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Rematch an opportunity for Cincy rookie

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Chad Pennington

Chad Pennington, a 10-year NFL veteran who recently retired from the game, brings his football knowledge to FOX Sports as an analyst.

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Each week, Chad Pennington breaks down a dynamic NFL playmaker or scheme, devises a game plan and discusses a strategy for success. This week, Pennington examines how rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals can turn the tables on the Pittsburgh Steelers in their second meeting of the year.

December football! Where the rubber meets the road. In December, contenders make their statements and pretenders bow out. On Dec. 4, the Cincinnati Bengals need to make a statement!

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It’s Cincinnati-Pittsburgh II.

Having played just three weeks ago — a 24-17 Steelers victory in Cincinnati — the Bengals and their dynamic rookie duo of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green can take the next big hurdle in their remarkable debut seasons.

First things first: They truly have to believe they can do this. And having watched the first game, I think they can. To be a contender, they have to.

Will the world come to an end if the Bengals don’t win? No. They will still have opportunities to get into the playoffs. However, beating Pittsburgh on the road would be gigantic.

The Bengals are 7-4 and trail AFC North division-leading Baltimore and Pittsburgh by a game. But, of those seven wins, the Bengals have defeated only one team with a winning record (Tennessee).

I know Dalton threw two picks in the fourth quarter against the Steelers, but he and the Bengals were still knocking on the door at the very end. They had the ball at the Pittsburgh 25-yard line with 2:31 left before Dalton threw his last interception. And all of this with his go-to sidekick, Green, on the sideline because of a twisted knee.

If you haven’t guessed by now, my assignment is to game-plan for the Bengals' offense in the rematch against the Steelers.

For many fans, the success of Dalton is surprising. It really doesn’t surprise me at all. Two reasons. In college, this guy was really good. I was impressed with his ability to lead TCU to an undefeated season and a big-time win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. On the big stage, Andy Dalton shined! Second, he is a 24-year old rookie compared with 21 or 22 years old. Maturity is key to a young quarterback’s success. Dalton’s maturity has shown through his late fourth-quarter comebacks and close wins.

Just ask the Cleveland Browns last week.

I expect Dalton to learn from the first game against the Steelers. Although his stats didn’t show it, he did some good things. He had two big touchdown passes and threw the ball away when needed in the first three quarters. Lesson learned from that game: In the NFL, one or two plays can affect the entire outcome.

Losing A.J. Green certainly hurt the Bengals down the stretch against Pittsburgh. Dalton and Green already have developed a nice chemistry. The QB has a lot of confidence in Green to make plays.

He’s not the only one. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Green is the best first-round draft pick he’s ever been around. Dalton has called Green a special player, saying: “I like my chances with A.J. I know I can just put the ball up there, and he makes plays."

Why is that important? In my opinion, the No. 1 key for an NFL quarterback is passing the ball with decisiveness and no hesitancy. Having a guy like Green allows a quarterback to pass with complete confidence. When Dalton recognizes single coverage or a favorable matchup on his go-to-guy, he can make a throw with no doubt in his mind.

It seems that Pittsburgh has been good on defense since football was invented. The 2011 Steel Curtain has been pretty darn good, as well. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s scheme has allowed his veteran players to perform with consistency.

The Steelers’ defense is ranked second in total yards — sixth in rushing and third in passing. One stat that surprises me is the lack of takeaways. Pittsburgh has forced only seven interceptions and has only three fumble recoveries. Not typical of a Steelers defense.

My three keys for the Bengals:

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1. Find ways to get Green involved downfield. He is a big play waiting to happen. Double moves, post routes and go routes. An offense has to shorten the length of the field against a stout defense like the Steelers. Pittsburgh is too good for an offense to sustain long drives consistently. I expect Ike Taylor to match up with Green throughout the entire game. This will be interesting — a veteran corner against a high-powered, rookie receiver. This is what the NFL is all about!

2. We all know about Cedric Benson and A.J. Green. They will certainly get their touches. I believe two additional players could play a vital role in the success of the Bengals' offense. Running back Bernard Scott and rookie wide receiver Andrew Hawkins have play-making ability. These two players can take the pressure off Benson and Green. Scott and Hawkins showed the ability to make plays in the first game against the Steelers. Hawkins had two explosive plays, for 16 and 25 yards, and Scott showed the ability to be effective in the run game to keep Benson fresh. My goal would be to get quality production from these two guys, giving them 15-18 combined touches.

3. Finally, explore heavy personnel packages. These packages consist of two or three tight ends/extra offensive linemen with one wide receiver and one or two running backs. For example, the Bengals like to use an extra offensive lineman as a tight end to run the football. One personnel package that could be effective would be three tight ends (one of these being the extra lineman), one receiver (Green), and one running back (Benson). Here’s the change-up: Throw the football with this package!

Find ways to incorporate tight end Jermaine Gresham and Green with these sets. I really like Gresham. He can create matchup issues for the Steelers in this package. Like Green, Gresham can run, has solid hands and displays a wide range.

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When facing stout defenses, conventional offensive sets can produce only so much. An offense has to present a top defense with an unconventional look. If the Bengals line up in a conventional offensive package too often, they will get stoned. Period. Conventional things don’t faze defenses like the Steelers. Instead of thinking, they are attacking.

An offense needs to create hesitancy in alignment and defensive structure. If a defense is thinking instead of reacting, the offense has the advantage.

The heavy personnel package can also simplify defensive schemes. The Bengals will face a base 3-4 and avoid the more complex, nickel packages. Using an extra offensive lineman can assist in pass protection against the Steelers’ outside linebackers. James Harrison and company are outstanding pass rushers. Having extra help on the edge can keep Dalton clean in the pocket.

Cincinnati can also expect simple coverages with Cover 3 being the No. 1 scheme. Dalton then can attack a basic coverage with his playmakers on the field. Even more important, there will be no hesitancy in what he sees.

In 2008, our Dolphins team used these packages with success. We could run tight and spread formations and even operate our two-minute offense. When facing good defenses like the Ravens or the Jets, I could see their hesitancy. The looks weren’t normal. They didn’t make sense.

If the Bengals are successful, a victory won’t make sense to the Steelers, either. For Cincinnati, Christmas — and January — will feel as though they came early!

Tagged: Bengals, Dolphins, Steelers, Ike Taylor, Cedric Benson, Bernard Scott, Jermaine Gresham, Andrew Hawkins, A.J. Green, Andy Dalton

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