Has Andy Dalton taken the next step? Previewing Sunday's Seahawks-Bengals matchup with 5 Key Questions

Has Andy Dalton taken the next step? Is the dynamic duo of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap "all" Russell Wilson has to be worried about in terms of the Bengals' pass rush? How has the surprising selection of back to back offensive tackles in the 2015 draft panned out, thus far? BengalsInsider.com takes on these questions and more in our latest Speaking with the Enemy.

When the opportunity to converse with insightful editors of other team-oriented sites arises, SeahawkFootball.com will take full advantage. As crazy as it might sound, fans of other NFL teams are just as passionate for their club as the 12s are for the Seahawks. In a new feature we’ll call Speaking with the Enemy, we’ll share three Questions and Answers with the editors from this week’s opponent.

This week, we exchanged questions and answers with Marc Hardin, a lead writer for BengalsInsider.com, Cincinnati’s affiliate on the Scout network.  

Here are my questions and his answers:

1. We can all see the statistical improved play from Andy Dalton thus far in 2015. Is he playing with a different level of confidence or to what else can we attribute Dalton's breakout season?

I think Dalton is playing with the same high level of confidence -- he's just seeing different results, compared to 2014. He looked very good when the Bengals started 3-0 last season. Of course, he didn't look so good after that, leading to a mountainous heap of disapproval from certain vocal factions who forgot about 2013. He looked confident that year while throwing for 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns, both career highs, and being named AFC Player of the Month for October. In my opinion, Dalton is better than his reputation. I think his underrated moxie is born out of being there every day and winning, which Dalton's detractors conveniently forget. He hasn't missed an NFL start. He came into the season with a 40-23-1 career record in his first four years. The Bengals won 39 games from 1991-98, a span of eight years.

I think the big difference this season is more consistency, better vocal leadership, which has commanded Dalton greater respect in the locker room, plus a healthy group around him. Marvin Jones, the No. 2 wide receiver, missed all of last season due to foot and ankle injuries. Starting tight end Tyler Eifert missed all but one quarter. Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green missed all or large parts of five games. Pass-catching running back Giovani Bernard missed nearly a month, which led to rookie understudy Jeremy Hill gaining more playing time and becoming last season's second-half sensation. Starting right tackle Andre Smith missed 12 games. It's easy to feel confident, but not look the part, when you're missing all that firepower.

Dalton has been seeing Dr. Tom House, the former Major League Baseball pitcher-turned quarterback guru the past two off-seasons. Dalton said his mechanics are finer and more consistent from throw to throw. That and experience gained the first four seasons could be coming together to make a batter quarterback. We'll see. The first four games of a season is a small sample size. Cincinnati's first four opponents are a combined 6-10. Bengals fans are hoping it's not a mirage like in the past. Even locally, fans begrudgingly give Dalton his due. He was booed this summer at a celebrity softball game two days before the Major League Baseball All-Star game in Cincinnati. You have to remember, it's 24 years and counting since the Bengals won a playoff game. Pure love locally and widespread recognition nationally won't come for Dalton -- and the team, for that matter -- until the playoff victory drought ends.

2. A leaky Seattle offensive line is surrendering sacks to virtually anyone who asks for one. Anyone paying attention knows that Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are standouts for the Bengals. How good have they been so far in 2015 and who else should Russell Wilson be looking out for?

Dunlap has a team-leading 3.5 sacks, a little off the pace of the NFL record of 22.5, his stated preseason goal. Atkins has three sacks, a robust figure for a defensive tackle, but the Seahawks better have an answer for the line's sleeping giant, 6-7 right end Michael Johnson. The more than capable veteran has one sack, but he's just now rounding into top form after missing most of training camp with an injury. Against a challenged offensive line already with its hands full with Dunlap and Atkins, the tall and athletic Johnson can fine myriad ways to impact the game, via pressure, sack, batted pass or tackle.

3. The Bengals haven't allowed a rushing touchdown yet. Is this a case of Cincinnati just jumping out to big leads or are the Bengals really this stout?

Yeah, it's a fluke number right now, kind of like those wacky April numbers you sometimes get in baseball. The Bengals have led for all but 1:58 of the season, and that will change. Bengals opponents have run the ball 82 times in four games, the seventh-lowest figure in the league, in part because of the leads the Bengals have built, which of course forces teams to go to the air earlier than preferred. The Bengals' sixth-ranked run defense yields 85.8 yards per game, but they are 22nd in the league in opponents yards per carry average with 4.2. On average, game-wide, you can run it on first and second down against the Bengals right now, and have it third-and-less-than-2. These rushing numbers do bear watching because the Bengals pride themselves on running the football and stopping the run. They think that's closer to their identity as one of the rugged teams in the rough-and tumble AFC North.

4. Given how much Seattle has struggled in pass protection this season, some Seahawks fans wish John Schneider and Co. had dedicated more (and higher) picks to the offensive line. The Bengals did the opposite last spring, using 1st and 2nd round picks on tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher. How has this strategy paid off (or has it?), thus far?

The strategy for drafting two offensive tackles early in this year's draft was designed to pay off next year or by 2017. The Bengals still have two big bookends on the line in Andrew Whitworth, an elite left tackle, and Andre Smith, who is a road grader at right tackle when healthy. At the time of the draft, both veterans were heading into the final years of their contracts. Knowing all that, the Bengals invested in Ogbuehi, who was coming off January knee surgery (he was hurt in his last college game) and Fisher, who is playing for the Bengals but in small amounts. This is Fisher's grooming year. The second half of the season will be the beginning of Ogbuehi's grooming period, should he make it all the way back to the field. He's currently on an injured list and likely out the first two months.

5. Marvin Lewis is one of the most respected and obviously longest tenured head coaches in all of the NFL but the fans in Cincinnati are understandably hungry for post-season success. Is this Lewis' best team?

It might be, and they've been building toward this with a homegrown group that just so happens to be a healthy one through the first month. Of the 58 players on the roster, including reserve lists, 47 were either drafted or originally signed as undrafted free agents by the Bengals. Of the 47 homegrown Bengals, a total of 42 -- 20 on offense, 22 on defense -- were draft picks, tying the Packers for the most originally drafted players on an NFL roster. With specific regard to early picks, the Bengals have been pretty successful with seven of the 11 offensive starters selected by the team in the first two rounds, notably Green, a four-time Pro Bowler and the fourth overall pick in 2011.

What's more, the Bengals have found later-round gems in the draft. Eight starters were selected in the fourth round or later, including Atkins, a two-time All-Pro honoree and a fourth-round pick in 2010. The Bengals also have done reasonably well with undrafted players, particularly linebackers. Tackle leader Vincent Rey out of brain-training Duke went undrafted, signing with Bengals in 2010 as a college free-agent linebacker.

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