For the most part, it was easy to forget that Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was just in his second season. Aside from his Week 1 performance against the Baltimore Ravens, Dalton has been extremely impressive thus far, having two 300-plus yard and 70-plus completion percentage games to his name.
Dalton came back down to Earth, however, on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. He completed just 26 of his 43 passes—a 60.5 completion percentage—for 234 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. His 5.4 yards per completion was far closer to the 6.6 he averaged last year compared to the just over nine yards he was averaging prior to the Miami game.
So what happened in Week 5? Why did Dalton have a backslide? Again, he's a second-year quarterback, so he's not over making mistakes. There are still areas in which Dalton's game must improve, and here are four examples from Sunday that illustrate them.
When is it not a Coverage Sack?
Dalton was sacked three times by the Dolphins defense in Week 5. Not all of this is on Dalton, of course—the Bengals have a new interior offensive line (guards Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling and center Jeff Faine), and while they've outperformed expectations for the most part, clearly there will still be some growing pains.
In this sack, which came at the beginning of the first quarter on 1st-and-10, Dalton appears to have taken a coverage sack. That is, there's no one open downfield. However, a closer examination shows that it may have actually been a result of Dalton holding onto the ball too long and failing to make a decision.
Dalton knows the pass rush is coming; it's the Dolphins, after all, and they are well aware that regardless of how Dalton's progressed from his first year in the league, pressure is still something that makes him uncomfortable and error-prone. To diffuse this, Dalton goes with a play-action fake.
No one bites on the play-action, but Dalton still finds himself with some time to make a play—and an open receiver to his right. Dalton's not looking at him, though.
The pocket starts to collapse. Dalton is thus running out of time, but he could also try a desperation dump-off to running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is to his left.
Instead, Dalton takes the sack. He doesn't throw the ball away, and he doesn't target his two open men in short yardage. It's like his brain freezes and he just stands there and takes the hit and the six-yard loss.
Dalton has improved when facing pressure compared to his rookie season, but he still has a way to go. He needs to speed up when seeing the rush come his way—not just physically, but mentally. His decision-making on this play was simply off.
Overall, Dalton has been surprisingly accurate in his young career, and that's doubtlessly been helped along with his quite talented receiving corps, led by AJ Green. Talent has been bubbling up for the Bengals this year, and no one has seen a faster rise than Andrew Hawkins.
Hawkins is just 5'7", but he's fast and has admirably reliable hands. Clearly, that's what Dalton was thinking on Sunday, as he targeted Hawkins 13 times in hopes he could break off one of the big-yardage runs that have become his signature.
But first, Dalton had to get him the ball. Instead, Dalton had trouble throwing accurately to all of his receivers, but none more so than when throwing to Hawkins, who had just five catches on those 13 targets.
Dalton has a lot of time on this second-quarter 3rd-and-14 play. Hawkins is circled, and he'll head beyond the first-down marker.
Armon Binns is also open, but this is a 3rd-and-long, and he's well ahead of the first-down marker and will have to make a big play to get there. Dalton knows this isn't the best option, so he tries to go deeper to Hawkins.
Not only is Dalton throwing into double coverage, with the very real possibility of getting picked off, his throw is simply bad. It's outside of the defenders—or at least that's the hope—but it's also outside Hawkins and overthrown. With that amount of time and the chance to continue the drive, Dalton simply needs to throw that ball well and do his part to make the completion.
Vision and Anticipation
Dalton was picked twice by Dolphins defenders, once in the third quarter and again in the fourth to effectively end the Bengals' day. Here, we will look at the former pick, which came on a 3rd-and-4 at the Bengals' 42-yard line.
You can see here that Dalton wants to go deep at first. He's scanning the field to see if anyone is open, and there isn't. He's keeping his eyes pointed downfield and not looking at what's just in front of him. And it's hard for us spectators to see it as well. Look closely at the little red circle in the first frame—that's Dolphins cornerback Sean Smith, who ultimately gets the pick.
Ignore the not-so-perfect circle—that belongs to the CBS analysts. Mine is the more-perfect one, encircling Andrew Hawkins, Dalton's intended receiver. Dalton is keyed onto Hawkins, and again loses track of the fact Smith is playing close, hidden behind Dalton's offensive line.
Dalton throws an authoritative strike, trying to quickly get the ball from point A, his hand, to point B, Hawkins, who can then potentially take off for a bigger gain than the four yards they need. But up pops Smith, who makes the interception.
It was hard to see Smith, yes, but a quarterback's job is to know who is where, even when partially obscured from vision. Are there 11 defenders back there? Or can you not see one? Then he's somewhere, and he'll pick you off or sack you if you're not paying attention.
Bad Throws into Good Coverage
With Bernard Scott felled early with a knee injury and the Dolphins' league-leading run defense shutting down BenJarvus Green-Ellis' rushing attempts, the Bengals had little choice but to rely on the pass, regardless of Dalton having a bad day.
In this pass, which was a 3rd-and-1 (see a pattern here? The Bengals completed just two of the 14 third-down passes they attempted on Sunday) on the Bengals' 29-yard line, Dalton wants desperately to go to A.J. Green. In fact, Green's direction is the only place he looks in this play.
The Dolphins defender tasked with stopping Green (again, Sean Smith) is with him for every step, but again, it's still single coverage, and all that Green has to do is beat it. Considering he's one of the top receivers in the league this season, it shouldn't be that hard.
The pass, however, is incomplete, and it looks like Green was simply bested by Smith's coverage. But a closer look indicates something else.
Dalton sees that Smith is on the inside, Green on the outside. Dalton has to thread the pass into Green without it going out of bounds, where Smith cannot make a play on it.
He does this, yes, but it's too far wide, and Green cannot get a handle on it.
If Dalton sees a relatively advantageous matchup such as this—single coverage on his best receiver—then he needs to throw the ball where it needs to be for Green to grab it. Smith played his part well, to be sure, but Green could have pulled down that pass if Dalton simply threw it better.
With just one season and five games to his name, Dalton's clearly a project that's not close to being completed. There are still errors he will make, and sometimes, they will compound to the point that he's at fault for a Bengals loss, as he was this Sunday.
Dalton must react to pressure better, get the ball out when he has the opportunity, hit receivers when it matters most and know, instinctively, where every defender is at a given time. That's a lot of information to process, and it takes more than just the 22 games Dalton has played for him to do so.
The quarterback position is a work-in-progress for every team. Because Dalton has looked stronger in his second season than he did as a rookie does not mean he's where he needs to be—there's clearly still work to be done.