After a three-game winning streak spanning Weeks 2 through 4, the Cincinnati Bengals have dropped their last two, both for similar reasons—offensive mistakes.
Now, the Bengals are set to host divisional rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, a nationally-broadcast contest that can either put the team back on the right track or further in the hole, under .500 in a division suddenly up for grabs.
Let's take a closer look at the state of the Bengals as they head into their seventh game of the season—where they are strong, where they are weak and what we can expect from them against Pittsburgh.
The Good: A.J. Green, the Defensive Line, Vontaze Burfict
Right now, there's no better wide receiver in the NFL than second-year Bengal A.J. Green. On 43 catches, he has 628 yards—the most in the league—six touchdowns and a 64.2 percent catch rate. Considering the struggles that his quarterback, Andy Dalton, has had, especially in the last two weeks, Green has been invaluable to the Bengals offense.
In the Bengals' Week 6 loss to the Cleveland Browns, Green was by far the team's best offensive weapon. He caught seven of the 11 passes thrown his way, for 135 yards and two touchdowns, including a 57-yarder in the fourth quarter. He was no match for the Browns secondary, including vaunted cornerback Joe Haden, who gave up three receptions on the five passes thrown his direction when covering Green, including that long scoring play.
Cincinnati's defensive line was also a standout in Week 6, with defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Domata Peko each batting down a Brandon Weeden pass, the former winding up intercepted by Bengals linebacker Michael Johnson. Defensive ends Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry each sacked Weeden once.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict has also been impressive since being named starter in place of the injured Thomas Howard. His transition to an outside backer has been fairly smooth, and he netted another batted pass in Week 6 and was the Bengals second-leading tackler, with six. However he did allow two of the three passes thrown his way to be caught, including a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ben Watson.
Heading into the 2012 season, Green, the defensive line and Burfict's potential were the team's three brightest spots, and that has proven true through the first six weeks. There's been no disappointments out of this group of Bengals players and, as their core, prove the team is headed in the right direction though its record is 3-3.
The Bad: Andy Dalton, BenJarvus Green-Ellis
For the second week in a row, the Bengals have fallen thanks to mistakes made by their quarterback, Andy Dalton. Though he's had a strong season considering he's only in his second year and he's worked hard to build chemistry with his young receiving corps, there are still hitches in his game that need ironing out.
The Bengals are a pass-heavy team thanks in part to their solid group of receivers as well as to the struggles of their run game behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Dalton has the seventh-most pass completions of any quarterback and the 11th-most attempts and the fifth-most gross passing yards, at 1,726, as well as a top-10 completion percentage. His 12 passing touchdowns also put him in the top five.
Taken alone, those numbers are impressive, and they should be. Dalton's outperforming quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers in most of those metrics; however, there are some disturbing trends in Dalton's game this season.
With nine interceptions, Dalton is in a four-way tie for the second-most picks thrown this season, and his 17 sacks is the fifth-highest total in the league. The sacks and interceptions are related—Dalton has trouble passing when under pressure, so opposing defenses are bringing the pass rush in hopes to force him into mistakes. For the past two weeks, it's worked.
The Browns picked Dalton off three times in Week 6 and sacked him twice, once resulting in a lost fumble. The turnovers and errant passes produced when Dalton is under pressure—particularly when facing a blitz, which is when one of his sacks and two of his interceptions occurred last week—have almost single-handedly resulted in Cincinnati's last two losses.
Typically, a young quarterback like Dalton can minimize his mistakes by handing the ball off more often, but with Green-Ellis at the helm of the run game—rather unexpectedly, after Bernard Scott's injury-plagued season ended with a Week 5 ACL tear—they haven't seen a lot of production.
On 107 rushing attempts—the 11th-most for any running back in the league—Green-Ellis has just 362 yards, a 3.4 yards-per-carry average. He has just two rushing touchdowns despite a reputation for being a bruiser and has fumbled three times, losing the ball twice—the first time in his career this has happened.
In Week 6, Green-Ellis had 16 carries for 62 yards, 20 of which came on one rush. With that one good run removed (which was his longest of the season), he otherwise had 15 carries and 42 yards, an average of 2.8 yards per carry.
Clearly, the Bengals need to find a run game, whether that means finding a player in free agency, trading for one with another team or building a strong committee with Green-Ellis, Brian Leonard and Cedric Peerman.
The pressure on Dalton needs to be relieved—the pressure from within the organization to keep him passing as well as the pressure he's facing from opposing defenses. More balance would do wonders for Dalton's accuracy and help limit the turnovers and poorly thrown passes that have doomed the Bengals for the past two weeks.
What's Next: The Pittsburgh Steelers
Generally, home teams have an advantage in the NFL, but that's curiously not so for the Bengals when it comes to hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of the Bengals' six wins over the Steelers since 2000, only two have come at home. Since 1970, the Bengals have beaten the Steelers just 32 times in their 84 meetings, and if they want to stay afloat in the AFC North, they'll need to win this Sunday.
This week, the Steelers are a particularly beatable team. Pittsburgh, at 2-3, have yet to win a game on the road and have been dealing with the complications that injuries, personnel reshuffling and a new offensive coordinator can bring to a team. Its secondary, last season its biggest strength, has been a liability this year, with safety Troy Polamalu having missed most of the year with a calf injury and cornerback Ike Taylor taking a major step back from his impressive 2011 season.
That means that Dalton could have a bounce-back week of passing against Pittsburgh. A.J. Green in particular is a matchup nightmare—he burned the Browns' Haden last week and now will likely spend this week's game paired up with the slumping Taylor, almost guaranteeing him another 100-plus yard day.
The biggest key to defeating the Steelers on Sunday night will be to stop their offense. It's been a halting affair thus far, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger taking fewer deep shots than last season and their run game being in constant flux (not unlike the Bengals). Roethlisberger has been more efficient, however, with a more-conservative game plan, but the Bengals can still stop this productivity in their tracks.
All it will take is a strong effort from their defensive front seven, in particular that stellar line. The Steelers offensive line is yet again dealing with injuries, which presents an excellent opportunity to bring pressure to Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger's been sacked just 10 times this year—24 passers have been brought down as many or more times—a sign that their pass protection has seen marked improvement. But Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson and company have had a lot of luck getting to quarterbacks thus far—Cincinnati's 3.5 sacks-per-game average is the second-best number in the league.
If the Bengals can continue the trend of hitting the quarterback and Dalton can take advantage of a Steelers struggling secondary, they can absolutely pick up a win and improve to 4-3 on the season.
Though the Baltimore Ravens currently control the AFC North, with their 5-1 record, the division is in many ways still wide open. The Steelers haven't been playing their best football, the Ravens now have to deal with losing linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb for the year and the Bengals have an incredible amount of talent that we've already seen come together successfully this season.
This game is thus very important for the Bengals' playoff hopes. And for once, they won't need perfect execution through four full quarters to beat the Steelers.