Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has five games this season where he has thrown three or more touchdowns and has had a passer rating over 100. But when it comes to prime-time games or facing the Pittsburgh Steelers, he has been less than average.
Goodie for Dalton, since he gets both this week when Cincinnati travels to Pittsburgh for a Sunday night game. With a win and a loss by either Miami or Baltimore, the 9-4 Bengals will wrap up a playoff spot.
In his five games against the Steelers, Dalton has a completion percentage of 53 percent and a passer rating of 67.8, which are well below his career numbers of 60.8 percent and rating of 85.1. In three of the games, Dalton has had a completion percentage of 50 percent or lower and only once has he had a passer rating above 80 (81.7 in the first game this season).
The Bengals are 2-3 in prime time the past two seasons and for a national audience that remains skeptical, a good game by Dalton and the Bengals could alleviate some doubts.
"For us we have to put our best foot forward and be playing our best. Show everyone what this team is and what we're made of," Dalton said. "Prime-time games give people an opportunity to watch and we want to be playing our best."
Dalton went into this season's first meeting against the Steelers, a Week 2 game on Monday night, with momentum after completing a career-best 78.9 percent of his passes in an opening-week loss to Chicago. He struggled though in the second quarter, going 9 of 21 and ended up 25 of 45 for 280 yards and a touchdown.
In last Sunday's 42-28 win over Indianapolis, Dalton was 24 of 35 for 275 yards with three touchdowns and also ran for another as he was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
The one constant throughout is that Dalton has been unflappable. Besides showing some areas of growth in his game, the other thing he has exhibited is that he has some pretty thick skin considering some of the criticisms he has taken. Coach Marvin Lewis continues to say that he has seen growth from Dalton and that he has had the same consistency dealing with teammates.
"To play this game you have to have thick skin especially the quarterback position unless you have proven yourself and won a lot of Super Bowls," Dalton said. "We're 9-4 and in a good position right now. I'm going to be me regardless of what anyone says. I feel like there are times when it can be extreme (with the reaction). With social media anyone can say what they want. I don't feel like if they saw me on the street they would say it directly to me but they can hide behind a computer or social media. I'm not worried about it."
Dalton will face a Steelers defense that is ranked seventh against the pass. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark each have two interceptions with Polamalu having a pick-six in last Sunday's loss to Miami.
Clark said the thing that makes Dalton more dangerous now is how he is utilizing different pieces in the passing game. In the first meeting, tight end Tyler Eifert had a 61-yard reception to set up the game's first touchdown and running back Giovani Bernard took a 27-yard screen pass for the go-ahead score in the second half.
"Andy has played better and taken not necessarily more of a role as a leader, but as producing those big plays down the field, which was something coming into the year that they wanted to get him doing," Clark said. "And he's doing it to a number of individuals, a number of targets."
SERIES HISTORY: 87th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 52-34. The Bengals have won the past two meetings and haven't won three straight against the Steelers since 1990. The last time they swept the series was 2009. Most memorable meeting in the series was a 2005 wild-card game won by the Steelers 31-17.
--This could mark the second straight season that the Bengals have wrapped up a playoff spot at Pittsburgh. With a win and a Miami loss or tie, they would wrap up a third straight postseason trip for the first time in franchise history. With a win and Baltimore loss or tie, the Bengals would clinch the AFC North, but they won't find that out until late Monday night as the Ravens play the Lions.
--The Bengals are 3-11 in Sunday night games and have won only once in eight road games, a 31-28 decision over Chicago in overtime.
Against Pittsburgh on Sunday night, the Bengals are 1-2. Last season at Paul Brown Stadium, the Steelers won 24-17. The only previous road game was in 2007, won 24-10 by Pittsburgh. The Bengals defeated Pittsburgh 27-3 at Riverfront Stadium in 1990.
