This article was posted on ESPN Insider by Mike Sando. He interviewed a defensive assistant to help review tape of Dalton's deep ball. Some really interesting notes down below. The biggest take away is that when Dalton has a quick drop, sets and follows through, he can throw a fine deep ball. Additionally, he seems more comfortable throwing it up now which leads to throws without hitches, a major problem that affected his accuracy.
Finally, underthrowing deep balls is vastly superior to overthrowing. If you underthrow, you give a guy like Green a chance to make a play. If you overthrow, it's a guaranteed failure.
Enjoy the article. I did.
The Cincinnati Bengals were floundering on offense less than one month ago. Coaches and players said the team was searching for an identity. Andy Dalton's stat line following a 17-6 defeat at Cleveland awakened lingering questions about whether the third-year quarterback was holding back an offense filled with talent. A general manager from another team encouraged patience, suggesting the Bengals were simply a young team finding its way.
The temptation now is to say Dalton and the Bengals have found their way, after four consecutive victories and three stellar performances from Dalton in particular. Dalton's career-high five touchdown passes during a 49-9 victory over the New York Jets in Week 8 gave him 11 scoring passes over the past three weeks. The victory also pushed the Bengals to 6-2 and gave them a 2.5-game lead in the AFC North. But any Bengals fan knows Dalton has gotten hot before without sustaining consistently strong play. That included separate three-game stretches last season when Dalton had an 18-5 ratio of TDs to INTs for the six games in question.
We've seen a good Dalton. But mediocrity has filled the gaps between those flashes of brilliance. Consider the nine regular-season starts heading into Dalton's current three-game tear. He had eight TDs, eight INTs and a 39.5 QBR score (50 is average) over those games. The Bengals posted a 6-3 record anyway, but if they're going to take the next step and factor in the playoffs, they'll need their quarterback to play more like he's been playing lately. They'll need to make fuller use of A.J. Green and their other weapons.
None of the question marks surrounding Dalton has been tougher to shake than his perceived difficulties to deliver the deep ball. A defensive assistant coach consulted for this piece agreed to analyze Dalton in that area to see what strides, if any, the quarterback has made. Through this prism we get a better feel for what Dalton must do to more consistently maximize his abilities. The book on Dalton coming out of TCU hailed his competitive drive, leadership, intelligence, accuracy and just about everything else not related to arm strength. Two-plus years later, perceptions haven't changed a great deal. Dalton is never going to have John Elway's arm, but in comparing his eight most recent deep passes to four he threw during the Bengals' playoff defeat at Houston last season, it's clear moderate arm strength doesn't have to hold back Dalton or the Bengals' offense.
"The draft reports said Dalton has a high football IQ, and to some degree we've been waiting for the production to catch up," the defensive assistant coach said. "He is showing real growth lately. It's looking like he's put in the work with [QB coach] Ken Zampese to improve in both game management and deep-ball mechanics."
Two weeks ago, NFL quarterback Jordan Palmer took a hard look at the passes Tom Brady was throwing more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. The assistant coach we consulted for Dalton wanted to see passes traveling at least 30 yards downfield. Pushing the cutoff to 30 narrowed the focus to true deep shots. Dalton completed 7 of 30 attempts on these 30-plus passes last season. He completed only 1 of 9 through Week 6 this season. The past two weeks have produced a striking reversal. Dalton has completed 4 of 7 attempts on 30-plus yard passes in victories over Detroit and the Jets. He has averaged 30.4 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and no interceptions on these throws.
Quarterbacks with especially strong arms can sometimes muscle the ball downfield in the absence of proper mechanics. Dalton is not among them. When he sets his feet, throws without unnecessary hitches and follows through enough for his back leg to swing forward as if delivering a baseball pitch, the deep ball isn't a problem for him. It can actually be a strength, as our review of the All-22 coaches' video demonstrated.
"In these past two games, Dalton is dropping more quickly, setting more quickly and delivering the ball more quickly with an arc that lets receivers adjust," the coach said. "The culmination was four deep balls against the Jets where receivers got two hands on them."
Dalton completed only two of the four attempts, but from a game-planning standpoint, an opposing defensive staff would consider all four plays successful because the receivers got both hands on the ball.
The picture was different during the Bengals' 19-13 playoff defeat at Houston last season. The four 30-yard-or-more deep balls Dalton delivered in that game went like this:
- Second quarter, 11:10, third-and-12 from the Cincinnati 38: The Bengals sent Mohamed Sanu up the yard-line numbers on the right side. Dalton waited too long before throwing, the coach thought. And when Dalton did let the ball go, his feet were farther apart than usual. The pass was short and should have been intercepted.
- Third quarter, 9:20, first-and-10 from the Cincinnati 32: Green caught this one 41 yards past the line of scrimmage, gaining 45 yards overall. Dalton delivered the ball without undue hesitation, a key for him and something he's done especially well lately.
- Fourth quarter, 10:36, first-and-10 from the Houston 37: Dalton had Green in the end zone on this one, but he threw off his back foot. The ball was short and the Texans defended it.
