His Name...is Dalton
In six games against the Steelers, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is 2-4, and averages 19 completions in 35 throws with a touchdown and one pick per game. Not exactly stellar numbers. They're also boosted by a second half of prevent defense in the Steelers' 30-20 Week 15 win last year, when he went 25-for-44 for 230 yards and two touchdowns. The Steelers haven't intercepted Dalton since the 2012 season and perhaps that's a big factor in this game. They'll need to find a way to create pressure off of the edge and confuse Dalton, thus bringing out what Bengals fans refer to as "Bad Andy."
The stat lines of Dalton the last three times he faced the Steelers have been eerily similar; 24-for-41 and 278 yards in Week 16 of 2012, 25-for-45 for 280 yards in Week 2 of 2013 and 25-for-44 for 230 yards in Week 15 of 2013. The Bengals ratcheted up the amount of pass attempts he had against the Steelers dramatically, increasing it on average by nearly 100 percent. Such dedication to throwing the ball plays favorably into the Steelers' hands, because the Bengals are a much better running team. A conservative game plan that relies on Cincinnati's defense to hold off the Steelers' offense is favorable toward the visitors in this game.
They're Going Streaking
The Bengals' defense rebounded from a rough middle portion of the season with strong statistical performances in their last three games. Wins over New Orleans, Houston and Tampa Bay saw just 36 combined points against them. While that's an impressive performance against the Saints (the same team that put 35 points on the Steelers last week in Pittsburgh), Tampa Bay is hardly a scoring machine and Houston gave Ryan Mallett his first career start. He was injured during the game and is now on injured reserve. This isn't to say Cincinnati's defense isn't to be respected, but it's difficult to ignore the high-output games from New England and Indianapolis when comparing them to the explosive offense of the Steelers.
Cincinnati struggles to find consistency in its passing game. Some of that is on Dalton and some of it is on a thin receiving group outside of wide receiver A.J. Green. Dalton has targeted Green an average of 16 times in the Bengals' last three games against Pittsburgh and, while getting Green the ball isn't exactly an overly risky strategy, dipping into the well too often will lead to negative results. They run well at times, and fall off at times. If the Steelers can force Dalton into long situations, their secondary can bracket Green and force throws to other (limited) receivers. A turnover or two will determine the outcome of this game.
Defensive (Cold) Front Seven
The Bengals are not getting the same level of explosion they've gotten in recent years from their front seven. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict won't play in this game, Wallace Gilberry and Domata Peko have failed to bolster the efforts of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap up front. It creates holes that force the better two players on the line to be consistently dominant. They aren't getting good enough play from their linebackers and the Steelers can control this game in the trenches on offense. They can possess the ball and they can score points. Again, it's more of a question of how well they can protect the ball.