What’s different about Andy Dalton?
The Bengals quarterback gets that question every week. So do his teammates and coaches. So do those of us that cover the team (when we’re not the ones asking about it).
There isn’t one correct answer. Instead, there are a series of factors – some beyond his control — that help explain Dalton’s sensational start.
Now in his fifth NFL season and second with Hue Jackson as offensive coordinator, Dalton clearly has a total understanding of the Bengals offense. Additionally, between practices and games he’s thrown thousands of passes to the same group of receivers to develop exquisite timing.
“He’s doing a good job of distributing the ball,” said Marvin Lewis. “It’s always helpful when guys get to the right spots.”
“He’s seeing the field, he’s making all of the right checks, and it seems like every time he checks to something it turns out to be very productive,” said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. “I think that shows his comfort level and understanding of every intricacy of that offense. He has got it down cold and is playing at a super high level.”
Consider last week’s come-from-behind win at Baltimore. When Dalton’s fourth quarter fumble was returned for a touchdown by C.J. Mosley, the Bengals found themselves trailing for the first time all season.
Dalton remained confident and his coaches and teammates took notice.
“When that happened I wanted to see how he was going to respond,” said Jackson. “He came over and said, ‘Coach. That’s on me. I get it and we’re going to go win this game. We don’t need to rush. Let’s just stick to our plan. But if you want to chuck one down there, we can do that too.’ He said it with a big smile on his face, and to me, the calmness that he had gave the rest of the offensive unit calmness. I saw him really emerge right then and there. That’s what leadership is all about.”
Pick Your Poison
The Bengals have had a different player lead the team in combined rushing/receiving yards in each of the first four games: Tyler Eifert (Oakland – 104), Giovani Bernard (San Diego – 139), A.J. Green (Baltimore – 227), and Mohamed Sanu (Kansas City – 84).
Add Jeremy Hill, Marvin Jones, Rex Burkhead, and Brandon Tate (whose 55-yard TD catch vs. the Chiefs came on his first offensive snap all season), and Dalton has the ability to attack the weakness of the opponent’s defense instead of forcing the ball to a particular target.
“Every week it’s going to be different guys making plays,” said Dalton. “That’s the good thing about this team – we have a lot of different guys that can make them.”
“We have so many playmakers that you never know when your time is going to come,” said Sanu.
So far this season, the Bengals have run the ball 124 times and thrown it 116 times. Bernard and Hill have combined to rush for 460 yards which projects to 1,840 yards in a 16-game season. That forces the defense to defend the run and gives Dalton more openings to exploit in the secondary.
“I don’t think you can just drop back and keep throwing it play after play after play,” said Jackson. “You have to have a semblance of a running game to be good in the National Football League and you’ve got to have balance. We’re built that way. We have a bunch of players that can do a lot of different things and that’s how you can cause the most headaches for defenses.”
In Sunday’s win, the Bengals ran for four touchdowns in the red zone against a team that had not given up a rushing touchdown all season.
“A lot of those plays were pass plays and Andy did a good job of getting us into the right play,” said Hill.
The Kansas City Chiefs have two of the NFL’s most potent pass rushers in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Their Pro Bowl nose tackle Dontari Poe added six sacks last season. On Sunday, that trio did not have a single quarterback hit, much less a sack.
“Hue puts dots on guys every week,” said Andre Smith. “He put the dots on those three guys and we had to take care of them. They make the big plays for that defense and we knew that if we could control those guys we would have a great chance of winning.”
After four games the Bengals have only allowed two sacks – tied for the fewest in the NFL with the New York Jets.
“The offensive line is playing extremely well,” said Hill. “They’re protecting Andy and getting push in the running game. They’re just doing their thing. Paul Alexander is doing a great job of coaching them up.”
“We take pride in keeping Andy clean,” said Smith. “If he’s upright, he can make our offense go as fast as we want to go. If he’s on the ground we’re going to have issues, so we decided to keep him clean.”
On Tate’s 55-yard TD catch, Dalton was flushed out of the pocket, scrambled to his right, and floated a long ball after the wide receiver saw what was happening and went deep.
“He did a great job,” said Dalton. “He saw me get out of the pocket and went off of his route and made a huge play.”
“Tate did a great job of doing what he’s coached to do,” said Lewis.
Jackson has had the Bengals regularly practicing scramble drills and has tweaked the receivers’ responsibilities when Dalton vacates the pocket. In Oakland, it resulted in a 24-yard pass to Rex Burkhead. In Baltimore, the game-winning touchdown drive began when Dalton escaped pressure and found Bernard for a 23-yard gain.
Dalton is not Boomer Esiason. Being the vocal leader of 53 guys isn’t wired into his DNA. But at the age of 27 with four playoff trips behind him, Andy is clearly more comfortable is that role.
“It’s been a process for him obviously, but I think he’s Andy Dalton,” said Jackson. “He understands that there’s more to it than just playing quarterback. You are the leader and you’re the face of the franchise. You need to get the defense going, and you need to get the special teams going as well as the offense. I think he’s taken that on his shoulder and I think to a man in the locker room, I think everybody is pulling on the same rope with him.”
“It’s just Andy being Andy,” said Sanu. “He’s very smart, very accurate, and he’s taking advantage of what’s around him. We look up to him and know that he’s our leader so we’re going to go as he leads us.”
OK. I have written 1,133 words about Andy Dalton and I know what many of you are thinking: “Yeah, yeah. We’ve seen this before in the regular season. Let’s see him do it in a playoff game.”
“I don’t agree with that,” said Jackson. “I don’t think he has done it like this before.
“And we’re looking forward to squashing some of the things that are said about him. He’s playing good and he has to continue to play good in order for us to win.”
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