Andy Dalton’s 2015 season started in spectacular fashion, putting up 255 completions on 386 attempts for 3,250 yards, 25 touchdowns, and only seven interceptions through the first 12 games and first quarter of his 13th game. However, it was in that 13th game, against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, that Dalton started out looking average with three completions on five attempts for 59 yards before throwing an interception to Stephon Tuitt deep in Steelers territory. He tried to make up for the boneheaded play by attempting to stop Tuitt on the ensuing run, but ended up fracturing his thumb and ending his season in the process.
Given Dalton’s proven prowess to that point in the season, it was a real shame that it ended on such a sour note. The Bengals went on to lose to the Steelers, dropping another one against the Denver Broncos two weeks later. They went from looking like one of the best teams in the NFL to a team that lost two of its last four games of the season. They finished it off by fizzling out in the first round of the playoffs for the fifth year in a row.
However, 2016 is a new season and Dalton is looking to be on track to redeeming the ugly ending to last season. One of the biggest criticisms of the Bengals’ passing game going into 2016 was the sheer number of missing weapons. Without guys like Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, as well as being with Tyler Eifert for the first few weeks, many expected Dalton’s numbers to take a step back. But, his ability last week to utilize A.J. Green as well as connect with new weapons in Brandon LaFell, C.J. Uzomah, and Tyler Boyd showed that he is an adaptable leader and a pure passing talent who can work with whomever you put around him.
In Week 1 against the Jets, he put together 23 completions on 30 attempts for 366 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. That was good for a quarterback rating of 114.0 despite being sacked seven times and pressured virtually the entire game. His efforts were enough to help lead the Bengals to victory over the Jets and re-establish himself as a top-10 quarterback in the league.
Granted, that one interception started things off on a bad note, causing some fans to fear that the inconsistent “Jekyll and Hyde” Dalton of the past had returned. But, he followed it up with an opening performance for the ages, bringing the team back in the second half after trailing for most of the first.
Against the Steelers, he will be hoping for more of the latter. His chemistry with his new weapons and the relatively small amount of film for the Steelers to study should help. But he will need to perform better than the one touchdown, three interception performance that he put up across both games against the Steelers last year.
To do that, he will want to focus on a couple key areas of his game. Those are: poise and precision. Given the dreadful seven-sack performance from the Bengals’ offensive line against the Jets week, Dalton’s poise will be crucial against the Steelers. Granted, the Steelers’ defensive line wasn’t great against the Redskins last week. But, they will undoubtedly get pressure this coming week if the offensive line doesn’t improve in spades.
If they don’t, Dalton will need to perform better than he did when under pressure last week, posting a quarterback rating of 14.2 in those situations, according to Pro Football Focus. Granted, that only made up for a total of 12 of his 37 total drop backs. But, against the Steelers ball hawks who recorded two interceptions on Cousins last week and three on Dalton last year, he will need to keep his wits together to avoid a catastrophic performance.
Still, the signs this week are mostly pointing up for the Bengals’ franchise quarterback. If the Steelers’ defensive line performs like they did last week, giving Dalton time to think, he could absolutely shred the Steelers like he did when not under pressure against the Jets (132.1 QBR). After re-adjusting to the speed of a regular season game against the Jets, he looked much like he did in 2015. So, there’s no reason to think Dalton can’t or won’t play like that again this week in Pittsburgh.