A.J. Green and Andy Dalton know full well you can't have a Green-Dalton era until they lead a victory over Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Green and Dalton are 0-5 against the AFC North elite, but they know they can right a lot of wrongs if the 3-3 Bengals prevail over the 2-3 Steelers on Sunday night (8:20-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in front of an Orange Out at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
"This is a must win for us. We let two slip away from us that we felt we should've had, but we can't go back to those games, so I feel like this is a must win because it's a division game," Green said before Wednesday's practice. "If you want to take the next step you've got to be able to beat those teams, Baltimore and Pittsburgh."
Dalton: "It's big. For us to get to where we want to be, we've got to beat teams like that. Hopefully it starts this Sunday. We feel like we've got a good attitude going in. Yeah, we've had the losses, but we're confident in our abilities. For us now, it's just going out and playing and executing."
With two AFC North titles, a Bengals-record 10 seasons, and the only coach in franchise history to reach the postseason with two different quarterbacks, Marvin Lewis gets his own era. And it has just one win over the Steelers at PBS. Wednesday is as close as you'll ever come to hearing Lewis call a game "must."
"This is a big game, a big stage – huge stage. To me, it's just such an exciting opportunity to have to go into this football game," Lewis said. "Based on where people are, it's not (a must win). It's important, and it'll put us 2-2 in the division and it gives you a springboard. The next week is an open week, so it's an important part, you know? We're here. We're relatively healthy. That's important. We know how important. This is a good football team we're playing, with great history. We know they've dominated this division, and so it's an important game for us to win."
Dalton's predecessor at Pro Bowl quarterback, Carson Palmer, didn't beat the Steelers at home until his fourth try. Green's predecessor at Pro Bowl wide receiver, Chad Johnson, had two touchdown catches in 13 games against coordinator Dick LeBeau's Steelers defenses. Green did that in his first two games last season and missed three quarters of his first game against them when he hyperextended his knee catching a 36-yard touchdown in the 24-17 loss at PBS.
"It's my second year and I feel more comfortable; my first year was a little rocky," Green said. "I didn't know what was going on. This year I feel more comfortable and know what's going on. I've seen these hard-hitting defenses, so I'm not as nervous as I was."
Dalton has struggled this season avoiding what the Steelers do so well and that's picking off passes for touchdowns. After throwing just two pick-sixes as a rookie (one in the regular season gainst Buffalo and one in the postseason against Houston), Dalton has thrown three this season and LeBeau's Steelers have returned 14 for scores in his nine seasons.
But after Wednesday's practice, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden offered an impassioned defense of a quarterback that is still in the top 10 in six passing categories. He blamed two of the interceptions on himself and the receiver, and noted that a future Hall of Famer in safety Ed Reed executed the third near the end of the opener in Baltimore.
"Andy threw a slant route and the guy jumped the slant. Sheldon Brown is an experienced corner. He makes a lot of plays. It was a great play by him and a (bad) route by our receiver," Gruden said of Sunday's mishap in Cleveland. "That wasn't totally Andy's fault. The other pick-six was against Washington. It was maybe one of the worst calls in the history of my football career. I've had a lot of them, but that was one of my worst. And then the third one was against Baltimore. We're trailing, and he's trying to make a play and he overthrew an out route and it was picked.
"You see what type of player he is. Ed Reed made a great catch. The ball's at his shoelaces and he caught it. He's gotten intercepted by Sheldon Brown, Ed Reed, J.J. Watt and then the guy at Washington, which I don't count because it was a terrible call by me. That was my fault. They're going to happen. How many did Philip (Rivers) throw the other day? It happens to great ones. If he's going to play here for 10 more years or however many more years, he's going to throw a few more."
They can look right at Palmer. If Dalton has five pick-sixes in his first 23 games that includes the postseason, Palmer had three in his first 23 and two of them came against LeBeau. Palmer ended up with 14 pick-sixes in his 99 Bengals games and LeBeau got him the most with four.
"They move around a lot. They try to confuse you with twists and stunts up front and backers blitzing and all that kind of stuff," Dalton said. "They still try to find some way to confuse the offense, but it's how we respond on the sideline, what's the new thing they're doing so we can pick up on it and know how to counter it."
In true Palmer fashion, Dalton doesn't throw receivers under the bus after throwing interceptions. So while the Bengals weren't enamored with that slant route wide receiver Brandon Tate ran in Cleveland last Sunday, Dalton says he shouldn't have thrown it.
