The one thing Andy Dalton seemed most sure of Monday night didn’t happen during the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 27-3 rout of his Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field. It occurred right after the game ended.
Dalton had been sacked a record eight times and afterward when the two teams mingled on the field, the Bengals quarterback joined four Pittsburgh players – including defensive end Tyson Alualu who had just dumped him that final time – near the Steelers logo at the 50-yard line and they all knelt and prayed.
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Afterward I pulled him aside in the dressing room and asked what he was praying about.
He started talking about giving thanks for the “ability” and “platform” he has been given and I interrupted: “You sure you weren’t just kneeling there saying ‘Thank God this is over!’?”
And for the first time in the postgame dressing room, Dalton started to laugh. He reached over and punched my shoulder: “Naah, Naah I wasn’t saying that.”
He should have been.
I’ve seen pinatas at a kids’ birthday parties treated better than he was Monday night.
Dalton plays behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. The Bengals front is riddled by injures so they’re left with a rookie, a pair of over-the-hill vets, some other teams’ rejects and a player or two lining up out of position.
Put that up against a Pittsburgh front seven that had its best game of the season and got more aggressive as the night worn on – “They had their ears pinned back and just kept coming,” said Bengals right tackle Bobby Hart – and it’s no wonder Dalton was mugged like never before in his nine-year career.
Before Monday night, the most he’d ever been sacked in a game was seven times by the host New York Jets in the 2016 season open at MetLife Stadium. The Bengals managed to win that game, but there would be no anomaly this time.
Bengals new coach Zac Taylor said except for the first one, which came because of “miscommunication,” the sacks all resulted from Bengals linemen losing the one-on-one battles up front.
That’s become a recurring problem in Cincinnati’s dismal 0-4 start this season.
The year began with renewed hope. The 36-year-old Taylor had been bought in to invigorate a team that couldn’t get over the hump in 16 seasons with Marvin Lewis – the franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991 – but instead these Bengals are beginning look a lot like one of those lost teams from the 1990s.
One thing they have in common is an inability to protect the quarterback.
The Bengals all-time record for sacks in a season is 53 set in both 1993 and 1998. Both of those teams went 3-13.
Just four games into this year, Dalton has now been sacked 19 times. If this pace keeps up, the team would give up a whopping 76 sacks this season.
And yet late Monday night, Taylor, Dalton and running back Joe Mixon—who is averaging just 37.3 yards a game this season after rushing for 1,168 yards last year – all claimed the Bengals have the necessary guys on the roster to make their offensive line successful.
Then again what could they say?
The line was hamstrung before the season ever began. First-round pick, tackle Jonah Williams, was lost for the season with a shoulder surgery. His replacement at left tackle was supposed to be Cordy Glenn, but he’s been sidelined since the preseason by a concussion.
That’s meant 32-year-old Andre Smith, re-signed by the Bengals a third time in the spring, has been forced to play left tackle, a position he’d previously played only three times in 110 NFL games.
He has struggled there, just as Hart has at right tackle. And left guard Michael Jordan is a rookie out of Ohio State.
Monday night six different Steelers accounted for the eight sacks. And as the game wore on, Dalton showed the effects of an attack coming from all sides.
With 5:49 left before the half, Steeler linebacker Bud Dupree beat Smith and managed to sack and strip the ball from Dalton at the Pittsburgh 18. But the Bengals quarterback – whose fumble was recovered by T.J. Watt – retreated to the Cincinnati sideline and soon went down to Smith and gave him some clapping support and encouraging words.
At halftime – with Pittsburgh leading just 10-3 – Dalton was just as supportive.
“He said some really good stuff at halftime,” Smith said. “He told us we just needed to execute.”
Instead, Dalton was sacked once in the first possession of the second half and then twice more in the very next possession.
The second of those two was by Steeler nose tackle Javon Hargrave and it would force the Bengals to punt. As soon as he was slammed down, Dalton popped up, marched straight off the field and flung his helmet at the bench.
When he sat down he glared in the linemen’s direction.
On the next possession he threw an interception in the end zone from the Pittsburgh 8.
Finally, in the only other Bengals’ possession of the second half, he was sacked two more times. On the first of, those he was drilled by defensive tackle Cam Heyward and fumbled the ball out of bounds. He ended up flat on his back at on the 27.
Immediately after the game – before his midfield prayer – Dalton met with injured Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had spent the game on the sidelines in shorts, a T-shirt, ball cap and sneakers, He wore a headset, had a chart of plays affixed to his left forearm and a white cast covering his right elbow.
He spoke for a while with Dalton, then sought his own replacement, the guy he’d mentored throughout the game, Mason Rudolph.
Monday night the second-year quarterback was stellar in a scaled down offense that, thanks to short passes, helped him complete 24 of 28 attempts for 229 yards and two touchdowns. He threw no interceptions and was not sacked.
The Steelers crowd embraced him and soon Heinz Field was awash in waving Terrible Towels.
“You don’t want to start the season 0-4, especially with a game like this,” Bengals center Trey Hopkins said. “We always have history with the Steelers so it’s disappointing to come out and not perform.”
Several of the players talked about turning things around, but Taylor admitted standing there he just felt like he was “making excuses.”
Receiver Tyler Boyd didn’t sugarcoat it: “We’re 0-4 and to say we’re gonna win the next one, we’ve got to prove it to people. We’ve got to actually make plays.”
Mixon said: “We’ll go through a couple of days where we’ll just be mad, but then you have to take it upon yourself and make something happen. You’re either going to roll over and hide or you can show up and work and try to fix the problem.”
There’s one other possibility. They could follow Dalton’s lead and take a knee.
This is a team in real trouble.
One that needs some prayers … and some offensive linemen.
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