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How Andy Dalton, not Joe Mixon, could be the key to success for the Bengals vs. the Steelers

Time to go behind enemy lines to get the run down on the Steelers Week 13 opponent — the Cincinnati Bengals.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There is no love lost between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. Despite Pittsburgh being 9-2, and the Bengals 5-6, these two teams would love nothing more than to drive a stake into their season.

For the Steelers, the chance to essentially end Cincinnati’s season, and for the Bengals to put a huge hit on Pittsburgh’s chances at claiming home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs.

With all that in mind, I was able to talk with Scott Schulze of Cincy Jungle, SB Nation’s Bengals website, to get the run down on the home team heading into Monday Night Football in Week 13.

Check out the Q&A session below:

The Bengals are slowly becoming a threat for the final playoff spot in the AFC Playoff Picture. What has changed between their 0-3 start, and now?

To sum it up, the schedule giveth, and the schedule taketh away. Two of those three losses were against the good Packers (with Aaron Rodgers) and good Texans (with Deshaun Watson). So one has to wonder if that 0-3 start could have possibly been a 2-1 start had they faced Brett Hundley and Tom Savage. Following their 0-3 start, the Bengals have taken advantage of what the schedule has given them. They played the Browns twice and caught the Broncos during their current 7 game slide. They also snuck past a 3-8 Colts team with a one point home victory, and got past the Bills in a torrential downpour at home.

The Bengals schedule gets difficult again, and to have any sort of playoff shot, they need to either beat the Steelers this Monday (difficult task) or win at Minnesota (another difficult task), and win every other game (also, not an easy task). This game against the Steelers will be a very good measuring stick to see if the Bengals were just playing with fool’s gold thanks to an easy stretch of games, or if they are legitimately a playoff contender after that 0-3 start.

Carl Lawson has been awesome for the Bengals' defense as a rookie. How are they using him, and is he becoming a more every down player?

We were pretty excited when the Bengals grabbed Carl Lawson in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft, given his upside as a pass rusher and the Bengals’ struggles in that department last year. He looked great in OTA’s and in preseason, and fortunately has been able to carry that over into the regular season. He is a rookie, which for Marvin Lewis, pretty much ensures that one will not be a starter or every down player on defense. In fact, Lawson has only topped 50% of the defensive snaps in 3 games this year, and is averaging about 42% of the defensive snaps this season.

Lawson is essentially being used as a pass rusher on passing downs, as his 10 total tackles compared to 7.0 sacks illustrates. Usually he lines up on the right side of the line, replacing starting RDE Michael Johnson in passing situations. When Lawson is on the field, he’s well-rested, and continually getting pressure on the quarterback and finding a way to get into the backfield. Despite his pass rushing excellence, the Bengals have not increased his usage on defense, but have pretty much stuck with their plan of using him on passing downs and on special teams.

What has been working for the Bengals, both offensively and defensively, which has resulted in them saving their season?

Offensively, Andy Dalton has not thrown an interception since their Week 7 loss at Pittsburgh. He has a 100+ passer rating in four of the past five games, and six of the past nine games, outside of a few bad games against Baltimore (Wk1), at Pittsburgh (Wk7), and at Jacksonville (Wk9), he’s looked pretty good. And a key part of that might be the pass protection, which has looked much better over the past three weeks. Dalton was getting sacked about 4 times per game thru the first seven weeks, but has only been sacked a total of 4 times over the past three weeks. Hopefully the pass protection is a result of something “clicking” for the offensive line, and not a mere product of the Bengals’ recent opponents – but Monday night will be a real test to see which the case is.

The Bengals defense has looked pretty good all season, and is on pace yet again to finish in the top 10 in scoring. Not much has really changed on defense in that regard, as their biggest issue seemed to be the struggling offense’s inability to stay on the field. One positive change has been Vontaze Burfict’s play on the field. In his first few games back from a suspension, he didn’t look quite like his dynamic, playmaking self. But over the past couple of weeks he looks like the defensive difference maker that we have grown accustomed to seeing on the field.

If the Bengals miss the playoffs, it is safe to say Marvin Lewis is gone...right?

One would sure hope so. Even if they manage to make the playoffs, I think many fans fully expect Lewis to be gone next year. I think anything short of a playoff victory should see the team moving on from Lewis this year. But we’ve been saying that for several years now, so I guess we won’t know until January.

What is the recipe for success (i.e. what do the Bengals need to do) for the Bengals to beat the Steelers at home in Week 13?

When the Bengals are on defense, I think they have the necessary pieces to get pressure on Ben Roethlisberger and keep the Bengals in the game. They need to do a better job of stopping the RB and TE passes – especially on 3rd down. And the Steelers have a good offense, so I expect the Steelers to make some plays, but I trust the Bengals defense to keep the game within reach. The key to victory will be decided on what happens when the Bengals are on offense.

In Week 7 the Bengals oddly abandoned the running game after halftime, when it was working well (Joe Mixon was averaging almost 7 yards per carry in the first half). The Bengals tend to let the game situation, and not the effectiveness, determine what they will do on offense. So the first key is for the Bengals offense to take what the Steelers defense gives them.

Secondly, the Bengals need to limit their turnovers and mistakes. The Bengals can’t expect to beat a good team if they continually put the defense in bad situations like they did earlier in the season. Dalton has the longest active streak in the NFL with 140 pass attempts without an interception. He needs to keep that streak alive and well on Monday night.

Finally, the Bengals offensive line needs to look like they have over the past few weeks, and resemble an actual NFL offensive line. Left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi has actually looked adequate this month, and center Russell Bodine hasn’t been getting run over with regularity. And for what it’s worth, the Bengals pass protection has looked better ever since their struggling right tackle Jake Fisher went on IR.

What is your prediction for this game?

As a Bengals fan, I clearly want to say the Bengals come away with the big victory to pull to 6-6 on the season. But as a Bengals fan, I also know Marvin Lewis’ track record in primetime games, in games against a solid opponent, and in games which are important. It’s an ugly track record, especially when you combine all three elements together, and add in his record against the Steelers at home. Ultimately, I’m not sure that’s a combination that Lewis can overcome. As I mentioned earlier, this game is going to be a great measuring stick to see if the 5-6 Bengals are a legit playoff contender. I think they will look better than the team that you saw in Week 7 at Pittsburgh, and the game will be relatively close throughout, but I think they come up a little short on Monday night, probably something like 20-16.