When it comes to the quarterbacks in the rivalry between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger has dominated the stage for the better part of the last 15 years.
Now, with Big Ben out for the season, it could finally be time for Andy Dalton to shine.
Dalton is just 3-12 against the Steelers during his first eight seasons, and the Bengals have lost eight straight in the series against them. A win Monday night at Heinz Field could be just what the Bengals need to turn things around after an 0-3 start under new coach Zac Taylor.
“We just need to focus on us and what we’re doing,” Dalton said. “Yes, this game means more because it’s a divisional game against Pittsburgh. We’ve had a lot of tough-fought games against them. We’re just trying to do everything we can to get a win this week.”
Dalton himself could use a signature win this week as he continues to try to prove himself to the new coaching staff and maintain, or in some cases regain, the faith of the fans. Taylor still insists he has complete confidence in the ninth-year veteran, but if the Bengals continue to lose, it might be worth giving rookie Ryan Finlay a look.
Since 1980, just six teams have started 0-3 and made the playoffs. Last year’s Houston Texans are the only team since the current division alignment went into effect in 2002 to accomplish that feat, and the 1992 Chargers are the only team to start 0-4 and make the postseason since the NFL expanded the playoffs in 1990.
Cincinnati has missed the playoffs three straight years, and Sunday’s 21-17 loss was the Bengals’ 10th defeat in the last 11 games dating back to last season. Beating a heated rival on Monday Night Football would be huge, as much as Taylor might try to downplay it.
“It wouldn’t have mattered who we were playing in Week 4,” Taylor said. “We’re anxious to get another opportunity to put it all together. I think that’s the best way to say it. Our guys still believe that we’re heading in the right direction and doing the right things. It’s a tough test — it’s primetime and it’s against the Steelers. They’re saying the same things in that locker room that we’re saying. Our guys will be ready to go, and they’re very anxious for this opportunity.”
The Bengals have been all over the map in terms of their play through three games this season. Some of it falls on Dalton as the leader of the offense, but he’s also been facing tremendous pressure resulting in 11 sacks, backed up by penalties, and the defense hasn’t always put him in the best of positions, either.
Cincinnati opened in strong fashion at Seattle, taking a lead into halftime but stalling out in the third quarter. Ultimately, the Bengals came up short, 21-20, despite a career day for Dalton, who completed 35 of 51 passes for 418 yards and two touchdowns.
Then, they fell flat in the home opener the next week, getting blown out by the San Francisco 49ers in a 41-17 loss during which fans were booing by the first drive of the third quarter. The Bengals rebounded after a slow start at Buffalo on Sunday to score 17 straight points only to give up the game-winning touchdown with 1:50 left. Dalton was intercepted for the second time that game with 12 seconds left as the Bengals were driving deep into Bills territory, and that sealed the 21-17 loss.
Even with the ups and downs, Dalton ranks second in the league with 979 yards passing (326.3 per game). He has thrown five touchdowns and three interceptions and completed 62.8 percent of his passes.
“I would say it’s impossible to pinpoint on one person,” Taylor said when asked if there are things Dalton could be doing better to help the team start off better. “We are all accountable for where we are right now on offense. He does a lot of really good things that he doesn’t get credit for. He gets us into the right protections, and he gets us into the right run plays. He makes some big throws that to most people, they don’t think much of it, but they’ve really been impressive throws that helped keep us alive in some moments. People tend to remember the ones that they think the quarterback missed, and that’s not always the case. He’s no different than any of us. He’s no different than me, or any of the linemen, or the receivers. We’re all accountable for getting this thing going in the right direction.”
Some of Dalton’s misses have been uncharacteristically bad, though. Take the first interception he threw Sunday at Buffalo, for example. Joe Mixon had finally started getting into a groove, and Dalton missed one of his most reliable targets in Tyler Boyd.
On the final throw of the game, he overthrew 6-foot-5 Auden Tate.
Boyd said he and Dalton already have discussed the first interception to correct the mistakes for the future and didn’t think it was that big of a deal. The Bengals, who were trailing 14-0 at the time, got the ball back on a turnover the next series and that started the comeback.
“It was a late ball,” Boyd said. “Either I got around too late or he threw it too early and I ran past it. But we corrected that and don’t feel that had anything to do with the DB disrupting it. It was just a little bad connection with me and Andy. We’ve been working on it, and we should be fine going forward.
“You have to look at everything. Look at the pocket, how much pressure he was getting and all of that. It’s not always on the quarterback. There’s a lot of things that contribute to that.”
Dalton said the transition to Taylor’s new offense has gone well overall, although it’s “definitely different” from anything he’s done with the Bengals in the past. It’s just a matter of finding some consistency now, he said.
“I feel comfortable with what we’re doing,” Dalton said. “I know why Zac is calling certain things. Each game plan has been different. I feel that I have handled it well.”
Boyd would agree.
“I think he’s handling it well,” the fourth-year wide receiver said. “His stats are unbelievable even though we’re winless. I think he’s playing great. We have to start fast each and every game. We have to convert, get a couple of first downs, score on the first drive. Then we put pressure on the opponent. If we just getting rolling quickly and not so late in the games, we’d be 3-0 right now.”
Dalton said this game against the Steelers in primetime (he’s 6-14 in night games) is as good of an opportunity as any to prove what the new offense can do. He looks forward to being back on the national stage and remains confident the Bengals can make something of the opportunity.
Pittsburgh also enters the game 0-3, and Mason Rudolph will be appearing in just his third career game while Roethlisberger – and his 23-7 record against the Bengals -- will be sidelined because of season-ending elbow surgery.
“You definitely like it,” Dalton said of playing the rivalry in primetime. “On Monday night, you’re going to be the only game that’s on TV. Everybody’s going to be watching. That’s why you play this game. You play for the big games. You play for moments like this.”