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How the outcome of the Steelers vs. Bengals game could come down to offensive line play

Offensive line play likely will determine the outcome of a crucial matchup for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

In offensive football, nothing good happens without the aid and comfort of a strong line. All of the coaching tips and game-planning creativity go right out the window if the big guys up front don’t get it done. And no NFL quarterback, regardless of how impressive his record, can operate effectively when he’s constantly on the run.

Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals has been running quite a bit during the 2016 season. So far, Dalton has been sacked 36 times—more than any other NFL quarterback besides Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor, Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and, interestingly enough, his predecessor Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals. Not surprisingly, none of those teams, including Cincinnati, has been able to muster even a .500 winning percentage so far this season. It’s pretty tough for a quarterback to operate when he winds up so many plays peeking out of the ear hole on his helmet.

By comparison, Ben Roethlisberger, a QB who typically takes more than his share of abuse, has been sacked only 16 times. While I’ve never been a fan of Dalton, I’ve gained newfound respect for him after seeing how many times he’s been forced to deal with jailbreaks by opposing defenses. In fact, it’s a testament to Dalton’s toughness that, despite constantly having big, nasty defenders in his face all season, he’s still been able to pass for 3,555 yards compared to Ben’s 3,254 yards. Furthermore, Dalton is a couple clicks above Roethlisberger in completion percentage (64.7% to Ben’s 64.3%) and he’s close to Ben in quarterback rating (93.8 versus Ben’s 95). Finally, with all the heat he’s been facing, Dalton has thrown only six interceptions this season compared to 11 for Ben.

Unfortunately for Bengals fans, this profile looks frightfully like a reenactment of Carson Palmer’s experience in the Queen City. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that, given stronger and more consistent offensive line support over the years, Palmer very well might currently have one or two Super Bowl rings on his fingers instead of playing out the last couple years of his career for Bruce Arians in Arizona.

So, what happened to Cincinnati’s once-promising offensive line? In the 2015 NFL Draft, the Bengals used their first two picks to select offensive tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, a pair of highly touted, 300-pound youngsters. So far, though, expectations for an improved Bengals offensive line have been dashed. How bad has it been? Last weekend, even the lowly Cleveland Browns—the NFL team with the smallest number of sacks—notched four Dalton takedowns.

For their part, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line has been pretty solid this season, not only in protecting Roethlisberger, but also in paving the way for what looks like a huge season for Le’Veon Bell. The guys up front for Pittsburgh clearly seem to be relishing the fact that they’re running interference for a true game-changing back who shares their affection for punishing the opponent’s defense. In fact, the 2016 season is the first campaign in quite some time where the Steelers’ running attack honestly can be described as a major feature in their offensive scheme.

But as they say in the financial world, past performance is never a reliable guide to the results you’ll get in any particular game. From all appearances, protecting their quarterback appears to be the Bengals’ Achilles’ heel. Thus, it behooves Pittsburgh’s young and improving defense to hound Dalton unmercifully throughout Sunday’s matchup. Because he’s had a target on his back all season long, Dalton probably is more susceptible to pressure than Big Ben at this stage. On the other hand, Dalton’s stats prove that he’s quite adept at handling that pressure and making big plays in spite of it. Pittsburgh thus faces the challenge of balancing defensive pressure with coverage on Cincinnati’s talented receivers.

With a season record of 5-7-1, the Bengals faithful already know that they’re not heading for the playoffs. But the opportunity to thwart their divisional arch-rival might spur Cincinnati to a more determined effort. It seems likely this game will hinge on how well its much-maligned offensive line performs on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Similarly, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line and Le’Veon Bell must resume where they left off last weekend in Buffalo. While on paper the Steelers appear to have the edge, that’s why they play the games.