If someone were to tell you in the offseason that Andy Dalton and the Bengals' offense would be widely regarded as one of the best units in the NFL by the end of Week 3 of this season, would you have believed it? Heading into October, it's true. As of Week 3, Andy Dalton ranks sixth in total passing yards (866), fourth in touchdown passes (8), second to last in interceptions (1), and third in quarterback rating (121.0). It also helps that his offensive line has only allowed him to be sacked twice, which is tied for third least in the NFL.
Through three weeks, this stellar play has translated into an excellent showing from the offense in general, scoring a total of 85 points so far. According to PFF, the efficiency of the Bengals' offense ranks as the fourth best in the league behind only the New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons, and Pittsburgh Steelers. In terms of the passing game alone (+13.3), only those three teams and the Arizona Cardinals are ranked better. In terms of the running game alone (+5.7), no team ranks better than the Bengals.
Evolution of the Quartetrback
Dalton is off to the best start of his career, according to PFF. He has been absolutely electrifying these first few weeks. He may have been at his best against the Ravens (+5.8), but his cumulative grade shows a consistent trend toward stellar play against a wide range of opponents (+8.3). According to PFF, that +8.3 cumulative rating is beginning the season with the best start of his entire career, and it's not even close.
As should probably be expected, Dalton's effectiveness in the passing game (+8.1) is where he is making his mark as a quarterback. But, what might be less expected is that he has had a positive effect in the running game as well (+0.4). What this really shows is an overall improvement in his decision making - running for it when a play breaks down but still favoring the pass unless tucking it and running will actually yield a positive impact.
Although the Bengals have been noted as seeing stellar play from the offensive line this season, that is not a consistent trend that falls along with Dalton's consistent passing mastery. While Andrew Whitworth (+4.5), Clint Boling (+2.2), and Eric Winston (+0.1) have all contributed positively with their pass blocking, Andre Smith (-5.5), Russell Bodine (-2.8), Tyler Eifert (-1.2), Kevin Zeitler (-0.4), and Jake Fisher (-0.1) have all received poor grades for their efforts in blocking the pass.
Tyler Eifert's grade in the passing game (+2.3) far exceeds his lackluster play in just about every other area of the offense. And, Marvin Jones (+1.7) and A.J. Green (+2.7) have accounted for over half of the yards (496) and over half of the touchdowns (5) thrown by Dalton this season. You can tell that not having Jones and Eifert last season, as well as Green for significant parts of the season, really hurt his effectiveness.
What's up with the Running Game?
As you have probably seen, Jeremy Hill has not had a great start to the season. The same running back that ran for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in only eight starts in 2014 has gotten off to a relative crawl in 2015, producing only 123 yards and two touchdowns in three starts. As a result, Hill has received a negative cumulative grade through Week 3 (-0.9), with his only positive grade coming from his pass blocking (+0.2). That said, it really hasn't helped that only Andrew Whitworth (+2.6) and Clint Boling (+3.6) have posted positive performances when blocking for the run.
The only problem with blaming the offensive line for Jeremy Hill's struggles is the fact that Giovani Bernard has gotten off to a fantastic start for the Bengals' offense this season. Despite officially starting for exactly zero games so far, Bernard has already accumulated 235 yards on 41 carries (5.7 yards per carry). As a result, Bernard has received a very positive grade in the running game from Pro Football Focus (+4.3). Perhaps lost in his electrifying running style, are his contributions to the passing game. PFF still ranks him fairly positively in the passing game (+1.1) as a result of his 12 receptions for 75 yards. Bernard has only failed to catch one of the 13 passes thrown his way by Dalton.
However, the Bengals still have the best rushing attack in the league so far, according to Pro Football Focus. That might be a strange concept considering the Bengals' running game is only ranked eighth in yards per game (129.3), 10th in touchdowns (3), eighth in total yards (388), and near the bottom in fumbles lost so far (2, 3 if you count Dalton's fumble). But, that number likely comes from the effectiveness of Giovani Bernard (+4.3) in spite of the lack of effectiveness from Jeremy Hill (-0.9) and the lack of effectiveness from the run blocking (-5.6).
Avoiding Past Mistakes
For years, the Bengals have been vulnerable to hot starts only to collapse late in the season and fizzle out in the playoffs (see: 2005, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014) or even outside of the playoff years (see: 2006). This problem has been widely noticed by critics and fans alike, but the guys at PFF genuinely think that this team and, particularly, the offense should be different this year.
In the case of Andy Dalton, they've described his career as " a study in consistent inconsistency", but also note that "the Dalton-coaster is only going in one direction, for once." Why? He's been accurate on 70.7 percent of his passes (adjusting for drops), has a passer rating of 140.0 when blitzed, and has an extremely encouraging touchdown to interception ratio of 8:1. As a result, he's ranked as PFF's sixth best quarterback in the NFL through Week 3.
But, it's not just Dalton. The Bengals' "pretty good line" is helping to protect Dalton enough that he can figure out where his abundance of skill players are (Green, Jones, Bernard, Eifert, etc). That's a combination that Dalton has rarely had working for him at the same time, leading to a lot of confidence that this team could be just as effective and intimidating to opponents in November, January, and dare we say... February?