One of the storylines that isn't likely to get as much buzz as it should is the matchup between Bengals' left defensive end Carlos Dunlap and Steelers' right tackle Marcus Gilbert. Both are players who probably haven't been recognized enough for their accomplishments over the course of their careers.
But, when the Bengals and Steelers go at it on September 18 and December 18, each player should be a significant factor in either team's keys to the game.
Dunlap and Gilbert aren't exactly strangers on the football field, so they will be hoping to use their familiarity with each other to aid in their preparation and help their team win the day. In the past, Gilbert has generally performed well against Dunlap.
In six total games that the two have faced off against each other, Dunlap has only recorded 2.0 sacks and 10 tackles. However, he's also one of the most dominant defensive ends in the NFL in general, with the potential to make a huge impact on just about any game.
If anything, Gilbert should have his hands full trying to repeat past successes.
Heading into the 2010 draft, Dunlap was seen as a player with all of the talent and athleticism in the world. But, some red flags on his character and work ethic created some skepticism. His natural power and length were seen as obvious high points in his game with the potential to lead to a very solid NFL career.
Unfortunately, a DUI arrest heaped on top of the idea that his work ethic could stand to improve caused him to fall to the Bengals in the second round.
Since being drafted, Dunlap has done nothing but prove all of his doubters wrong. He has developed the kind of consistent work ethic in practice and in games that have helped him learn to dominate at the NFL level. He worked his way to a six-year, $40 million contract extension before he even became a full-fledged starter and became a star citizen in addition to being a star player, resulting in being the Bengals' 2015 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee.
Since becoming a full-fledged starter in 2013, he has never put up less than 7.5 sacks in a season or 37 tackles in a season. In 2015 alone, he recorded his lowest number of tackles since he became a full-fledged starter (37), but finished fourth in the NFL in total sacks (13.5). It was enough for his first Pro Bowl berth, but he'll be looking for more in 2016.
Drafted just a year after Dunlap as the Steelers were preparing to move on from incumbent right tackle Willie Colon, Gilbert made a name for himself from the start as a reliable offensive linemen who can keep up with the best of the competition. He started 13 games in 2011 in place of the injured Colon and received the Steelers' rookie of the year award for his performances. Gilbert did play against the Bengals in both games in 2011, but Dunlap missed both.
In 2012, Gilbert played well from the beginning, starting all of the first five games, but lost the rest of his season due to injury and never even got a chance to face off against the Bengals that season. It wasn't until 2013 when Gilbert and Dunlap finally got a chance to face off against each other.
The Bengals won the game 20-10 and Dunlap contributed with 0.5 sacks and a tackle on the day. The most recent matchup between the two also resulted in 0.5 sacks and a tackle for Dunlap, but an infamous 18-16 loss for the Bengals.
Who has the advantage?
For the most part, Gilbert has held Dunlap to average performances when the two teams meet, although he hasn't managed to keep him completely silent. You could make the argument that these two are likely to experience another stalemate when they meet again in 2016, despite the incredible talent on both sides. Throughout their six matchups so far, the two seem to be about as evenly matched as it gets.
Ultimately, picking an advantage in this matchup comes down to who has more experience and who is more naturally talented. Dunlap has been in the league longer, but Gilbert has been a full-fledged starter longer. However, it's hard to argue against Dunlap being the more naturally talented of the two. Gilbert is generally criticized for being weak against the bull rush, which we already know Dunlap can do very well.
Dunlap also seems to have found his stride a bit quicker than Gilbert at the NFL level. The aforementioned 2015 Pro Bowl berth is something that Gilbert wasn't even really in contention for throughout the voting process. He's easily one of the most reliable members of the Steelers' offensive line right now, but he should have his hands full against an energized and confident Dunlap.