Pittsburgh linebacker Larry Foote fancies himself as an NFL general-manager-in-waiting, with the evaluation of college quarterbacks his specialty. Last April, as he watched Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder each fly off the board by the 12th pick of the draft, Foote had his eye on the redhead from TCU. Much to Foote's chagrin, Andy Dalton found a home in the AFC North, when Cincinnati selected him with the 35th pick. "I watched him in the Rose Bowl, I watched highlights of him, and I knew he was going to be a good quarterback," Foote said after the Steelers held off Dalton and the Bengals in a 24--17 victory on Sunday in Cincinnati. "I knew he was going to be better than those guys who went before him."
While the Steelers and the Ravens have dominated the division in the last decade, Cincinnati is on the verge of a breakthrough. Looking for a comparison? In 1989 the Cowboys drafted a franchise quarterback (Troy Aikman) and followed that up with a blockbuster deal that cost them their best-known player (Herschel Walker) but would bring back the high draft picks that set up the team for a decade.
As in the case of Aikman, Dalton has immediate weapons at his disposal—including rookie receiver A.J. Green (fourth pick overall) and second-year tight end Jermaine Gresham—and is supported by a defense that ranks fifth in yards allowed. And the haul the Bengals received last month when they shipped semiretired quarterback Carson Palmer to Oakland (a first-round pick in 2012 and a second-round pick that could become a first in '13) has positioned the franchise to be a long-term threat.
"When they lost Carson Palmer, you thought these guys would be done for the year, but Andy Dalton has stepped up," Foote says. "The last guy I've seen do it [as a rookie quarterback] was Ben Roethlisberger."
The Steelers' QB was so intrigued by Dalton that he spent part of the game dissecting the rookie's play with backups Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich. "He'd make a nice throw, and someone would go, 'Ooooh, that was a good one,'" Roethlisberger says. "He's the new guy on the scene. He spins the ball really well, and he seems really cerebral. I think he's playing the best of all the rookie quarterbacks."
What makes Dalton so good? "Standing up in the pocket, making good reads, getting the ball out quick," says Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel. Indeed, on Dalton's second TD (a one-yarder to Gresham), he threw accurately while getting hit.
After the game, Roethlisberger met Dalton on the field, congratulated him on his first nine games and told him he'd see him when the teams play again on Dec. 4. The story of the final two months in the division will be how two proud-but-aging teams in Pittsburgh and Baltimore fare in the face of this new upstart.