It's not just that Andy Dalton and the Bengals are 6-2 halfway through the season; it's how the QB has been playing and who he's been throwing to. Plus, mailbag questions on the kicking crisis and a sharply-worded take on childish wideouts
Add this to the list of things I never thought I’d see in 2013: Andy Dalton throwing five touchdown passes against Rex Ryan’s defense, with none of those to all-world wide receiver A.J. Green.
It’s one thing for the immensely talented Bengals to beat a rising team like the Jets. It’s another thing to beat them by 40. But the best sign for a team that has been drummed out of the wild-card round two years in a row is the play of Dalton, and the multiplicity of weapons he’s using. There’s been some trepidation by the coaches that Dalton is far too focused on getting the ball to Green. That’s why Cincinnati, on a three-game winning streak while building a comfortable 2.5-game lead in the AFC North, is ecstatic about where Dalton is going with the football.
Green has had his targets—26 of them—in wins over Buffalo, Detroit and the Jets. But let’s look around him. The second and third receivers, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, have been targeted 30 times over that same stretch. The bookend tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, have 23 targets between them. Add one weapon Dalton is still developing chemistry with, Gio Bernard (15 targets in the last three games), and you can see why Dalton was a very happy man when we spoke Monday night.
“What was great for our team on Sunday was that we finally played a complete team game,” Dalton said after a late-afternoon practice as the Bengals crammed to prepare for a Thursday night game against Miami. “It was so big for our offense. I don’t feel like we are forcing anything.
“It seemed like last year every three or four weeks I was trying to get used to someone new opposite A.J. But this year, I’ve got all these weapons and we’ve had all offseason to get on the same page. It’s working.”
In Cincy’s last three wins, Dalton is a 66-percent passer with 1,034 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. It’s telling that only two of the 11 touchdowns have been scored by Green. Jones has six, including four in the ridiculously small sample size of 18 plays against the Jets. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is shuttling every eligible pass-catcher on the roster—12 of them on Sunday—in and out of the lineup freely; all of the backs, tight ends and wide receivers played at least nine snaps. What is particularly encouraging for the Bengals is that Dalton has gotten out of the habit of simply checking down if Green isn’t open. In fact, over the past two games, Pro Football Focus calculates that Dalton has the longest depth of target among all quarterbacks in the league. That means Dalton is throwing the ball an average of 11.7 yards past the line of scrimmage on every throw. (He was averaging just 8.1 in the first six weeks.)
Dalton explained that one of the reasons why the stats might show this is because early this year and in the past, if Green wasn’t open because of double coverage downfield, he wasn’t as confident in the other receivers who he was still building relationships with. And so now that he feels more comfortable, Dalton is inclined to take more chances with guys like Jones (six TDs in three weeks) and the Sproles-like Bernard.
“Andy has to continue to let the play to work based on what he sees from the defense,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “As long as he does that and doesn’t worry about how many catches 18 has at the end of the day, we’ll be fine. A.J. is going to get his.”
And Green has, with three consecutive 100-yard games while the others flourish around him. “A.J. is not a me-first guy,” Dalton said. “What we’re seeing is the team success is helping the success of each player.”
So now the 6-2 Bengals, who are not used to midseason prosperity, go to Miami on Halloween night and try not to think too far ahead. The Bengals have failed miserably in their playoff losses to Houston over the past two years, and Dalton’s play mirrors his mates. In Cincy’s 23 postseason possessions piloted by Dalton, he has led one touchdown drive with zero TD passes. So no matter how good things are in October, Bengals fans (and coaches and players) want results in January.
“Our goal is to play our best football at the end of the season,” Dalton said. “It’s early but we are on course to do that.”
The knock on Dalton, justifiably, has been his inability to throw consistently downfield. That’s changing. Most offensive coaches value the yards-per-pass attempt statistic higher than almost any passing number. Dalton’s YPA this year (8.06) is more than a yard better than it was in 2012 (6.95). Some perspective on that: it’s better than Matthew Stafford (7.74), Tony Romo (7.51) and Andrew Luck (7.03). Those are all big-gun guys, not peers of Dalton’s in arm strength.
Give credit to Dalton for pushing the envelope on offense, to Gruden for calling aggressive game plans and to new receivers like Jones for making Cincy’s receiving corps more multiple. For Cincy, the second half of the season, which begins Thursday night, can’t come soon enough.
Regarding Dez Bryant’s childish tantrums on the sidelines of the Detroit-Dallas game Sunday: the best thing said by a smart person in the aftermath of Bryant acting like an idiot and passing it off as passion came from ESPN’s Ron Jaworski, who said passion is great but it has to be focused in the right direction. It doesn’t matter that Bryant was peeved about being targeted only six times against the Lions. There are ebbs and flows to every season and every great player won’t get the ball as much as he’d like. Bryant did get 16 balls thrown his way last week in Philly. Did he forget that? Bryant needs to be careful or he’ll find himself with the same of kind of baby reputation that ended up marring Terrell Owens’ career unnecessarily.
Speaking of childish scenes, I’d be in favor of a fine for Golden Tate and his third-grade taunting incident Monday night. That one shocked me. I’ve never seen Tate like that. I might sound like a get-off-my-lawn guy railing against that but come on—it’s pathetic and undignified.
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