CINCINNATI (AP) — Andy Dalton has barely been touched in the last three games. The Bengals have won all three. There's a direct correlation that's going to be in the front of their minds on Sunday night in Pittsburgh as Cincinnati closes in on the AFC North title.
When Dalton can stay upright, things usually work out all right. The Bengals (9-4) haven't allowed a sack in any of the last three games, matching their franchise record for protecting the quarterback. They also went three games without a sack in 1977, 2007 and 2010, according to STATS LLC.
And they've done it with an offensive line that's been repeatedly reconfigured because of injuries. "A lot of sacks sometimes just come down to the way things work out," said Andrew Whitworth, a Pro Bowl left tackle who moved to guard during the three-game stretch. "But it's been really good and we just have to continue to have that as an emphasis and give space to the quarterback and run the ball effectively."
The Bengals can win the AFC North title if they beat the Steelers on Sunday night in Pittsburgh and Baltimore loses on Monday night in Detroit. Keeping Dalton safe is one of the priorities, and they've had success at it in the past.
Dalton has faced the Steelers five times during his career. He avoided a sack in three of the games, including a 20-10 victory at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday night in the second week of this season. He was sacked three times in another game and tied his career high by taking six sacks during a 13-10 win in Pittsburgh last December.
"I think any quarterback throws the ball better when there's not a lot of people around him," Dalton said. "I think it starts up front with those guys. Even though we've been shuffling them around, they have played well."
In the last three games, the line has been in flux. Left guard Clint Boling suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago, prompting the Bengals to move Whitworth — a 2012 Pro Bowl tackle — to the guard spot. Tackle Anthony Collins took Whitworth's spot. Right guard Kevin Zeitler has missed all three games with an injured right foot, but is expected to be back in Pittsburgh.
Heading into this week's games, the Bengals had allowed 26 sacks, tied with New Orleans for fifth-fewest in the NFL. Denver and Detroit had allowed a league-low 15. Miami has given up 48. Dalton has helped by getting rid of the ball rather than taking a sack. He was sacked 10 times during back-to-back losses to Miami and Baltimore in October and November. He's gotten better and getting rid of it the last three games.
"I have to make quick decisions to get the ball to our guys," Dalton said. "When we do that, we've been successful." They've also helped Dalton by running the ball well in the last two games, picking up 164 yards in a win over San Diego and 155 yards last Sunday in a 42-28 win over the Colts. The Bengals threw the ball 35 times and ran it 35 times in that one, allowing them to pick their spots to pass.
"When you're just throwing it over and over again, teams start to bring more and more pressure and just tee off on you," Whitworth said. "We're creating that scenario where it's hard (for defenses) to know which one you want to do.
"Even though people say throwing is the new generation, running the football will always been the hammer in the sense that it can eliminate many defensive game plans. If you can stop the run, you're going to be a good defense. And if you can't, you never will be a good defense."
Dalton has thrown 92 passes since the last time he was sacked. The streak represents the first time during his three-year career in the NFL that he's gone more than one game without a sack. "I don't think I ever got sacked in high school," he said. "Not too many times in college. Just a little different."
Notes: LB James Harrison, LB Vontaze Burfict and RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis were listed as probable for the game. They missed Thursday's practice with an illness. ... CB Terence Newman is the only one deemed out. He hurt his left knee last Sunday and wore a brace all week. ... Zeitler also was listed as probable.
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