At this time of the year some teams begin to gear up for the beginning of the playoffs, others are preparing for an off-season revamp, while a few are still fighting for their playoff lives. Those teams doing the latter must treat every game each week as a playoff game. The approach must be the same, while the performances often need to be even better. If the final weeks of the season must be treated like playoff games, then the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals need to treat their matchup this weekend like a Super Bowl, and not just because the Bengals are enjoying nearly as much preparation time after their victory over the Philadelphia Eagles last Thursday night.
Both the Steelers and Bengals need to win this game to make it into the playoffs, unless of course the Steelers lose their final game of the season to the Browns which would allow the Bengals to sneak in with a victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17. The Bengals can’t rely on letting that happen however.
Throughout the season the Bengals have been a streaky team for the most part, but their formula for success is fairly consistent. Defensively, the Bengals have swallowed up opposing offenses, while offensively Jay Gruden has combined an unprecedented explosive rushing attack with an efficient passing attack. The Bengals should be fine on defense in this game, as the Steelers have been shooting themselves in the foot a lot on that side of the ball lately, but their true test will come on offense. More specifically, on Andy Dalton.
Dalton hasn’t had a good second season, but when given time in the pocket and leaning on a strong running game, he has been able to contribute to help the team win games. Against the Steelers the blueprint for success will have to be altered. Instead of relying on the run, the Bengals will be forced to put the ball in the hands of Dalton if they are to put any points on the board. The young quarterback has only attempted at least 30 passes 10 times this year and has only won one game all season when he has attempted more than 32 passes.
Because BenJarvus Green-Ellis has arguably the toughest matchup a running back can have, a Steelers’ front seven that typically dominates each and every back they meet, and the Steelers’ secondary is missing at least one key coverage man in Ike Taylor, and potentially another in Cortez Allen, Dalton will be forced to consistently move the chains as well as provide explosive plays down the field.
At the very least he should be able to throw from a clean pocket from snap-to-snap. Despite struggling in Philadelphia last week, the Bengals’ offensive line has been outstanding for most of the season and had difficult matchups with the Eagles’ young pass rushers. Although Dick LeBeau’s defenses are historically littered with talented pass rushers who can consistently create pressure on the quarterback, this year has not been one that will be celebrated in the annals that capture his career.
This season, the Steelers have watched disappointing performance after disappointing performance from LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, resulting in Jason Worilds leading the team in sacks, while there are very few interior threats who will threaten the Bengals’ quality interior offensive linemen. Tony Romo saw very little pressure last week and the Dallas Cowboys‘ offensive line is their greatest weakness. The Bengals’ offensive line is what their offense’s success is built upon.
Therefore, even though the pressure is all on Dalton to perform, he should be able to have a big game. Dalton has matchup advantages all over the field. Keenan Lewis will draw the assignment of AJ Green, left by Ike Taylor, but even though Lewis is having an outstanding season, Green has looked even better. Green may be limited, as the Steelers flex coverage his way at times, but he will still have an impact. Along with Green, tight end Jermaine Gresham should have the potential for big plays down the field, as Troy Polamalu has been far too aggressive when on the field this season in coverage and only Lawrence Timmons of the linebacking group is capable of sticking with him in space.
Dalton has really struggled to throw the deep ball this year, but that won’t be an issue against the Steelers. Dick LeBeau likes to send blitzes in passing situations or play aggressive coverages. Presuming Dalton can get the ball out quickly, receivers Andrew Hawkins and Marvin Jones will have the ability to beat defenders in space and accelerate down the field for big gains.
The only person who will stop Dalton this weekend is Dalton himself.