Steelers, Bengals to sort AFC North logjam

November, 11, 2011
11/11/11
10:46
PM ET
The Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) and Cincinnati Bengals (6-2), who face off in a key divisional battle on Sunday, both have six wins this season. If they played outside of the AFC North, each would likely be runaway division leaders. But instead they are bunched at the top of the standings with yet another six-win team, the Baltimore Ravens (6-2).

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first time since division realignment in 2002, and only the third time since 1990, that three teams in a division have had at least six wins through nine weeks. The others were the the 1999 AFC East (Dolphins, Patriots, Colts, Bills) and the 2000 AFC East (Colts, Dolphins, Jets).

In last week’s loss to the Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger joined a pair of “300” clubs. He became the first player in franchise history to pass for 300 yards in three consecutive games. However, he also was sacked for the 300th time in his career, becoming just the third quarterback ever to reach that mark before the age of 30.

Since the start of the 2008 season, despite ranking 11th in pass attempts, Roethlisberger has been sacked 19 more times than any other quarterback. Only five times in 52 games since then has he started and not been sacked.

This season, Roethlisberger has been especially susceptible to being sacked when facing a standard rush. Of his 26 sacks, 16 have come against four or fewer pass rushers. Only Sam Bradford (17) has more sacks to such a pass rush this year.

The Bengals should be primed to exploit this weakness in Roethlisberger’s game. Cincinnati has 20 sacks this season, nearly three times as many as they had through eight games last year. Fourteen of those 20 sacks have come when rushing four or fewer players, tied for sixth-most in the league.

On the other sideline, Andy Dalton has six wins in his first eight starts. According to Elias, he’s just the fifth rookie quarterback to begin a career 6-2 or better as a starter since the NFL season expanded to 16 games in 1978.

The last rookie quarterback to do it was the guy under center for the opposing team; Roethlisberger won his first eight starts in 2004.

Dalton has thrived this season when facing added pressure. He has completed 54.9 percent of his passes and has yet to throw an interception against five or more pass rushers this season.

But he’ll be tested by a Steelers defense that blitzes 37 percent of the time, the ninth–highest rate in the NFL. The Steel Curtain has allowed a total QBR of 25.5 when sending five or more pass rushers, which ranks seventh in the league. Opposing quarterbacks have averaged only 5.6 yards per attempt, third-best among NFL defenses.

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