--This marks the last Bengals road game of the regular season. With a win they would go to 4-4 and it would be the first time in team history they have finished .500 or better away from home three straight seasons. After going 1-7 in 2010, they were 5-3 in 2011 and 6-2 last season. Under coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals are 5-5 in games at Heinz Field.
--Going into Sunday's game, the Bengals are ranked 10th in offense and eighth in defense. The only other team ranked in the top 10 in both is New Orleans. They are ranked sixth in both.
The Bengals have been in the top 10 in defense three of the past four seasons. If they finish in the top 10 in offense it would be the first time since 2007, when they were 10th. They have been 20th or lower five straight seasons.
--This season marks the first time for the Bengals to play both their games against a division opponent in prime time. The Week 2 game, won by the Bengals 20-10, was on Monday Night Football.
There has been one previous instance of the Bengals twice playing an opponent on national television. It was the Steelers. In 1977, the Bengals played at Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football and later hosted the Steelers in a nationally aired Saturday afternoon game on NBC.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1,023 -- Total yards from scrimmage by Giovani Bernard, which is second among rookies.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I was a little surprised by this one. There were some guys who had bigger weeks. It just goes to show what we were able to do. It was a big week for us offensively and we have to keep that going." - QB Andy Dalton on being named AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
With Terence Newman out 1-3 weeks due to an MCL sprain in his left knee, Dre Kirkpatrick is likely to get his first NFL start against the Steelers. Kirkpatrick has played well the past three games and has a sack and interception in that span. Newman injured his knee during the second half of last week's 42-28 win over Indianapolis but should be ready to return for the playoffs.
After being at left guard the past two games, Andrew Whitworth has officially been moved to that spot on the depth chart with Anthony Collins the starter at left tackle. If it wasn't for Collins' play at left tackle in three starts, the move would not have been made.
--CB Chris Lewis-Harris could be called up from the practice squad since the Bengals are down to three healthy corners. Lewis-Harris was on the roster for eight games earlier this season but played in only three.
--FB Chris Pressley was waived. He had been cleared to practice the past three weeks but with the Bengals not using a fullback this season there wasn't a space on the roster for him.
--G Mike Pollak is expected to return to backup duty after starting the past three games.
--CB Brandon Ghee could see extended playing time with the team short on corners. Ghee saw 11 snaps during the fourth quarter of last Sunday's game.
--RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis missed Wednesday's practice due to illness. He is expected to play in Sunday's game.
--LB Vontaze Burfict was limited due to a nagging thigh injury but is expected to start.
--S George Iloka passed the concussion protocols and is expected to start.
--WR Marvin Jones was limited due to a recurring shoulder injury but should play.
--DE Wallace Gilberry was limited due to a knee injury but should play.
--OG Kevin Zeitler was full participation after missing the past three games due to a foot injury and should be in the starting lineup.
The Bengals were able to be balanced when they beat the Steelers in Week 2. They were pass heavy in the first half but once they got the lead in the third quarter it was mostly run plays as they were able to dominate the line of scrimmage. Defensively, they were able to make the Steelers one-dimensional as they had just 44 yards rushing.
The one thing the Bengals need to do is contain Antonio Brown, who has been good for at least one deep play in the past three games. In last year's meeting in Pittsburgh, the Bengals dominated the first half but the game would be tied at seven after Brown had a 60-yard touchdown.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Bengals WR A.J. Green vs. Steelers CB Ike Taylor -- Green has three touchdowns in five games against the Steelers, but Taylor has had the advantage in most of the matchups. In the first game this season, Green's longest reception was for 10 yards. Taylor is one of the more athletic corners that Green faces.
--Bengals CB Dre Kirkpatrick vs. Steelers WR Antonio Brown -- Kirkpatrick is expected to make his first NFL start and will be targeted often. He was targeted eight times last week and gave up seven receptions. After a slow start to the season, Kirkpatrick has improved on technique and has a sack and interception over the past three games. Brown has excelled as a receiver and punt returner against the Bengals and usually has a key catch.
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