PITTSBURGH — Maybe it’s a coincidence. After all, as the Pittsburgh Steelers regularly point out, the injury rate in the NFL is 100 percent.
Still, it seems when the Steelers face the Cincinnati Bengals, one of the key guys in black-and-gold tends to be carted off the field after taking a shot from the guys in white, orange and black.
Three years ago it was tight end Heath Miller, who tore his right ACL after getting hit low by Bengals safety Reggie Nelson. Last December, All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell hyperextended his right knee and was forced to sit out a playoff loss a week later to Baltimore.
When the teams met in Pittsburgh six weeks ago, Bell’s season ended when his right leg twisted awkwardly underneath him while being tackled by Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The Steelers took exception when Burfict made little effort to disguise his glee as Bell clutched his knee in pain.
Pittsburgh linebacker Vince Williams and Burfict traded heated tweets in the aftermath, and the residue of the Bengals’ 16-10 win almost certainly will resurface in the rematch on Sunday in Cincinnati.
“They said some things, we said some things,” linebacker Arthur Moats said. “We don’t like them. They don’t like us.”
Williams later deleted his side of the exchange with Burfict, though that doesn’t mean he’s over what happened. While Pittsburgh has found a way to stay in the middle of the playoff race without Bell — who said he didn’t take particular exception to the hit — Williams isn’t ready to exonerate the Bengals.
“I can’t sit up here and call them dirty players,” Williams said. “I just see what I see.”
And what Williams saw on Nov. 1 bothered him, though he and Bell don’t sit around and talk about retribution.
“We just focus on him trying to get better,” Williams said. “We just focus on his recovery.”
Cincinnati can clinch the AFC North with a win and has the inside track for home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Bengals aren’t exactly eager to get into any extracurricular stuff, though cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is only too happy to keep an eye out for Burfict, who isn’t exactly one to keep his thoughts to himself.
“We know what time it is, we know what type of game this is,” Kirkpatrick said. “Hopefully we can keep our composure, hopefully he can keep his composure, and let them be the village idiots.”
Moats stressed the increased intensity between the clubs is directly related to Cincinnati’s rise from afterthought to perennial power, at least in the regular season. Either one or both teams have made the postseason in every year but one since 2005.
In 2005, the Bengals won the division, then saw quarterback Carson Palmer get hurt on the first series of a playoff game against Pittsburgh.
“They’re putting a good product out there every year and the division has been back and forth between us and them these last couple years,” Moats said. “I feel there’s definitely that bad blood. I feel that it’s going to make it that much better going forward.”
Particularly if the Steelers can postpone Cincinnati’s celebration at least a week. Pittsburgh was in control of the first meeting until the fourth quarter, when a pair of late Ben Roethlisberger interceptions allowed the Bengals to win at Heinz Field for the third time in four years.
Roethlisberger took responsibility for his uncharacteristically sloppy play in his return from a sprained left knee that sidelined him for a month. Considering the Steelers have little wiggle room if they want to emerge from a chaotic AFC playoff picture, getting into a war of words with Cincinnati isn’t advisable.
Even the good-natured Moats stressed “the play is going to talk for itself,” but added he’s in no mood to watch the Bengals celebrate a division title.
“They can do it whenever, but it’s not this week,” he said with a smile. “That’s all I know.”
NOTES: Steelers CB William Gay has passed the NFL’s concussion protocol and is expected to practice Thursday. The nine-year veteran hasn’t missed a game in his career. … TEs Heath Miller (ribs) and Matt Spaeth (knee), WR Sammie Coates (illness) and LB James Harrison and LS Greg Warren did not practice on Wednesday. LB Sean Spence (hamstring) was limited.
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AP Sports Writer Joe Kay in Cincinnati contributed to this report.