Picture a brand-new sports car in the showroom of your local dealership: a low, wide, sleek body with hot wheels and sticky tires beneath wide, flared fenders. A hood scoop and aggressive wing hint at serious speed. And a wild, tiger-striped paint job grabs your attention and won't let go.
Under the hood: a lawnmower engine.
Such are the 2013 Cincinnati Bengals. This offseason, they added serious offensive weapons to a team that didn't lack for them and kept their stout defense intact. Considering 21 of the 22 positions on the field, the Bengals are as talented and balanced as any team in football.
Then, there's quarterback Andy Dalton.
He took the NFL by surprise his rookie year, earning a Pro Bowl nod for his unlikely competence and instant rapport with fellow rookie A.J. Green. Dalton put up better numbers in his second year, leading the Bengals to a second straight playoff berth.
As the world tuned in to watch Dalton and the Bengals host the division-rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football, though, Dalton showed his limitations—and severely limited the offense. From here on out, the Bengals will have to beat great teams in spite of his mistakes, not because of the great plays he makes.
Rookies Making Dalton Look Good
When the Bengals spent their first two draft picks on tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard, they added two instant-impact playmakers at positions of relative strength.
Eifert joined two-time Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham—only 25 years old himself—to make one of the most dynamic tight end pairs in football. Bernard's blazing speed and big-play ability made him the perfect complement to straight-ahead power back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
In Week 2 against the Steelers, they only needed one quarter to make an impact.
After two Dalton incompletions ended the opening drive and the Bengals couldn't get past midfield on the second, Eifert got wide open in the middle of the Steelers defense:
This is Dalton at his best: He found the open man and delivered a catchable ball on time and on-target. Eifert did the rest, stretching out the Steelers defense for a 61-yard gain.
Two plays later, Bernard proved he's not the only Bengals running back who can blast through the middle of the line and carry tacklers into the end zone:
Outside of these two plays, the Bengals generated precious little first-half offense.
A good punt return by Brandon Tate let the Bengals start their fourth drive on their 42-yard line, but three straight Dalton incompletions—including a telegraphed pass to Bernard that was tipped at the line—forced the Bengals to settle for a field goal.
Besides the Bernard touchdown, those were the only first-half points the Bengals scored.
After halftime, Bernard helped Dalton out again. On 1st-and-10 at the Steelers' 27-yard line, the Bengals used four verticals to clear out the Steelers defense. Dalton simply dumped it to Bernard, who did the rest:
After that 27-yard touchdown, the Bengals had a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Veterans Making Dalton Look Good
It wasn't all on the rookies, though. The veterans Dalton's relied on in his first two seasons showed up too.
Green's fantasy football owners won't be pleased with a six-catch, 41-yard day. Nevertheless, Green was locked in mortal combat with top Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, and Green did well to get as open as he did and come down with some of the tough catches he did.
At the tight end position, Gresham had an even better game than Eifert. Gresham's six catches equaled Eifert's 66-yard performance. Gresham got open in the middle, broke tackles for yards after the catch and picked up tough first downs. Together with receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, five different Bengals had at least three catches and 35 yards.
Dalton had plenty of time to throw; his usually excellent offensive line was up to that standard. The Steelers' usually fierce pass rush didn't get to Dalton once.
On the ground, Green-Ellis added 75 tough yards on 22 carries; he's built to take the fourth-quarter punishment the Bengals needed to run out the clock and seal the win.
The Bengals defense smothered Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense. It held the Steelers to just 44 yards rushing and 234 net yards passing and pitched a second-half shutout.
Dalton Not Looking Very Good
The story of the night, though, was Dalton's inability to make the plays that were there. All evening long, Dalton threw wildly inaccurate passes, especially deep, and had several glaring miscommunications with his receivers.
On one notable miss just into the second quarter, Dalton left everyone watching, wondering just what had happened. On 1st-and-10 on the Steelers' 40, Dalton took the snap, executed a play fake, set up on the right hash, patted the ball, waited for just the right moment and launched a rocket to back of the left side of the end zone.
There was nobody there. Dalton thought Green would break outside, and Green broke in instead.
Early in the fourth quarter, it happened again. Dalton responded to the Steelers' showing blitz. He changed Green's route to a vertical go route and quickly flicked it deep down the left sideline. The only problem? Green didn't seem to get the memo. The ball sailed over Green's head and just past the extended arms of the Steelers' Taylor.
This happened several times. Dalton and the Bengals are lucky that none of these misfires or miscommunications resulted in a turnover. CBS analyst (and former Steelers head coach) Bill Cowher said it best:
All told, Dalton was just 25-of-45 (55.6 percent) for 280 yards (6.22 yards per attempt) and the one dump-off touchdown.
How Fast and How Far Can the Bengals Go?
The addition of Bernard and Eifert clearly make the Bengals offense better. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden cleverly deployed them in concert with Green, Sanu, Gresham and the rest in unbalanced and bunch formations for maximum impact on minimum reps.
As the rookies gain confidence from games like this one, it's going to become even more clear that Dalton is the limiting factor on this dynamic, built-for-speed offense.
On his best days, Dalton will let the rest of this well-oiled offensive machine race down the field. On his worst days, the offense will sputter and stall, maybe even screech to a halt. Though the Bengals offense ran like it had a bad tank of gas Monday night, it was enough to beat the Steelers.
This kind of performance is good enough for the Bengals, in a weak AFC, to make the playoffs yet again. After two straight seasons of sneaking into the playoffs and getting bounced in the first round, though, just making the playoffs isn't good enough.
If the Bengals want to take the next step—and the aggressive offseason proves the front office does—they'll need to not only keep pace with teams like the Texans and Patriots but go to their houses and beat them. That simply won't happen if Dalton plays like he did against the Steelers.
If Jay Gruden can't tune the misfires out of Dalton's game, the Bengals will still finish well behind the AFC's leaders.