- Fourth quarter, 2:57, third-and-11 from the Houston 36: Green laid out in the end zone for this one, then knelt and put his head to the ground in frustration after the pass sailed too long. Dalton took additional hitches before throwing. "That means he has to gun the thing when he does let it go," the coach said. "Throw it on time and it could be a touchdown."
Quarterbacks have their reasons for holding onto the ball an extra tick or two. Sometimes they're unsure of the coverage or how their receiver will adjust to it. The study covering Brady's deep-ball troubles showed him doing this as he threw to unfamiliar targets.
The Bengals have surrounded Dalton with skill-position players of similar age in an effort to help them grow together. Marvin Jones caught eight passes for 122 yards and four touchdowns against the Jets. Green had three catches for 115 yards in that game. Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham and Sanu also factored with receptions of at least 15 yards. None of those four is older than 25. Dalton turned 26 on Tuesday.
A review of the Bengals' 27-24 victory at Detroit in Week 7 showed Dalton underthrowing the pass Green turned into an 82-yard touchdown. What looked like an issue of arm strength might have been something else entirely. Green was so open that Dalton could only mess it up by throwing too long. "I'm not saying Dalton is thinking that," the coach said, "but the receiver is so open, Dalton makes the risk-averse throw."
Later in the game, with 10:49 to go in the third quarter, Dalton delivered one of the more impressive passes a quarterback will make. Eifert, the Bengals' rookie tight end, faced tight coverage from 6-foot-1 Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis on an out-and-up route to the end zone from 32 yards out. Dalton was standing at the 42-yard line when he made a back-shoulder throw for a touchdown. "This is really a nice example of footwork and arc and giving the receiver a chance to identify the ball and adjust," the coach said. "The better part is, he identifies the cornerback does not have stressful coverage. This is a case of 'I have to position a throw to make this thing a completion, because the cornerback has ample speed to cover my tight end.' He throws it back shoulder and it's only where a 6-5 guy [Eifert] can get it. Very impressive."
The Lions had allowed 7 of 13 completions against 30-yard or deeper passes heading into that game. Only the Chicago Bears had allowed a higher percentage (71.4) to that point. The Jets had allowed only 28.6 percent, right near the 30.5 league average, heading into their game against the Bengals. The Bengals' Thursday night opponent, Miami, has allowed 2 of 9 (22.2 percent). Dalton's four deepest attempts against the Jets fell into four categories:
- Taking a shot: Sanu was open near the left sideline 43 yards past the line of scrimmage with 12:32 left in the first quarter. ESPN charted this one as an overthrow, but the assistant coach loved what he saw from Dalton. He blamed Sanu for failing to make the catch despite getting both hands on the ball. "This shows real growth," the coach said. "He changes the play, switches the back and takes a shot. The only thing he could do better is put it over the inside a little more. Maybe drop a little quicker, set a little quicker, throw quicker and then there's more time to run underneath it. But either way, I'd mark down the receiver here."
- Trusting the WR: Green gained 53 yards on the pass Dalton threw with 48 seconds left in the first quarter. Green was even with the cornerback when Dalton let it go. Green made the grab between the hashes and 44 yards downfield. "It's a slight underthrow, but it's also in a place where only the Bengals WR can get it," the coach said. "He just has to trust him. And because he throws it with high arc, the receiver has a chance to adjust. Dalton drops more quickly, sets more quickly and is throwing more quickly -- letting the receiver find it and adjust."
- Easy pre-snap read: The Jets showed a single-high safety look with 11:46 left in the third quarter. That told Dalton to expect an opportunity to throw against man-to-man coverage. Unfortunately for the Bengals, Green dropped the ball when Dalton found him 31 yards past the line of scrimmage along the left sideline. "This is an excellent throw," the coach said. "If the ball is three yards from the boundary, the safety is not going to get there and this goes all the way. Dalton gave the guy running room. Last year, in the Houston game, he was double-hitching on these."
- The underthrow: Dalton connected with Green on another 53-yarder, this one with 2:49 left in the third quarter. The ball was underthrown, but Dalton was also under some pressure. Muhammad Wilkerson hit him right after the throw. "The ball is gone," the coach said, "but if you cannot follow through, then something is off. I'm blaming the underthrow on the lack of a follow-through."
The deep ball isn't everything.
Dalton has a career-high 60.3 QBR score on third down this season, up from 11.0 last season and 49.0 as a rookie. The figure is 76.9, sixth-best in the NFL, during the Bengals' four-game winning streak. Jones, a fifth-round pick in 2012, has a team-high six third-down receptions over that span. All six produced first downs.
Dalton has been at his best against the better teams. He has a league-high 89.2 QBR score with eight TDs, two INTs and a 3-0 record against teams that had winning records at kickoff (Patriots, Lions, Jets). He had a 4-6 record and ranked 26th in QBR (46.3) against winning teams over the previous two seasons combined. That doesn't guarantee anything come playoff time, but the Bengals can feel a lot better about their prospects now than a month ago. Dalton is one of the big reasons for that.