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We've highlighted how many players on offense, specifically Andy Dalton, has never beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend. Yet for the Bengals to win this weekend, it will come down to Cincinnati's defense.
Despite posting a 13-4 regular season record as the starting quarterback against the Cincinnati Bengals, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn't posted exceptional numbers. Completing 63.8 percent of his passes with a quarterback rating of 86. 4, Roethlisberger has thrown 16 interceptions in 17 regular games with a 1.2 touchdown/game average dating back to his rookie season in 2004.
Yet the numbers never really tell the story, do they?
A chunk of Roethlisberger's wins over the Bengals usually comes from Cincinnati's mistake-prone offense that's played the psychological victim, an extension of a grandfathered culture expecting to lose against a team often identified as the division's best team. Since 2011, the Bengals are 17-8 in games played against teams not named the Steelers and Ravens with Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and the team's youngest stars looking to field their first win against the Steelers this weekend. It's a milestone we've highlighted several times this week with significant postseason implications.
But it always comes down to the former Miami University quarterback, who has 23 career 300-plus yard passing games, posting a career-high five 300-yard games in 2011 and setting a franchise record becoming the first Steelers quarterback to record 360 yards passing or more in consecutive games earlier this year. On the other hand the Bengals defense has only allowed one 300-yard passing performance against Roethlisberger.
But then that's not the problem, is it? He's not a statistical stallion that generates Madden-esque numbers in the same breath as Tom Brady or Drew Brees.
"The key to this game - and it's no secret - is we can't let Ben (Roethlisberger) kill us," said Bengals safety Chris Crocker. "If we get to him, we've got to get him to the ground. He's the X-factor, he truly is. The play is never over. You have to put that clock out of your mid because he's going to start to run around, and we played a quarterback just like him in (Tony) Romo, so it's going to be the same kind of guy. We just have to play well against him"
The Cincinnati Bengals defense leads the NFL with 43 quarterback sacks, lead by Geno Atkins (10.5), Michael Johnson (8.5) and Wallace Gilberry (5.0) and Carlos Dunlap (4.5), a quartet that's generated eight forced fumbles this season. With Roethlisberger, the Bengals have to stay focused on the quarterback rather than the legendary pump fakes that forces people to "reset", writes Geoff Hobson.
"Stay on our feet but in this case we want to get the foul," Johnson said of the almost basketballish matchup. "Thankfully this will be like my eighth time facing him so it's something that I expect and hopefully stay focused in and not go for it. You’re moving so fast during a game you’re not thinking. It’s second nature. See a pump-fake, you want to sprint to the ball. Well, you have to reconfigure that and say I’m going to touch him before I go get the ball. Just trying to focus on getting to him.
"He’s very nifty. It’s almost like he’s back there playing backyard ball, scrambling around, making all kinds of unorthodox moves. That’s what makes him so good."
Roethlisberger thrives under pressure and if that pressure doesn't bring the quarterback to the turf, opposing defenses are generally vulnerable to big plays. When blitzed (five or more rushers), Roethlisberger has generated a 7-1 touchdown to interception ratio for a passer rating of 100.1 and a 12.3 yard/completion average. Yet the conundrum is often unrelated to the amount of pressure; it's the ridiculous steadiness Roethlisberger has no matter the situation. According to Pro Football Focus statistics, his numbers are relatively the same under pressure, with no pressure, when blitzed and during typical pass rushes from the defensive front-four.
"We've got to do it as a group. You've got to stay in your rush lanes and have a coordinated rush," said (Robert) Geathers said. "He thrives off extended plays. You've just got to keep him nestled in the pocket. That's all we talk about."
It's not like the Bengals haven't had success during games against the Steelers; generally faltering just enough in the second half to allow Pittsburgh control in the fourth quarter. Earlier this year the Bengals opened with a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter against the Steelers. Momentum violently shifted to the Steelers with Pittsburgh going on to outscore the Bengals 21-3, largely thanks to Jonathan Dwyer's 122 yards rushing and a Bengals offense that collapsed into depressing ineffectiveness, highlighted by a 1-7 third down conversion rate in the second half with four of six possessions going three-and-out.
"You have to possess the football. If you look at those games, the biggest thing is you can’t have turnovers," Lewis said. "We had one big one (in October), but turnovers are big and, like you said, winning on third down. That’s what you need to do.
Yet it was a Bengals defense that proved horrible on third down conversions, allowing the Steelers to sustain multiple possessions with a 63 percent third down conversion rate. We're not talking just third and short either, converting multiple third down opportunities with eight yards or more to go with significant receptions to Antonio Brown, eventually converting those possessions into points.
And when they needed successful third down conversions late in the game, they failed with a third and ten incomplete pass to Jermaine Gresham with 4:15 remaining in the game. Unfortunately that would be Cincinnati's final offensive play of the game, with the Steelers accumulating chunks of yards with an 11-yard Mike Wallace completion, a 14-yard Dwyer run, forcing the Bengals to use their final timeout with over two minutes remaining. Though Cincinnati's defense, exhausted having spent over ten minutes on the field in the fourth quarter, held the Steelers to a third and seven with 1:20 remaining in the game, Jonathan Dwyer sealed the game with a 32-yard gain sprint, exhausting the clock with a knee and no way for Cincinnati to stop the clock.
We've articulated Andy Dalton's need to lead Cincinnati over the Steelers; that proverbial hump that will hold the Bengals back from an eventual rise beyond "average". It's a required point, but not exclusive. It's just a sum to the whole because Dalton might be the face of the franchise, but success with the Bengals goes through the defense.
We've witnessed over the years Roethlisberger sustaining possessions, yanking himself free from the grasp of a pass rusher that would have dropped any other quarterback in the NFL. Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap have as much riding on the game as Dalton, requiring the same amount of crucial moments to hold Pittsburgh from sustaining drives that often exhausts Cincinnati's defense.
It's not enough to pressure Pittsburgh's quarterback into mistakes. Fierce, consistent pressure with yards lost require a stepping-up moment, even for players with spectacular seasons. Though if you can't step up against a division rival with a postseason berth on the line, then career-years are meaningless trivialities.
As will the season.