Criticism isn't the right word. Perhaps relative concern, regressed into a form of caution when weighing the specifics. During Andy Dalton's first ten quarters this season, the Cincinnati Bengals offense converted only 20% of their third down opportunities. That's awful. Terrible. What kind of start to the season is that? Then you realize it's Andy Dalton's first ten quarters of his career. And it didn't even start bad, with the low conversion attributed during Cincinnati's losses to Denver and San Francisco. Of Dalton's third down opportunities in the first half against the Cleveland Browns, the Bengals converted four, including a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham on third-and-goal from the Browns two-yard line. Then the Bengals went on a three-game winning streak.
Since then the Bengals have improved their third down conversions on offense, averaging 40.5% over the course of the previous three games, all wins.
More importantly than the actual conversion rates, is when the Bengals are converting their third downs. During Cincinnati's come-from-behind win over the Buffalo Bills, the offense lined up in shotgun from their own 43-yard line with :52 seconds remaining with the game tied at 20. Feeling pressure after the snap, Andy Dalton scrambles out of pocket and dives for the first down marker as he's falling out of bounds. After the third down conversion Brian Leonard recorded 29 yards on consecutive plays that allowed Mike Nugent to convert a game-winning 43-yard field goal as time expired. During the same game on third-and-eight from the Bills' 33-yard line with 6:16 remaining in the game, Dalton completed a 17-yard pass to Jermaine Gresham that extended Cincinnati's possession which ended with Andy Dalton's three-yard game-tying touchdown run.
And the truth is, it's not just Andy Dalton. It's the entire offensive personnel, led by rookie offensive coordinator Jay Gruden who brilliantly called the Bengals game-winning touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars. With two minutes remaining and down 20-16, Andy Dalton takes the third-and-goal from the Jaguars two-yard line. Rather than dropping back and being forced to snap the football into an eight-man coverage with only 12 yards to work with, Jay Gruden called Bernard Scott's number with a draw up the middle. It worked. Bengals took the lead and won the game.
While third downs are critical to sustaining drives, the Bengals are making a living on converting timely third downs that are taking leads and winning games. Not something a rookie quarterback and rookie offensive coordinator should be doing after only six games this year.