Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) scores on a 10-yard touchdown reception against Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur (59) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014 in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Micha
Michael Conroy
December 09, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) From third overall in the NFL to among the worst in Bengals' history, Cincinnati's defense has taken a great fall this season. And there's little time left to put it all back together again.

The Bengals are tottering atop the AFC North following a 42-21 loss to Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati (8-4-1) has a half-game lead over Pittsburgh and Baltimore with three to play. The Bengals finish the season in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers piled up 543 yards on Sunday. It's the third time this season that Cincinnati has given up 500 yards in a game, a franchise record, according to STATS. Only twice before had the Bengals allowed a pair of 500-yard games in a season, and those were in 1968 and 1969, when they were an expansion team.

It gets worse.

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict went on the injured reserve list on Tuesday, ending his season. The Bengals have severely missed their best defensive player, who was limited to only five starts because of a pair of concussions and knee surgery.

The defense has played very well at times, looking like the unit that ranked in the top seven during each of the last three playoff seasons. When things go badly, it has a tendency to implode.

''One of the messages I am going to give the guys, that I have been telling them, is we have to be better when the odds are against us a little bit,'' coordinator Paul Guenther said. ''When things aren't going quite as smoothly as we want them to go, we have to go out there and buckle up and play good defense.''

The defense has been pushed around in all four of Cincinnati's losses. The Bengals play at Cleveland (7-6) on Sunday.

The Bengals retained the core of a defense that finished third overall in yards allowed last season. The only significant loss to free agency was defensive end Michael Johnson. Their linebackers have been hurt and tackle Geno Atkins has been slow in recovering from knee surgery.

The Steelers piled up 25 points and 229 yards in the fourth quarter alone on Sunday. Ben Roethlisberger's 94-yard touchdown pass was the decisive play.

''I think that's the first time (since the season opener) that we gave up a deep ball, and that's not like us,'' safety George Iloka said. ''We'll work on that as a secondary. That's not how we play championship defense.''

Right now, it ranks among the league's worst defenses.

The Bengals are on pace to give up 6,000 yards overall for only the second time in franchise history. After Sunday's blowout loss, they're in danger of failing to make the playoffs.

''So you go and you say, `Hey, these are the things we need to correct,''' Guenther said. ''But we need to move forward.''

Notes: Quarterback AJ McCarron was added to the active roster on Tuesday. He'd been sidelined since training camp because of a sore passing shoulder. The fifth-round draft pick has practiced with the Bengals for the last three weeks. ... Coach Marvin Lewis apologized again on Tuesday for calling Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel ''a midget'' during a radio show on Monday night. Lewis said his remark was insensitive and offensive.

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