Do we give Andy Dalton enough credit?
I feel like this is the question that encompasses every narrative, discourse and controversy with the Bengals’ starting quarterback. You have a group of people who will only look at the positives with Dalton, and a group of people who do the exact opposite.
The nature of opinionated quarterback discussion often dissolves into the political paradigm, where these two opposing sides dominate in a back and forth bout, and the middle ground can’t muster enough voice to be heard.
But the middle ground is where Andy Dalton resides, does he not?
For every shortcoming that is attached to the now eight-year veteran, there is a admirable attribute that makes the quarterback who he is. There’s a balance to his skill-set that ultimately forms a signal caller who you can win with, but you can’t necessarily win because of him all the time.
It’s not that Dalton isn’t capable of making what is subjectively known as “big-time plays”, it’s that the frequency of those instances are not as high as other talented passers. But they do indeed happen from time to time.
And even in the season where he was operating an offense that was amongst the worst in the league by most metrics, there were a few moments where you could tear up and mutter “that’s my quarterback” in your best Terrell Owens impersonation.
Here’s our top 5 throws from Dalton this past season.
#5: Week 10 37-yard touchdown to Brandon LaFell
This strike would not be apart of the top five if we were judging based strictly off of degree of difficulty, but Dalton didn’t throw a pass with more pinpoint accuracy than this all year.
The relation between formation the Bengals offense aligns in, and the Tennessee Titans’ safeties is what starts everything here. The Titans are playing Cover 2 zone in its most traditional form. The field side safety is responsible for his deep shell, which means he’s got to take away anything vertical on his side of the hashes. The same responsibility goes for the play side safety.
At the snap, the play-side safety all-pro Kevin Byard (#31) sees tight end Tyler Kroft breaking up field towards him. Upon Kroft’s break towards the sideline downfield, Byard commits to the route and flips his hips.
Dalton doesn’t hesitate and begins his throwing motion. He knew Byard would be forced to choose between the deep middle and Kroft’s corner route, and that’s why Lafell’s go route after motioning into the slot became so wide open.
There was no one left on that side of the field to account for Lafell, and Dalton placed the ball right in stride for the easy score.
#4: Week 7 15-yard first-down to A.J. Green
This play reminded me of a similar throw Dalton made six years prior against the Steelers at Heinz Field. That throw put the Bengals in field goal range and they clinched a second-consecutive wild card playoff birth because of it. Though the stakes weren’t nearly as high on this play, the end result was the same: an A.J. Green first-down.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, per Pro Football Focus, ran the second most zone coverage in the league last season, so it’s no surprise they go into zone on a critical 3rd down near the red zone. This variation is more so a matchup zone like we see in basketball, where the defenders are matched up pre-snap, and they follow the receiver that enters their particular zone.
We can tell this by noticing the slot defender Mike Hilton (#31) trail Lafell as he motions across the formation. This is a giveaway that Dalton is going to be dealing with some form of man coverage, but he can tell it’s not straight man by how the rest of the corners are aligned.
Dalton has two main reads on this high-low concept. He’s reading Green’s speed-cut out route (high) and Lafell’s flat route (low). The deciding factor whether or not Dalton should pull the trigger on the first read is the boundary defender (Sean Davis #28).
If Davis maintains depth on Green’s route and minimizes that throwing window, Dalton would take his chances and target Lafell at the first down marker and hope the ball gets there before Davis does.
Even if Davis fully commits to Lafell’s flat route, the window for Green’s route is pretty small as he’s fitting it between the defender and the sideline, and that’s why this throw is all the more impressive.
Davis actually does a pretty good job of keeping some depth with Green’s route while also acknowledging Lafell’s, but Dalton sees the window open for a split second and fires a perfect throw to Green, who makes a toe-drag snag.
#3: Week 2 37-yard first-down to Alex Erickson
Pressure was a common enemy of Dalton’s last year and it got the better of him more times than not. J.J. Watt has also been known to get the better of Dalton in years past, but not this time.
Operating out of structure is something Dalton does not do well. Instead of maneuvering inside the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield, Dalton will oftentimes drop his head and scurry towards the sideline hoping someone will emerge in space.
It’s lead to many throws out of bounds and a good number of interceptions in the past, but on this play against the Houston Texans, it ended up working out.
The pressure from Watt, as you can see, compromises the pocket for Dalton and he has no choice but to escape. Upon his rollout to his right, the Texans defense is scrambling to takeaway the obvious throw for Dalton to make: the deep crosser to tight end Tyler Eifert out of the slot. Two defenders smother Eifert as he reaches the pinnacle of his route and Dalton is forced to look further downfield.
20 yards past Eifert comes Alex Erickson separating from the slot defender Kareem Jackson (#25). Erickson was originally running a deep post to clear out Eifert’s route by putting the deep safety on notice, but with the safety collapsing on Eifert, Erickson has space to work with. He flattens his route 35 yards past the line of scrimmage and Dalton lets it rip.
Dalton leads him enough and Erickson converts a 37 yard play with less than 20 seconds to go in the half.
#2: Week 8 25-yard touchdown to Josh Malone
In his time with the Bengals, the best thing Margus Hunt did was be a big human being. When he went to the Indianapolis Colts last free agency, that size didn’t just vanish. So when he went up against his former team for the first time last season, I imagined he had something to prove.
And he almost made that happen on this play. Turns out, Dalton needed to prove something too.
I’m not going to imagine what it must be like to be a quarterback chucking up a football with a 6-8 300 pound force of a man looking to dig his head inside your sternum, because my feeble mind couldn’t compute it.
Nevertheless, there are times when quarterbacks aren’t going to get the chance to fully step into throws and yet they need to conjure up the torque needed to get the ball where it needs to go.
The timing of this throw was crucial. Right when Brandon Lafell out of the slot was making his break towards the sideline on his out route, the field side safety flipped his hips towards the sideline to help assist the slot defender trailing Lafell. Simultaneously, Josh Malone was opening up his vertical route towards the post and with inside leverage on the cornerback, is essentially extremely open.
Dalton sees this right as Hunt comes into his peripheral vision and begins his throwing motion. Sensing Hunt, he knows he can’t get a full release so shortens his motion to almost a three-quarters release that takes a lot of velocity off the throw.
Because he also couldn’t step into the throw, this throw was basically all arm torque with no core rotation to add any extra velocity. Quarterback mechanics aren’t more forte, but this is basic science.
And this throw is anything but basic even for professional standards.
#1: Week 17 49-yard touchdown to Tyler Boyd
It had to be this one, right? The throw that knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs for the third year in a row, got the Buffalo Bills into the playoffs for the first time in the 21st century, and made Dalton and the Bengals heroes in the Buffalo community.
Against a soft cover 2 zone, Tyler Boyd runs a simple go route past the underneath defenders. The field side safety ever-so-slightly cheats towards the sideline where A.J. Green is also running vertically and that opens the window for Boyd.
Dalton steps up in the pocket and fires a perfect pass to Boyd just over the linebacker’s (C.J. Mosley) outstretched hand and ends up in the belly of Boyd, who does the rest.
Now that Dalton has the body of an all-pro, we should expect more throws like these this season.