Analysis Notebook: TNF, Week 9
Andy Dalton has been enjoying an impressive run recently that has made people start to reevaluate whether he can in fact be the guy for them, and as a knock-on effect, if the Bengals are really a Super Bowl contender this year.
That run came to an abrupt end on Thursday night as the Bengals fell to Miami in overtime and Dalton threw three interceptions despite putting up 338 passing yards.
The interesting thing is what those interceptions says about Dalton as a player, with the added twist that one of them was an excellent throw that should have never come close to being picked off.
Pick 1 – Cincinnati @ Miami | 2nd Q, 00:33
The game was close all the way through and, for the first half, was a low-scoring affair. The Bengals had the ball at their own 35-yard line with 33 seconds left in the second, trying to move the it down the field to close the gap and get some points before half time. Instead of narrowing the score from 3-7 this pick ended up setting up a Miami field goal and seeing them go into the locker room at 3-10 down.
This is the kind of play quarterbacks like Dalton can’t afford to make. Dalton doesn’t wow anybody with his measurables — in NFL terms he has nothing special going for him physically. His arm isn’t elite, neither is his size, strength or ability to hurt you with his legs. None of those things are necessarily a negative for him either, but he doesn’t have the kind of raw tools he can lean on like some other players can. Consequently, Dalton needs to excel with making the right reads and delivering the football to the right place. Mental skills and simple, basic accuracy.
Perhaps my biggest issue with Dalton at times is that he often does make the right read but just miss the throw. In the NFL the distance between a great throw and a disaster can be a yard. We’re talking about minute differences in ball placement that these guys need to be able to master and excel at. Even though Dalton completed over 60% of his passes in this game, he was off on a pair of pretty routine attempts that both resulted in interceptions and, ultimately, in points for the Dolphins.
The Bengals run a simple comeback pattern with AJ Green on the outside. He’s facing single coverage and all they’re doing is trying to pick up a chunk of yardage and work the sideline. As you can see from the first image, the throw is on. CB Dimitri Patterson has reacted well to the route, but there is a big block of space for Dalton to put that ball where Patterson would have to come through Green to have any chance of making a play on it. If he puts it anywhere in that square, even if it’s late, it’s a safe pass that’s broken up at worst.
Unfortunately for Cincinnati, he didn’t:
Instead of putting the ball outside, Dalton’s throw was late and to the inside, stopping Green and giving Patterson a chance to jump the route when he should have been trailing it the entire way. This throw isn’t miles off, but it’s the difference in accuracy that quarterbacks have to be on top of at this level. You can afford to miss throws, but you need to ensure that if you miss them, you miss them in the right direction, away from the defender. Here Dalton missed to the inside, and was punished for it.
Pick 2 – Cincinnati @ Miami | 3rd Q, 07:52
This play is almost a copy of the first but to the other side, and with even more disastrous consequences for the Bengals. The score was the same as we left it after the Dolphins capitalized on the first interception with a field goal, but the Bengals had driven down to the Miami 10-yard line and were looking for the game-tying score.
Instead, Dalton made the same mistake to the other side of the field, taking away potential Cincinnati points and replacing them with a Miami score as Brent Grimes took it back 94-yards for a touchdown.
Marvin Jones ran a simple out pattern past the first down marker and again we can see the amount of real-estate out in front of him for Dalton to put that ball for what should be an easy completion. Again, though, he throws the ball too far to the inside, forcing his receiver to stop and bringing Grimes into the play. Grimes makes a nice grab and takes it back the distance, but with a well-thrown ball, he should never have been able to prevent the catch. These are two throws where Dalton has missed by a pretty small margin, but that margin is the difference between successful passes for the offense and disaster.
Pick 3 – Cincinnati @ Miami | 4th Q, 05:08
After the first two picks that were entirely on Dalton’s inaccuracy, this third pick comes after an excellent and accurate throw on his behalf.
With a linebacker dropping underneath the route and the slot corner playing over the top, Dalton drops a perfect pass into the window between them to Mohamed Sanu that should have picked up a first down and a decent chunk of yardage. The pass hits Sanu in the hands but he can’t hang on, dropping it before being decked by Jimmy Wilson, to add insult to injury. The bouncing ball is picked off by LB Danelle Ellerbe and Miami take over possession.
This is a perfect example of the difference between interceptions. The same ‘1’ in the box score can come from an ugly throw straight to a defender, or a perfect pass such as this one that splits coverage and should have moved Cincinnati down the field but for a receiver dropping the ball.
To make matters worse for Cincinnati, they can count themselves unlucky the officials missed a blatant helmet to helmet shot on Sanu after he dropped the pass. Apparently you can’t hit a defenseless receiver up in the head and neck area, unless he has dropped the ball, then tough luck.
That flag, if it had been thrown, was clearly before the ball had been intercepted by Ellerbe and would therefore have nullified the pick, saving Dalton an interception he should never have had on his stat sheet.
As it was, though, the officials blew the call, the pick stood, and Dalton was given a third interception he had no fault in to go with the two from earlier in the game that he most certainly did.
Cincinnati came out of this game with a defeat, and losing Geno Atkins in the process to an ACL injury is a body blow that heaps even more pressure on Andy Dalton to succeed. For the Bengals to be contenders this season they need Dalton to have the kind of accuracy that the top quarterbacks in the league have. He doesn’t have to become an elite passer, but he can’t afford to gift the opposition points and possessions simply by sloppy ball placement and basic inaccuracy.
It cost them the game last night, will it cost them in the bigger picture too this season?
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam