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Behind Enemy Lines: How 2016 could be the year Andy Dalton inches closer to 'elite' status

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We go behind enemy lines to talk with Cincy Jungle regarding the upcoming Week 2 matchup between the Steelers and Bengals.

William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Cincinnati Bengals, not much needs to be said in regards to the rivalry which has quickly become one of the intense in the NFL. After the 2015 season was marred with injuries, suspensions and fines, most have been awaiting this matchup since the NFL schedule release this spring.

To get a better glimpse of the matchup from the other side of the fence, we were able to ask Connor Howe, of Cincy Jungle (SB Nation's Bengals website), a few questions to get a taste of what the Bengals, and their fans, are thinking heading into this big divisional game on Sunday.

The Cincinnati Bengals surrendered 7 sacks of Andy Dalton in Week 1, but were still able to defeat the Jets thanks to a huge day by A.J. Green. What are the issues along the offensive line, and will the team continue to lean on Green to make big plays when they travel to Heinz Field this Sunday?

From what I've seen, the offensive line looked overwhelmed against a complex, aggressive Jets defense. Some will claim the Bengals' offensive line is no longer a top-5 unit; I'd just argue the line had a bad performance in Week 1, confused by Todd Bowles' defensive scheme. That said, the Bengals' offensive line only seems to have big issues against three-man fronts, so there's a chance Pittsburgh could get the best of them this week if Keith Butler is able to employ the defensive line effectively.

If the Steelers can't shut down Green, Dalton will test Pittsburgh's secondary all day long. If Pittsburgh chooses to go on an all-out defense to try and make the Bengals beat them with someone else -- something easier said than done -- Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard look eager to make an impact. The Bengals abandoned the run in Week 1 when New York continued to dare Cincinnati to beat the Jets via the pass.

Vontaze Burfict, like Le'Veon Bell, is serving a suspension which won't have him in the game in Week 2. Burfict is a polarizing figure, but what exactly are they missing without him in the lineup, as a player?

The Bengals will certainly miss Burfict, as he's one of the most dynamic linebackers in the NFL. Cincinnati's run defense drastically improved, from very good to excellent, when the linebacker returned from the PUP list last season. Cincinnati was in nickel defense nearly the entire game in Week 1, so if anything, it would be nice to have the linebacker on the field after Karlos Dansby played every single defensive snap in the Bengals' victory in New York.

Burfict's presence in pass defense is also a drastic upgrade from the next man in line. Vincent Rey, while one of the better backup linebackers in the NFL, has struggled in coverage. Rey Maualuga, who doesn't even play in the nickel, is never tasked with coverage duties, as that's simply something he does not do. That rookie linebacker Nick Vigil could see the field as a backup goes to show how big a hit the Bengals' linebacking corps will take with the enigmatic linebacker's absence.

The Bengals lost some key members after 2015. Hue Jackson, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, Reggie Nelson...to name a few. What has the team done to help fill the holes in the lineup from those who left the team?

Many analysts have tried linking Dalton's success with Jackson, Jones and Sanu, claiming the quarterback is a product of his environment. If anything, Sunday's victory should prove Dalton is a top-10 quarterback and right at the cusp of becoming an elite player. Despite playing with his third-string tight end and two new receivers, behind a struggling line which allowed seven sacks, not to mention playing in his first game with a new offensive coordinator, the quarterback had one of the best games in his career, picking on Revis, who despite the narratives about a potential decline, is still a top-10 corner. The quarterback had a perfect passer rating when targeting Revis, and he torched one of the best defenses in the NFL for 366 yards and a 114.0 passer rating. The quarterback's quick turnaround from his early interception and confidence, testing New York deep on nearly every down, demonstrate "Bad Andy" no longer exists.

The Bengals acquired Brandon LaFell as a replacement for the departed receivers this offseason, and he looks like one of the bigger bargains of free agency. The wideout hauled in all four of his targets, gaining 91 yards through the air against one of the better pass defenses in the NFL. Cincinnati also drafted Pittsburgh receiver Tyler Boyd, who flashed signs of potential throughout the preseason.

With the departures of Nelson and Andre Smith, the Bengals will be relying on fourth-year safety Shawn Williams and second-year tackle Cedric Ogbuehi to hold down the fort. These two players have made some plays in their short careers, but they're still relatively unproven in comparison to the rest of the starters in Cincinnati.

A lot has been made of the Steelers/Bengals rivalry, and of course coaches and players are all saying the right things leading up to Week 2. However, do you feel this game will get out of control similar to the last two meetings in 2015, or do you see it being a standard divisional game between rivals?

As a fan, this question is so frustrating because I'm sure fans on both sides are sick of what has happened on the field. I have a good idea about what in this rivalry angers Steeler fans; on Cincinnati's side, it seems as though Vince Williams' tweet threatening Burfict was the spark which ignited the Bengals' flame. Mike Munchak and Joey Porter's involvement in the playoff game was also frustrating for fans to see, though it's hard to blame them seeing as how the referees pretty much let anything fly in the teams' second and third matchups. The on-field crews missed so many penalties on both sides of the field, from dangerous hits to insanely excessive celebrations by both teams.

With John Parry assigned to the 49ers-Panthers game this week, Pete Moreli will be the head referee. Hopefully Moreli and his crew won't let things get out of hand like Parry and his crew did in the rivalry's second and third matchups of the 2015 season. Neither fanbase wants to see its favorite players sustain an injury.

What is your prediction for the game in Pittsburgh, please give a score and elaborate on your prognostication.

Coming off a nice win, it's hard to pick against the Bengals here. For the superstar Antonio Brown is, the Bengals have done a pretty good job shutting him down in the past, especially considering they had to deal with Martavis Bryant on the other side of the field. DeAngelo Williams is no pushover, so I expect him to have another big game, but I'll pick the Bengals because I think both teams have loaded offenses while Cincinnati has the better defense. I'll say 24-20, Bengals.