals come to town converting 46.7 percent of their third downs, second only to New England.
The Steelers also will be looking improve their tackling. The Chiefs had several small gains that turned into big ones because of missed tackles.
"Missed tackles all the way around," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "D-line, linebackers, everybody. We have to get better tackling, and it's unacceptable. We can't go up and down on a roller coaster. It has to be consistent and if it's not, it's going to be our Achilles heel all year."
The Steelers beat the Bengals twice last season en route to the AFC North title, including a 42-21 rout in Cincinnati.
"We know for a fact it will be a war," defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. "It will be physical. They're going to come here and try to do the same thing we did to them at their place."
If ever there was a time to secure their playoff positioning in the AFC it's now for the Steelers, who play their next three at Heinz Field before their off week. They play Cincinnati, Oakland and Cleveland. The end of the schedule isn't so friendly. The Steelers finish up with three of their final four on the road - all against AFC North foes.
NOTES: CB William Gay left the Kansas City game with a shoulder injury and did not return. Gay has played in 135 consecutive games, the longest streak for a cornerback currently in the NFL. Gay was vague about his status for the Bengals game on Monday: "It's football, man," Gay said of getting injured. "It's what we sign up for. I just got the wrong end of the stick." ... DE Stephon Tuitt said on Monday his injured knee is feeling great, but he declined to say whether he expects to play this week. Tuitt was injured against the Cardinals and did not make the trip to Kansas City. "It's not that bad," Tuitt said. "We're just being precautious because it's an area of the body where you want to be precautious."
REPORT CARD VS. CHIEFS:
--PASSING OFFENSE: C. In his first NFL start, Landry Jones was 16-for-29 for 209 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He also lost a fumble when he was sacked late in the game. The bottom line is he had to do a better job of protecting the ball if the Steelers were going to win. On a positive note, Antonio Brown, who had been held below 50 yards receiving in the previous three games, had six receptions for 124 yards, and Martavis Bryant caught his third touchdown in the past two weeks. Brown, however, bobbled a pass over the middle the resulted in an Eric Berry interception in the third quarter. On the ensuing drive the Chiefs scored a touchdown and took a 16-3 lead.
--RUSH OFFENSE: B. Le'Veon Bell rushed for 121 yards for his third 100-yard game in the past four weeks. Bell is averaging 112 yards and 5.3 yards per carry in the past four games. The fact that he only got 17 carries in a game when a reserve quarterback played is something coach Mike Tomlin must address. DeAngelo Williams served as the short-yardage back and was stopped on a fourth-and-1 in the first half. Williams had four carries for nine yards.
--PASS DEFENSE: C. The Steelers didn't get much pressure on Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, who threw for 251 yards and a touchdown. They also continue to have a hard time covering opposing team's tight ends. Kansas City's Travis Kelce had five catches for 73 yards, including a 26-yard catch on third-and-4 in the fourth quarter that kept alive the Chiefs' final touchdown drive that sealed the game. And when the Steelers needed a stop late in the game near the goal line, Smith found receiver Chris Conley for a 6-yard touchdown to cap an 84-yard drive.
--RUSH DEFENSE: D. Charcandrick West rushed for 110 yards on 22 carries, and the Chiefs, who entered the game 20th in the league in rushing, gained 138 yards on the ground and controlled the clock. Giving up 110 yards to the backup for Jamaal Charles shouldn't happen to a defense that had allowed an average of 53 rushing in the previous two games.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: C. Place-kicker Chris Boswell continued his fine work since being signed to replace Josh Scobee. He was 2-for-2 on field goals from 36 and 24 yards and is now 5-for-5 in his first three NFL games. Dri Archer averaged 29 yards on four kickoff returns, but the punt return team allowed a 25-yard punt return from DeAnthony Thomas, and Thomas and Knile Davis averaged 32 yards per kickoff return.
--COACHING: D. A curiously conservative game plan against one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL put the Steelers in an early hole. One week after quarterback Landry Jones was 8-for-12 for 168 yards and two touchdowns against Arizona, offensive coordinator Todd Haley called seven running plays in an eight-play sequence in the first quarter. The Steelers trailed, 9-3, at halftime and were never able to overcome the early deficit. It didn't help matters when backup running back DeAngelo Williams was used instead of All-Pro Le'Veon in some crucial first-half plays - one a dropped pass by Williams inside the Chiefs' 5-yard line and another when Williams failed to gain a yard on fourth-and-1.