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Steelers vs. Bengals: Pittsburgh's aim needs to be making Cincinnati one-dimensional

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Ryan Shazier is expected to return Sunday when the Steelers take on the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals. His job, as well as the rest of the defense, is to stop Cincinnati's powerful running game.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers will likely get the return of Ryan Shazier as a means to help a faltering run-defense regroup.

How much will that matter?

Shazier has missed seven of the Steelers' 12 games this season, and hasn't done eye-popping things during his time on the field. His return would re-create the three-man inside linebacker rotation, with Shazier splitting time with Sean Spence and Vince Williams. The Steelers have barely had any time or experience with that group all active and healthy together at the same time, but whatever combination of players they use, they'll be tested.

The Bengals really have one goal in mind offensively; run the ball. When they flip the script and throw considerably more often than they run, they lose. Or tie. Quarterback Andy Dalton has been as difficult to predict week-to-week as any player in the league and, as Shazier pointed out to Ralph N. Paulk of the Tribune-Review Friday,"If we stop their backs, we have a chance to beat them," Shazier said. "We need to make them do things we want them to do."

What the Steelers want the Bengals to do is to make Dalton throw the ball often. He averages 31 passes a game in losses and 25 in wins and ties. Making a run-dominant Bengals offense one-dimensional - read, force Dalton to throw - works to the Steelers' advantage.

It might be their only advantage. It's clear the Steelers as a team are powered by their offense, and as it goes, so do the team's hopes of the post-season. If their offense isn't on the field, they'll struggle. Ergo, the Steelers' run-defense needs to stop the Bengals on early downs, make them throw, get the ball back and let the offense take over.

To whatever end Shazier can help with that, as well as Williams and Spence, their collective performance will likely be a talking point after this game, win or lose.