Romilly Evans previews a massive divisional duel in the AFC North, where he's backing Andy Dalton to rally his Cincinnati troops for a much-needed win at intimidating Heinz Field...
"While Dalton has all the big-game experience, Mason Rudolph is an understudy who needs more rehearsal time"
Cincinnati Bengals @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Start-time: Tuesday, 01:15
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
Dalton has the experience to leave young Rudolph red-faced
Time was when Mike Tomlin's Pittsburgh powerhouse only operated in the highest of gears. The holy trinity of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, rapier wide receiver Antonio Brown and superstar runner Le'Veon Bell used to go crashing through the collapsing scenery of opposition defenses with reckless abandon.
Now, however, due a combination of elbow injury (Roethlisberger), petulant posturing to rival the might of two loosely-harnessed toddlers (Brown), and financial self-interest to eclipse a prince (Bell), the wheels on the Steeler-mobile more closely resembled a clapped-out Reliant Robin. To be honest, it's impressive that Tomlin's prepared to wheel it out of the garage tonight at Heinz Field and into the national spotlight.
Fortunately for the Steelers' head coach, they're hardly up against a Rolls-Royce outfit in the Cincinnati Bengals who, like Pittsburgh, have limped to a 0-3 start for the current campaign. That said, in the Badlands of the AFC North, they're both still in the mix behind the mediocre Cleveland Browns who top the division at a lowly 2-2. So, while all is not lost for the regular season, one more successive defeat in Primetime will likely render the loser rudderless, if not totally hopeless. In short, there's no room for mistakes in such a divisional duel with head-to-head records on the line.
Mistakes, though, are what the Bengals do best. In a modern-day nod to their bungling days, they lead the league in turnovers (eight already this term) while the cannon arm of QB Andy Dalton badly misfired last time out for two interceptions which were compounded by a further two team fumbles alongside a myriad of penalties in Buffalo.
It's almost too bad to be true. In fact, perhaps it is. Let's not forget that Dalton led Cincinnati to five consecutive postseason berths from 2011-2015, and is still in the prime of life at just 31 years of age. There really should be no quarterback conundrum in Cincy. Instead, I'd argue that it's far wiser to construe these mistakes and penalties as early-season phenomena - sure, they catch your eye but won't necessarily turn into season-defining trends... especially on offense where such stumbles and fumbles happen. Indeed, in these initial skirmishes, particularly before team-cohesion truly coalesces, they can simply amount to rank bad luck. Cincinnati even had a successful kick-off return called back.
Therefore, I'm keen to keep the faith with Dalton on the road. His stat-line still looks pretty healthy with 308.3 yards-per-game through the air so far. I certainly expect him to rack up those air miles with his old oval buddy late tonight in a tribute service to Friends Reunited. Especially against a porous Pittsburgh secondary whose lack of certainty has left them exposed to some embarrassing downfield gashes of late.
Granted, I might be oversimplifying matters. It's not as if the Bengals D are much more adept. While, back on offense, their running game is practically non-existent (a risible 125 yards of ground gains this year). However, Pittsburgh continue to lower the bar in relative sympathy (total 2019 ground gains of 192 yards) so it's difficult to make the case for a Steeler Nation far removed from its Steel Curtain days.
The real difference, as so often, should come down to the men under center. And while Dalton has all the big-game experience, Pittsburgh's second-year grad Mason Rudolph, coming off the back of a deeply disappointing Passer Rating barely north of 80, is an understudy who needs more rehearsal time. Working behind a proven but ageing O-line doesn't help his cause and Rudolph could be left with a red face on national TV, hurried and harried as he will be by all manner of blitz packages designed to confuse.
Therefore, when all's said and done, leave this to the flat track bully that is the Red Rifle and his rapid receiving crew to silence the restless locals and deliver a statement win. It may not save Cincy's season, but it should at least keep them within hailing distance of the leaders in the divisional dogfight of the AFC North.