Head to head: Bengals WR Andrew Hawkins vs. Steelers S Will Allen

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Suffice to say, whatever success the Steelers have in Paul Brown Stadium will depend largely on their ability to minimize the impact of Bengals wide receiver and mid-air contortionist A.J. Green.

But, not to be overlooked is the damage that can be inflicted on their dented secondary by the Bengals' slot receiver, Andrew Hawkins, who is part Chris Rainey, part Antonio Brown.

The Bengals carry seven wide receivers on their 53-man roster -- or three more than the pass-oriented Steelers.

Green, who leads the NFL in receiving yards (628) and touchdowns (6) combines with quarterback Andy Dalton to form the best young passing combo in the league. And Hawkins is tied with tight end Jermaine Gresham with 25 catches and, more important, two touchdowns of 50 yards or longer.

The latter is significant because visions of Demaryius Thomas running through their secondary are indelibly etched in the Steelers' consciousness.

Coach Mike Tomlin referred to Hawkins, a Johnstown native and the son of a former Pitt running back, as the Bengals' "gadget" receiver. That means he is capable of lining anywhere and doing just about anything against the Steelers.

"They create different mismatches with him, whether it's linebackers, safeties, corners -- they all have a hard time with him," said safety Will Allen, who will start his second game in a row for injured Troy Polamalu (calf). "They find different ways, different wrinkles, to get him open, whether it's screens or they go empty to get him in space."

Curiously, the Bengals became acutely aware of Hawkins' talents in their home game against the Steelers last year. He came into the Week 10 game with five catches for 56 yards, but had those same numbers -- five catches for 56 yards -- against the Steelers.

This year, Hawkins is a bigger part of the offense. He had a 50-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown in Week 2 against Cleveland and followed that a week later with a similar 59-yard touchdown against Washington. They will bring him in motion, run the occasional sweep, but mostly use him on crossing routes over the middle, where his size (5-7, 180) makes him hard to identify.

Those are the routes the Steelers surrendered in their most recent road loss, allowing the Tennessee Titans to complete six passes of 18 yards or longer.

But, despite Hawkins' impact on third down as the third receiver, the Bengals are last in the league in third-down conversions (20 of 75).

"He's a guy who wants to catch the ball in space and make people miss and get yardage," Allen said. "We just have to tackle him, have good eyes, have good vision and be competent with our technique. It slows down the timing and that slows down what they're trying to accomplish."


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac


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