Andy Dalton used to be one of the least controversial quarterbacks in the league. Throughout the first four years of his career, he maintained a serviceable level of play. Any quarterback worse than him should have been playing second fiddle, while any quarterback better than him would give a team a real shot at success. Dalton was in a grey area. Then everything changed for Dalton in 2015.
2015 Dalton Was A Good Vintage
It was Hue Jackson’s second year as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator, and the cupboards were full for Jackson. Star wide receiver A.J. Green and red zone phenom Tyler Eifert both remained largely healthy, and they were aided by wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard made for one of the best backfield tandems in the NFL. Along the offensive line, 2015 All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth led a group that had a slightly above-average adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders. Even Cincinnati’s defense was a top-ten unit. Dalton had everything he needed to succeed. And he did.
In 2015, Dalton was on pace to record his highest touchdown rate and lowest interception rate of his career, in addition to career highs in yards per attempt and completion percentage. Dalton had finally stepped out of his grey area and appeared to have hit his stride. However, in the thirteenth game of the season, Dalton broke his thumb and the playoff-bound Bengals lost their spark. Backup quarterback AJ McCarron took over, the Bengals limped into the playoffs, and were executed in the Wild Card by their division rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. A season that felt too good to be true, was just that.
The wheels fell off quickly following the 2015 season. Hue Jackson left to be the Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns, long-time starting right tackle Andre Smith took his talents to Minnesota, and wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones headed off to Atlanta and Detroit, respectively, via free agency. To make matters worse, tight end Tyler Eifert injured his ankle during the Pro Bowl and was not healthy to open the season. Before it even began, the 2016 season looked to be a hard regression year for the Bengals.
Regression was not kind to Dalton and the Bengals. The absence of Sanu and Jones led to a reliance on rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who doesn’t have the juice to be a true WR2. Eifert’s initial vacancy forced playing time to Tyler Kroft and CJ Uzomah, both of whom are fine in their respective roles, but not in Eifert’s. The Bengals defense slid from tenth in DVOA in 2015 to 18th in 2016. The offensive line faltered, too, as they gave up nine more sacks than in 2015.
With a depleted wide receiver corps and a diminishing offensive line, the Bengals offense couldn’t function the way it had a year ago. Under Jackson in 2015, the Bengals were able to protect Dalton and create a myriad of 1-on-1 downfield matchups. That wasn’t a replicable strategy in 2016. The sheer talent of Green and Eifert shone through at times, but the Bengals offense couldn’t consistently create wide open passes the way they had a year ago, nor could they protect Dalton in the pocket the same way. The offense maintained some level of efficiency, but it wasn’t enough.
The Bengals are going to face structural issues next season. While 2016 forced them to be slightly more bland than before, 2017 is going to be worse in that regard. The Bengals won’t have the offensive line to create infrastructure on the ground or protect well on deep dropbacks. The result is going to be a predictable passing game that can’t lean on a running game that is much more than average.
Plays like this are going to limit how creative the Bengals passing offense can be. The play-action on this play is designed to mimic their G-lead power play. With the right guard leaving his traditional pass blocking spot, center Russell Bodine is then left to cover extra ground. He isn’t capable of holding his own territory, much less a chunk of someone else’s. Bodine shows hesitation in attacking the Cowboys defensive tackle and he gets steamrolled, giving the Cowboys defender a quick and clear shot at Dalton. While plays like this aren’t core plays, they can be essential for catching defenses off guard and generating explosive plays.
Feeling the Sting of Losing Whitworth and Zeitler
As if last year’s offensive line wasn’t problematic enough, the Bengals lost two starting offensive linemen this offseason. Whitworth, the left tackle, and Kevin Zeitler, the right guard, are now playing elsewhere. Whitworth is now a Los Angeles Ram, while Zeitler remained in the division to join the Cleveland Browns. The Bengals did nothing to replace either player. Cedric Ogbuehi, who started and struggled at right tackle last season, will move to left tackle. Ogbuehi’s right tackle slot will be filled by Jake Fisher, a third-year player who hasn’t proven much of anything thus far. Zeitler is being replaced by a returning, aging Andre Smith.
In addition to Whitworth and Zeitler’s importance as pass blockers, their presence in the ground game will also be missed. The Bengals bevy of running back talent will struggle to find running room in 2017. The play above was a staple in the Bengals’ playbook last season. Whitworth executes it to perfection here. As he pulls around to the other side of the line, Whitworth stabs linebacker Sean Lee, as he is working free from his blocker. Whitworth continues up the field and bullies linebacker Anthony Hitchens out of the way, granting the running back an isolation opportunity versus a safety. This brand of flow and artistry will be no more in 2017. The Bengals will be more of a mosh pit up front than they have been in years past.
A depleted running game will force more onto the shoulders of Dalton. As the Bengals lose efficiency and value on the ground, they’ll have to lean on Dalton through the air. The result of that is seldom favorable for the Bengals.
