For all of the analysis that we can hear about this game, to me, it all comes down to one player. Can Andy Dalton lead the Bengals to a big road divisional victory?
While his INT% has risen a bit this season, Dalton's numbers on the whole have greatly improved this year. His completion % has risen 4.4 points, his TDs are way up (26 in 14 games this year compared with 20 all of last season), and his YPA, YPG, and Rating have all improved as well.
But if there's one major concern that could pop up, especially in road game, it's the fact that Dalton sack percentage has increased significantly. Last year, Dalton was sacked on 4.4% of his drop backs. This year, that number is up to 7.5%. While this number is not overly alarming by itself, I heard an interview with Greg Cosell yesterday that I found to be very interesting.
Cosell mentioned that on tomorrow's matchup show, they're going to get into how many plays Dalton leaves on the field. By his estimation this year, Dalton has left 11 open TDs on the field. In other words, the play designs worked as planned, the correct player was open, and Dalton was still unable to pull the trigger, mainly due to pressure that he perceived to be there, when in fact it wasn't. (Can you imagine that Dalton could conceivably have 35+ TDs this year?)
In Cosell's analysis of Dalton's performance last week at Philadelphia, he mentioned the following...
Dalton left another TD on the field on the 2nd series, Hawkins wide open out of 3 man tight bunch; That was play’s design, Dalton did not pull the trigger and ended up getting sackedDalton’s accuracy was inconsistent, Ball location was not precise which resulted in some incompletions that should have been completionsDalton continued to miss throws that were there, He was not sharpDalton has become quick to move, He’s perceiving pressure and leaving the pocket too early
These could be the product of one bad game, but a look inside the numbers, and inside the film suggests that these are problems Dalton is still dealing with in his development as a QB. While he's clearly improved, these are not problems that should make Bengals fans feel confident as they head into Pittsburgh, even against a Steelers team with a depleted secondary.
If Dalton can fix these issues, the Bengals have an excellent chance to beat the Steelers and make some real noise in the playoffs. But these trends don't seem like a recipe for success against a team like Pittsburgh, especially in Heinz Field.