By Will Graves
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin’s got enough to worry about without having to remind his team to keep its cool on Sunday in Cincinnati.
The last time Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers visited Paul Brown Stadium, they exited with a bizarre 18-16 wild-card victory in January that included a shot by Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict on wide receiver Antonio Brown and Steelers linebacker coach Joey Porter goading the Bengals into an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that put Pittsburgh into chip-shot range for the winning field goal.
And that was after Ben Roethlisberger left — then returned — with a sprained right shoulder and linebacker Ryan Shazier’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Cincinnati running back Giovanni Bernard eventually led the NFL to an offseason rule change.
That’s a lot of drama. So much that Tomlin isn’t going to waste time on playing principal for his red-hot team, which has won four straight to rise to first in the AFC North at 8-5 with three weeks to go in the regular season.
“I understand the history, particularly the recent history,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “But we can’t concern ourselves with that. We’re going to come and come to play, and play in the manner in which we always play.”
Burfict sat out Cincinnati’s 24-16 setback to the Steelers in Week 2 while serving a suspension brought about by his crushing helmet-to-helmet hit on Brown, who was forced to sit out Pittsburgh’s loss to Denver in the divisional round of the playoffs. His presence will likely up the intensity over the relatively tame first meeting.
“We’ll deal with him whenever it gets to that,” Steelers guard Ramon Foster said.
Foster doesn’t expect Brown to take the field looking for payback, figuring the chance to effectively end whatever marginal chance the Bengals (5-7-1) have of getting back in the AFC North while setting up a potential division clincher at home on Christmas against Baltimore is incentive enough.
“I don’t think he’ll let it linger on, because he knows we have more important things to do than give up yardage or penalties or game checks,” Foster said.
In a way, Brown has become a secondary option during Pittsburgh’s run back to relevance. The Steelers have put the ball and their postseason hopes in the hands of running back Le’Veon Bell. An All-Pro two years ago, Bell has upped his play to a record-setting level. His 298 total yards in last week’s win over Buffalo marked the second-highest total in team history.
Asked in what ways Bell has improved, Tomlin — who rarely dishes out expansive platitudes — painted a picture of a 24-year-old who is approaching the height of his considerable powers.
“Just understanding how to play the position, the nuances of the position, the protection of the ball and the protection of himself,” Tomlin said. “He’s a guy who’s got some talent. But equally or more importantly than that talent, he’s got a desire to be great and some work ethic to boot. He’s a much better conditioned athlete today than he was in 2014. So I mean it when I say ‘all areas.’”
Bell’s had more than a bit of help from the offensive line and fullback Roosevelt Nix, who played extensively in the second half and enthusiastically took on opposing linebackers to give Bell a little more room to move. Nix missed the first five weeks with a back injury but has watched his role expand from special teams enforcer to plowing the road for Bell.
“Over that time, we’ve seen consistent increase in his level of play in not only offense, but special teams. He’s solidified himself as a solid special teams contributor a year ago,” Tomlin said. “So it’s good to see him back to that level of production of which he was last week.”
NOTES: RB DeAngelo Williams (knee) could see his practice time increase this week and Tomlin didn’t rule Williams returning as Bell’s primary backup against the Bengals. … WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot) is likely to miss his sixth straight game. … G B.J. Finney was treated for a concussion after Sunday’s game and his status is uncertain. NT Javon Hargrave and S Shamarko Thomas, who both missed last week with a concussion, will be re-evaluated this week.