One of Dalton’s detriments is his inability to operate with bodies near him. When faced with interior pressure or a pocket that is collapsing on him, Dalton freezes or panics. He doesn’t have the bravado to stand strong in muddied pockets, nor does he have the physical skill set to throw from the disrupted platforms that broken pockets provide. Dalton is only a scrambler.
Dalton can scurry off and make plays on the move. So long as the pocket isn’t collapsing in front of him, Dalton has the know-how and mobility to tuck the ball, get to a safer area, and find an open receiver on the fly. With significantly worse tackle play coming his way next season, Dalton will have to make more plays on the move and off-script.
When the pocket is collapsing in front of or near Dalton, though, it’s a different story. Dalton doesn’t have the subtle pocket adjustments or natural arm talent to work condensed pockets.
What Lies Ahead for Dalton in 2017
This is the side of Dalton that’s going to become commonplace in 2017. Dalton is normally good at reading the field pre-snap, but he is more of a matchup reader than a coverage/play reader. To put another way, Dalton often knows where his best receiver-defender (or area) matchup is going to be. However, he isn’t always adept in understanding how to deal with shifts or how many extra rushers the defense might bring at him.
Dalton’s first mistake on this play is that he doesn’t identify the blitz. Washington brings their slot defender, who was clearly lined up well inside of the slot receiver. Dalton misses the blitz pre-snap and immediately turns to Tyler Efiert to his left as he receives the snap. Immediately turning to Eifert versus a cornerback is not a bad idea. Eifert clearly has a size advantage and he’s an excellent contested catch player. The problem is that once Dalton realizes Eifert won’t be open, he collapses. He begins to peek to his right, but cowers in the face of pressure and eats a sack he could have avoided by either seeing it pre-snap or trusting himself post-snap to throw while pressure was bearing down on him.
Last year, Dalton faced a drive that summarized his aversion to pressure and inability to operate with bodies near him. The drive also illustrated how bad the Bengals offensive line can be and how much worse it could be with less talent next season.
The Bengals were down one point in the fourth quarter of a 20-21 game versus the New York Giants. With just over four minutes to go, the Bengals got the ball on their own 30-yard line and had an opportunity to march downfield. The drive ended in three plays:
Play 1. 1st-and-10. The Bengals call for a play-action Y-cross shot disguised as split zone. As Dalton reaches the top of his drop, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul begins bearing down on him. Dalton does the right thing by evading the pressure initially, but in his movements, he isn’t preparing to throw to the open receiver crossing the field. Dalton tucks the ball for a moment as he moves up and takes an extra step he probably didn’t need to take. Dalton wastes too much time dealing with Pierre-Paul that he loses sight of his primary task: throwing the football. Amidst the pressure, Dalton failed to multi-task and the result was a late pass that could have been intercepted.
Play 2. 2nd-and-10. The Giants defense peppers the A-gaps (a linebacker standing over each A-gap) and shows a gnarly, straight-up six-man rush. Dalton’s two thoughts should be that either New York is truly bringing all those players and one of the receivers to his left will get solo off-coverage, or that New York is bluffing and Dalton won’t have as much immediate pressure as it appears he could. The Giants end up going full-steam ahead, bringing all six rushers on the line of scrimmage. Dalton should know he has off-coverage to his left, hit the top of his drop, and place a pass away from the defender. Alas, Dalton again takes a tick too long processing the field and he ends up eating a seven-yard sack.
Play 3. 3rd-and-17. Dalton shouldn’t be expected to convert here, but being in this predicament is as much his fault as it is anyone else’s. Dalton takes his dropback and is quickly met with pressure. Given the immediate pass rush presence and the necessity to gain 17 yards, it’s tough to pin this one on anything Dalton did on this play. Instead, the blame should be on Dalton for having not done anything to prevent a 3rd-and-17.
In fairness to Dalton, neither of the first two plays were easy plays. He was pressured on both plays. However, better quarterbacks would have at least given those plays chances, whereas Dalton did very little to avoid their demises. That isn’t to say every quarterback better than Dalton would have driven downfield and won the game, but the top couple of tiers of quarterbacks wouldn’t have crumbled to pressure quite the way Dalton did, especially not when there were open receivers on the first two plays.
Dalton Could Be In For A Rough 2017
The Bengals passing offense is going to become stagnant. Their key additions this offseason were wide receivers John Ross and Josh Malone, both of whom are deep threats, and running back Joe Mixon. Without an offensive line or overwhelming ground game to feed off of, attacking vertically and off of play-action could quickly become a hopeless endeavor for the Bengals. Additionally, the inability to go downfield will only make a quick passing attack more predictable, and a predictable Andy Dalton passing offense is not a winning formula.
Andy Dalton is not a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad quarterback. Rather, many of the luxuries that enabled Dalton to have an abnormally productive season in 2015 will not be there in 2017. Dalton will have one of the worst offensive lines in the league and he doesn’t have the traits to overcome that in a meaningful way. Andy Dalton and a sub-par offensive line is a recipe for disappointment.