Tough defense key for Bengals with Dalton hurt
CINCINNATI (AP) -- An inexperienced quarterback's biggest ally is a stingy defense. The Bengals know it.
AJ McCarron will make only his fourth career start on Saturday night when the AFC North champions host the Pittsburgh Steelers.
No quarterback with so little experience has won an NFL playoff game since the 1979 season, when Gifford Nielsen led the Houston Oilers over the Chargers.
The subtext to that one: Houston's defense picked off Dan Fouts five times to set up the win. The Bengals (12-4) would like to do something similar to ease the pressure on McCarron.
Cincinnati set a club record for fewest points allowed and led the AFC. Now it's time to get really stingy.
"We just have to shorten the field and try to get some turnovers so we can put our offense in good positions to score points," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said.
The Bengals gave up a lot of yards and big plays this season, but were tough near the end zone. Cincinnati was 11th in yards allowed, but gave up only 279 points, second-fewest in the NFL. Seattle allowed 277.
In their two games against the Steelers (10-6), the Bengals limited Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.
The Bengals picked off Roethlisberger three times during a 16-10 win in Pittsburgh on Nov. 1, Big Ben's first game back from a knee injury. Brown, who set club records with 136 catches for 1,834 yards during the season, was limited to six catches for 47 yards.
Brown had seven catches for 87 yards in the Steelers' 33-20 win at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 13, when Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton broke his passing thumb. McCarron replaced him in the first half and threw one interception that was returned for a touchdown and another that set up a touchdown.
The Bengals have contained Brown by disrupting his routes as he leaves the line, preventing him from turning a well-timed catch into a big play.
"It isn't about the schemes," cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. "It's about going out there and playing with the bigger heart. You know he has a great heart. He's a great competitor. We have to go out there and compete better than him."
Cincinnati's defense can get pressure on Roethlisberger from up the middle or around the corners. End Carlos Dunlap had a career-high 13 sacks, while tackle Geno Atkins had 11. Safety Reggie Nelson tied for the league lead with eight interceptions -- he's had six in his past seven games against Roethlisberger.
The Bengals have handled Pittsburgh's third-ranked offense by limiting the big plays. Roethlisberger's longest completion in the first game went for only 25 yards. In the second game, it was 31.
"That's the game," Bengals defensive backs coach Vance Joseph said. "It won't come down to whether we can we force four, five turnovers. It's going to come down to not giving up big plays. Without big plays, you keep the scoring down."
Also, keeping the penalties down, too. Middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict lost his cool during the game on Dec. 13, getting involved in a pregame altercation with Steelers players at midfield.
Also, he was flagged and fined $69,454 by the league for roughing the passer, grabbing the facemask and unnecessary roughness during the game.
Burfict is finally in form after missing the first six games while recovering from knee surgery. He had a season-high 12 tackles and a game-turning interception during a 24-16 win over the Ravens last Sunday.
"I mean, he's the man," linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "He's the spark of this defense. He gets things going. You see No. 55 running around all over the field, making plays. By his presence alone, there's a sense of being at ease, knowing that no one has anything to worry about."
Notes: Dalton had a wrap on his right hand Thursday and was held out of practice again. He was hoping to be active as a backup for the playoff game, but the Bengals backed him off his workouts after only one day this week, an indication he's not even close to being ready. Keith Wenning, who was promoted from the practice squad Dec. 16, is McCarron's backup. WR Mohamed Sanu has taken snaps in wildcat formations and is the emergency QB. ... CB Leon Hall had a second full practice on Thursday. He was evaluated for a concussion and sore back after Sunday's game.