Dalton must improve vs. Steelers with AFC North title on the line
The Bengals' month-long immersion in the AFC North could conclude Sunday in Pittsburgh.
A loss would make the Bengals 7-5 and put them two games behind Pittsburgh, and perhaps two behind Baltimore; the Ravens have that weird streak of losing to subpar teams after big wins (its happened three times this year), and they're at Cleveland Sunday. A loss keeps the Bengals squarely in the wild-card race, but the Jets, Titans and Broncos could all be 7-5 by nightfall Sunday, so Cincinnati would be among a crowd after starting the season with six of eight wins. Not good.
I'd be more worried about a secondary allowing 247 passing yards per game over the last five weeks if I were Bengals coach Marvin Lewis than about quarterback Andy Dalton Sunday in the kid's first game at Heinz Field. Ben Roethlisberger's connection with Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace in recent weeks (last five games for Brown and Wallace: 52 catches, 772 yards), combined with the shaky Cincinnati secondary, makes it more likely than not that Dalton could end up in a shootout against one of the best deep throwers in football. And that's going to be a tough game for Dalton to win.
But as Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau told his players this week: "Dalton's not a game-manager.'' He's capable of airing it out, and could well do so since fellow rookie A.J. Green seems healthy enough after his knee scare three weeks ago on the touchdown catch in that Troy Polamalu-Ryan Clark end-zone sandwich. Dalton will go to Green early and often Sunday.
When I spoke to Clark Thursday, that's one of the things he said he liked about Dalton -- the approach to the game to take chances and try to let his good receivers, Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham mostly, make plays.
"The first time we played,'' said Clark, "the one thing we noticed is his poise. We didn't rattle him and we didn't confuse him. He is supremely confident. For a young player, it's surprising that he has the confidence to throw it up there and let his players make plays. That pass to A.J. Green [in the first meeting] was a terrible pass, to be honest. But Andy understands A.J. Green is a phenomenal talent and if he throws it up there, A.J.'s going to make that play a lot of times.
"I like how he understands you've got to keep on playing. You have to stay the same, even if things go wrong. He reminds me of Ben like that -- Ben makes a mistake, and he's exactly the same player on the next series. That's what you see in Dalton. All the tape we've watched, we've never seen one sign of panic.''
Clark said something surprising to me about the importance of the game to the Steelers. "I don't see a way, an opportunity, to win our division, if we lose Sunday,'' he said. "A loss to Cincinnati, and it'd be impossible to win the division.''
Not impossible, but if the Steelers are a game behind the Ravens after Sunday, it'd be like being two games behind, because Baltimore swept the season series with Pittsburgh.
"If we want a chance to win the division, we've got to win Sunday,'' Clark said.
Two teams playing at Heinz Field Sunday can say that.
Good nuggets from my podcast this week with NFL Network's Mike Mayock and regular guest Bob McGinn. The podcast is on
"All of sudden, here comes Tim Tebow in this college system and it's forcing coordinators to make phone calls to their buddies in the college level to say, 'How do we deal with this?' It's forcing coordinators to put tape on and learn from the mistakes of the other teams that have already played Denver. It's forcing coordinators to completely rip up gameplans and change the way they look at things in today's NFL. I love it."