The Cincinnati Bengals arrived in the postseason well ahead of schedule last year. After a 3-1 start this year, it looked like quarterback Andy Dalton would avoid the sophomore slump, and the Bengals may be on their way to a return trip to January football.
How did Dalton let his team his down, and what can he do to fix his problem areas?
Decision-Making and Execution on Third Down
The Bengals are dead last in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (Source: teamrankings.com), and Dalton's decision-making is a big reason why. Whether it's 3rd-and-short, 3rd-and-medium or 3rd-and-long, Dalton is not executing and making poor decisions in the process. On this 3rd-and-3, Dalton only needs to loft the ball over Jabaal Sheard to hit an open Jermaine Gresham for a first down. He couldn't:
On this 3rd-and-8, Dalton is flushed from the pocket. He has room to move to his right, which could extend the play and allow one of his receivers to break open downfield:
Instead, Dalton, who is an average athlete at best, decided to pull the ball down and run on 3rd-and-medium. He has almost zero chance of converting the first down, so deciding to run was basically conceding the drive. As you can see, he was tackled for a yard gain, and there were plenty of reinforcements on the way for the Browns defense if he had somehow eluded the first two defenders:
On this 3rd-and-14, Dalton is rolling to his right, as he should have been in the play broken down above:
Joe Haden is able to jump in front of the Bengals receiver and almost pick the pass for what would have surely been a touchdown:
Dalton's decision-making also cost the Bengals a shot at three points at the end of the first half versus the Browns. Dalton takes the snap with 20 seconds left and no timeouts:
Dalton throws a lofty deep ball downfield to A.J. Green, who catches it for a 25-yard gain with 13 seconds left:
The problem with throwing the deep ball is that the entire offense had to move 25 yards, reassemble, snap the ball and kill the clock before it hit double zeroes. They didn't:
The game got away from the Bengals in the second half, largely due to interceptions thrown by Dalton. Notice the down is again on third on this disastrous play. Dalton is again moving to his right under pressure:
He cocks and throws on the move, which almost resulted in an interception earlier:
Dalton overthrows A.J. Green (which is difficult to do), and the Browns get the interception in Bengals territory:
Later in the fourth quarter, the Browns ice the game when Dalton tries to throw a slant deep in his own end:
Sheldon Brown had been jumping Dalton's three-step drop throws earlier in the game, and he successfully beats the Bengals receiver to the ball and returns it for a touchdown:
Only the opposing quarterback, rookie Brandon Weeden, has more interceptions (10) than Dalton's nine this year.
What can Dalton do?
In some ways, none of this should be surprising. Dalton is a quarterback in his second year, and he is still learning on the job. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden gave Dalton a longer leash last year, and that is resulting in shakier decision-making and throws this year.
Dalton would benefit from increased velocity on his throws, especially rolling to his right. Contrary to popular belief, quarterbacks can develop arm strength, with Tom Brady being the most famous example. Dalton also needs to start thinking more like a game manager and less like a quarterback who has to take the offense on his shoulders.
Better running from BenJarvus Green-Ellis and run blocking from the offensive line would help that mission by getting the Bengals in more manageable third downs and otherwise keeping the defense off balance.
With a prime-time matchup against another divisional rival this week, Dalton's shortcomings and his attempts to ameliorate them will be on display for the world to see.