Andy Dalton recently ranked among a list of five quarterbacks who thrived against the blitz, and five who did not in 2015. To the surprise of many outsiders, the Bengals signal caller was on the greener side, after a career-year that, even derailed by an injury that kept him away from playing the playoffs, was still very good.
Along with Dalton, the four other quarterbacks mentioned as thriving against the blitz were Carson Palmer, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, and Brock Osweiler. ESPN had this to say about the Bengals' two-time Pro Bowler:
He consistently beats defenses with a quick trigger. Against the blitz, Dalton got rid of the ball on average in 2.02 seconds, the fastest time in the NFL last season. His 112.4 passer rating against pressure looks last year was second in the NFL, and over the past three seasons Dalton has averaged 7.31 yards per dropback against the blitz (second).
Not too shabby, to say the least. This of course doesn't mean that Dalton has turned into Aaron Rodgers all of the sudden, but two summers ago he was getting demolished and was arguably one of the more mediocre quarterbacks against pressure, even leading SI's Doug Farrar to wonder if he would ever learn to succeed in that crucial department.
But things changed big time after a not-so-great 2014 campaign and there were three key factors to Dalton's recent success against the blitz that I think everybody will agree with (and all three are intertwined):
1) The return of both Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert
Oh dear! Those two were surely and sorely missed in 2014 when Cincy had to go back to a power running scheme to stay alive in the playoff race. Not only did these two provide Dalton with big time targets, but also allowed both A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu more freedom. For Green that meant less attention from the defense and for Sanu the opportunity to stick to what he is best at, being an impactful Swiss Army knife in the slot.
The now Falcons' player was forced into a role as primary receiver that he wasn't suited for in 2014 and despite doing the best he could the Bengals offense relented. Jones, with his great speed and ball skills also helped Dalton's deep ball game to a huge extent, not only catching passes but drawing crucial penalties like the two he got in the Week 4 game against the Seahawks.
This really boosted Dalton against pressure because he had two more players able to win those one-on-one matchups quickly and also because the Bengals could now deploy Sanu inside where his route-running craftiness could be used on third downs and tight situations.
Eifert was a nightmare for opposing teams because he is a mismatch anywhere you put him and we know the shortest way to the endzone is through the middle, where the big tight end paved his way onto a breakout year, providing Dalton with a huge (and really tall) weapon. That was especially true in the two games I believe helped turn the Bengals into contenders, in Baltimore against the Ravens in Week 3 - Eifert's drop in the red zone might have set Dalton's first pick of the season - and at home against the Seahawks in Week 5.
We know Dalton might lack the arm strength that other guys in the NFL have, but the success of the deep ball not only consists of that, but also of anticipation and willingness to let it rip. More on that later. Now, with these two great players back there was always a bigger chance of somebody getting open, something we didn't see in 2014 (and that was even more evident in the two games against the Colts in 2014).
2) Dalton's work with Tom House
It is impossible to know to what extent the quarterback guru helped Dalton improve in 2015 but it is clear he worked some of his magic during the offseason and also the team's bye week. Maybe Dalton's improvement wouldn't have showed in the way it did without the return of two of his best weapons from injury, and that is why all these key factors are grouped together, but Dalton was a better player last season and gone are the day when he was deemed an obstacle to the Bengals' success.
Where Dalton looked most improved was again the deep ball, not only as the outcome of the play but also as a threat. Just like the Golden State Warriors use their stars as a threat on the weak side, the Bengals took advantage of coverages that accounted for the long pass or otherwise would surrender a big play.
3) Quick release, rhythm and mental strength, or Hue Jackson
Everybody knows the Bengals want Dalton to get rid of the ball quickly, but that wouldn't matter if he wasn't productive doing it. The good thing is, he was productive using a quick passing game in 2015, and that not only gave Cincy quick yards when needed, but also helped Dalton to gain some rhythm and build up his confidence - in time to then go for the fences with a deep pass.
It is hard to give Dalton actual credit for these passes, but my point is, help your quarterback with some easy plays and he will be in a better place to make tough plays later. Hue Jackson, coming into the season wanted to push Andy.
"Anybody can go back and complete a bunch of passes when the protection is there and guys are open and the play isn't breaking down but when things start to fall apart -- those are the moments I'm looking for," Hue Jackson said of Dalton before the 2015 season. "Sure, we want to install an offense. But we're also building a quarterback, and those moments are more important toward that end. I want there to be chaos. I want to see how he reacts in those situations."
And Dalton responded well.
With confidence comes a higher likelihood of success, and Dalton was able to both handle better pressure situations pre-snap and trust that his receivers were going to get open, which led to a better deep game that allowed more opportunities inside and more quick passes. As you can see there wasn't only one change that led to Dalton's success in 2015 but a few pieces to the buzzle that might not have worked as effectively without the others.