"There have been some decisions to throw the ball when I probably shouldn't have, but others have been tipped balls and things like that too," Dalton said. "So I know when I can take my chances, I know when to take my shots. Hopefully the interceptions will go down."
Gruden says what makes Dalton such a good quarterback, his reportedly NFL–low 2.3 seconds in getting rid of the ball, can also cause problems.
"Sometimes it is a problem. Like I said, he's very 1-2-3 bang, 1-2 bang, whatever it is, he's getting the ball out. Sometimes it's bad," Gruden said. "Sometimes he needs to wait another count or two to let the pattern develop even more and hit the second window. I'm not comparing him to Ben (Roethlisberger), but you know how Ben keeps plays alive. Drew Brees keeps plays alive for a long period of time and keeps his eyes up and finds guys in second or third windows. A lot of these defenses can cover initial combinations, but sometimes the extra count lets people get open. He needs to give routes a little more time sometimes."
But Dalton's great timing and rhythm throws are exactly why Gruden had him the highest rated quarterback in last year's draft and why he believes he's such a good fit for his West Coast offense. Yet the line is fine and you only have to go back to Dalton's first game against LeBeau last season at PBS.
The Bengals were driving for the tying touchdown with 2:27 left in the game when cornerback William Gay picked off Dalton at the Steelers 19 trying to hit wide receiver Jerome Simpson on an intermediate route to the right.
"It got him in trouble last year against Pittsburgh when we were going down to score; same type of throw," Gruden said. "Jerome stopped, he anticipated run, the guy picked it and we lost. Sometimes it gets him into trouble. But a lot of times it makes him an NFL quarterback because he anticipates throws so well. So you have to take the good with the bad.
"I saw Peyton Manning throw three picks on Monday Night Football in the first half against the Falcons, all of them where he's anticipating windows and trying to drop them in and the backside safety is reading his eyes and making good plays. So it happens with quarterbacks who are trying to anticipate things before they happen. Sometimes they don't quite happen the way they will. But more times than not it turns out in a positive way."
What the Bengals hope helps Dalton this season against the Steelers is his more reliable corps of receivers. But it also has to help that Green has seen Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor twice. Green respects Taylor's 10-year savvy and certainly the Bengals have seen Hard To Like Ike blow up plenty of game plans with swagger and talent. Johnson never scored in Pittsburgh against him and LeBeau in Pittsburgh.
"Ike plays all the best receivers in man, so he's tough," Green said. "He plays everybody man, so I've got to be able to work him because he's a great corner."
Green is in the middle of a pretty good run of corners and, just wait, here comes Hall of Famer Champ Bailey with the Broncos in two weeks. But Miami's Sean Smith and Cleveland's Joe Haden couldn't keep him out of the end zone, where he's been five straight games.
"He's long and he's lanky and he's smart. He's been in the league for like (10) years, so he's seen a lot. He likes to be physical," Green said of Taylor. "Yeah, he likes to talk. But that's not my game. I don't get into all that stuff. I just let my game talk. If he talks trash to me, then I'll just go catch the ball."
But Taylor is one of LeBeau's stable of ultimate pros. If Green's not talking, Taylor's not talking. Even though Taylor is rangy like Smith, he's got a different style.
"Ike is more of a cover. He's going to try to run with you. He's not going to try to get his hands on you. They both have long arms, though," Green said. "He's not as physical as Smith. Smith likes to get his hands on you. But (Taylor's) definitely tough."
The strength of LeBeau is his ability to surprise with the same scheme and personnel. Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis says he's seen some different blitzes this season. If anyone knows what LeBeau might do against Green, it is Lewis. He coached with LeBeau in Pittsburgh right after LeBeau moved from Bengals defensive coordinator in 1992 to the Steelers secondary.
"They can add a wrinkle here and a wrinkle there. One guy is doing something different, but the other 10 guys are still doing their jobs the same way," Lewis said. "So you can do it at a very high level and high speed. That's the impressive part – how they continue to add and manipulate the game plan week to week to week. He works hard to take away strengths for you and make you do things that he may not rate as your best strength."
Translation: LeBeau is going to challenge the other Bengals receivers to beat him, not to mention Green-Ellis.
And Dalton, looking for that first AFC North skin on the wall, knows exactly what that means.
"It's what they thrive on. They thrive on mistakes by the offense," he said, "so we can't have that this week."