The one thing Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been able to do in this Rookie of the Year season is get rid of the ball quickly and that will be of prime importance Sunday at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when he faces Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's intricate chaos.
Dalton's backup, Bruce Gradkowski, can tell him. He beat it once in big fashion while playing for the Raiders and went down ugly while playing it for the Bucs and Browns. He's one of 11 rookie quarterbacks that LeBeau has solved since he returned to the Steelers for his second stint in 2004, throwing three picks, no touchdowns, and just 175 yards for Tampa Bay in 2006.
"One thing you can't do is be late on a throw," Gradkowski said before Wednesday's practice. "Or come back to a read because they've got guys coming from the other side of the field. You can't always account for them."
Former Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who helped coach the Steelers secondary during training camp in the NFL's minority internship program, can tell Dalton. Partricularly since Hawkins also played for LeBeau for six seasons in Cincinnati, three when he was the defensive coordinator and three more when he was the head coach.
"Obviously he's got to sort out the blitzes," Hawkins said. "They mix up the linebackers and the defensive linemen with drops and blitzes and the safeties are coming down. They disguise it and they're going to try and catch him. Their linebackers are so good rushing the passer that if Andy holds the ball, they're going to have a problem."
Dalton's own offensive coordinator can tell him because Jay Gruden tried to stop the Gradkowski carnage from the Tampa press box five years ago in the 20-3 loss.
"With Coach LeBeau and the Steelers, you never know what you're exactly going to get," Gruden said. "You just have to be patient with it. It's going to be tough to have 12-play drives for 80 yards against these guys. We're going to have to come up with big plays and big runs. Get some chunk plays somehow, some way. When we do take our shots we have to make them pay. If we keep ourselves in third-and-long situations all game and try to run it on first and second down and it's third-and-long, it will be a nightmare. It was against San Francisco and these guys are as good or better."
The Steelers have been beset by injuries. Pro Bowl sacker James Harrison is just coming back from a broken eye socket, but the other dangerous pass rusher, LaMarr Woodley (hamstring), may be out for the second straight game. Veteran inside backer James Farrior also looks like he'll be out again, but it never seems to matter.
Even as LeBeau juggles the injured the Steelers are second in pass defense, 10th in generating sacks per pass and have held six quarterbacks to less than 200 yards, including Tom Brady's first sub-200-yard game for the Patriots this season. And Pittsburgh had Baltimore's Joe Flacco at 208 when he began his last drive of Sunday night's game just before the two-minute warning and his winning 92-yard drive that gave him a 300-yard passing game.
"It's a challenge for a veteran offense with a veteran quarterback. They've made things miserable for a lot of great, great quarterbacks," Gruden said. "Rookies are no different. I'm sure they're going to do what they can to keep him off-balance and make him hurry his throws. We have to help him out. We have to run the ball effectively and keep him upright."
If the Bengals don't, it's pure hell. Woodley and Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu both pick-sixed Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer in the last game the teams played and we're talking about an eight-year veteran that swept the Steelers the year before. In 12 games since 2004, Palmer went 4-8 and had a 76.7 passer rating against LeBeau with 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while the 12 rookies in the same stretch had seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions with a 62.8 rating.
The one thing the Steelers don't have this season is interceptions. They are not only last in the league with two picks, but also last with four turnovers, a highly uncharacteristic development that Gruden thinks will change once they get healthy "but I hope not this week," he said.
"We try to do all the same things but with different people. You try to put guys in place who can fulfill the roles that a defense was designed to do," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said in Wednesday's conference call with the Cincinnati media. "They're just going to do it different ways. Nobody's going to step in and be James Harrison or play things the way James Harrison plays, or step in and do the things LaMarr Woodley does. But we still feel like we have the pieces and the components to run the defense as it's drawn up.
"And that's what we did. We went to a few more three-safety looks when we had the linebackers down because that's what we had to do to get people on the field that were able to match up. But as far as what Coach LeBeau calls, he continues to try to do the same things: continue to work the playbook as it's implemented. And I think having guys who feel like you have guys who can step in and fill those roles is a huge reason why we've been able to be successful while these guys are out."
But Clark can't explain LeBeau's great record against rookies, the only blemish a loss to the Baltimore's Troy Smith in the 2007 finale the Steelers didn't need to win to make the playoffs. And he doesn't think it applies because like everyone in the league, Clark doesn't think Dalton is playing anything like a rookie. In his first eight NFL games, Dalton has 12 touchdowns and seven picks.
"He deploys us and encourages us to disguise things, to move around, to make a quarterback have to kind of figure out what we're doing on the run," Clark said. "And for some rookie quarterbacks that is a challenge. I don't necessarily see that being a challenge to Dalton as of late. For a quarterback to lead a team to five straight wins—clearly he's not the only one playing—but it is impressive that he's been able to do that. And to be able to come back last week being down on the road in Tennessee. So for us, we usually do fairly well against rookie quarterbacks, but we're not going to rest on that going into this game against a guy who's extremely prepared."
Dalton's preparation this week begins with the eyes.
"I think they do a real good job of reading eyes, getting a good jump on some of those plays," Dalton said. "It's about being smart with the ball. They're in a spot where most teams aren't letting you throw the ball. It's just being smart."
Polamalu is the guy that Dalton has to eyeball. Gradkowski knows. When he joined a list that would eventually include Flacco, Brady, Mark Rypien and Marc Bulger as the only quarterbacks to throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns with no picks in Pittsburgh during the last three decades, Polamalu didn't play in that 2009 game against Oakland.
"He's so instinctive and has a good feel for the game and what's going on," Dalton said. "You have to find where he is and not try to force things where he's coming in to make a play on the ball. It's finding where he is and if he's jumping a route, check down."
Gradkowski is urging Dalton not to change a thing.
"The big thing when you play the Steelers is the mindset and we have the right mindset here," Gradkowski said. "You have to prepare like it's a 60-minute, physical game and that's how we've been playing. (LeBeau) has guys running all over the place. Andy's done an unbelievable job so far. He just has to keep preparing the same way and he's going to be fine."