Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has one of the best supporting casts in all the NFL. Among them are a best-in-the-league offensive line, a trio of wide receivers that includes playmaker A.J. Green, physical possession receiver Mohamed Sanu and the fast Marvin Jones, a pair of receiving tight ends and a running back tandem featuring bruiser BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the shifty Giovani Bernard.
Any quarterback would easily feel like a kid in a candy store if they had the weapons at Dalton's disposal. The Bengals have benefited greatly from their offense so far this season, with a 4-2 record and the hard-fought sole possession of the AFC North's top spot.
Dalton is playing well, which makes sense considering the talent around him. He's completed 140 of his 215 pass attempts—65.1 percent—for 1,552 yards, eight touchdowns and six interceptions. While he has been sacked 14 times and his receiving targets have dropped 12 passes, he's on pace to have the best season of his career.
But one area in which he hasn't improved much from 2012 to now is the deep passing game.
Last season, Dalton attempted 67 deep passes—those of 20 or more yards—and completed only 18 of them, netting the Bengals 588 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), just 12.7 percent of Dalton's passes were deep throws, and his accuracy percentage of 32.8 ranked him 27th out of 33 quarterbacks.
So far this year, Dalton has attempted only 25 passes of 20 or more yards, with nine completions for 272 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He's now throwing deep just on 11.6 percent of his attempts, though his accuracy percentage has risen from 2012 to 36 percent.
Dalton has shown slight improvement, but it hasn't resulted in more deep shots. It's not as though Dalton can't make the throws—his drastically increased yards per attempt, which average 7.22 presently, up from 6.95 last year and 6.59 his rookie season, indicates that any worries about his arm strength are unfounded. And it's not as though he lacks a deep-threat receiver—both Green and Sanu are highly talented in this area.
So what gives?
The only possible explanation is the play calling. Either head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden don't want Dalton going for the home-run play all that often, they aren't confident that he can do so with consistent success or they see the speed of their receivers and choose to let them do the work on the ground rather than have Dalton do it all through the air.
Looking at Dalton's passes-by-direction through six games this year, and it's clear where the Bengals want most of their passes to be thrown—from behind the line of scrimmage to nine yards beyond it. Of Dalton's 215 pass attempts, 141 have come at this distance, accounting for 115 of his 140 completions.
The Cincinnati passing game seems to be more reliant on yards after the catch and not the depth of the pass.
Of Green's 464 receiving yards, 139 are yards after the catch. Sanu has 218 receiving yards, 156 of those coming after the catch. Of Jones' 190 receiving yards, 73 have come after the catch. Rookie Tyler Eifert has 225 receiving yards, 124 of which have come after the catch, and of fellow tight end Jermaine Gresham's 210 yards, 158 are after the catch. Even Dane Sanzenbacher has gotten much of his yardage after the catch—12 of 29 yards.
The Bengals are relying on the screen game so that Dalton can get the ball out quickly. This keeps him from reading his progressions, however, which leaves deep threats like Green stranded even in coverage situations that lean in their favor.
And, as the Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Daugherty points out, as soon as defenses realize that Dalton won't be throwing deep, those screens won't yield the yardage they are now. Opposing defenses will crowd their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and the yards after the catch numbers will drop. Dalton must air out the ball more often, whether on his own accord or at the behest of his coaches.
Dalton had only three attempts of 20 or more yards in the Bengals' overtime win over the Buffalo Bills in Week 6 and just one completion, to Green, which resulted in a touchdown. Dalton attempted 40 passes in the game and yet, only three were thrown deep. For a quarterback with so many weapons, especially ones like Green, Sanu and Jones who can get separation from defenders and handle deep passing, it's confounding to see so few attempts.
Unlike last year, Dalton hasn't thrown a single interception on his deep passes. None of the deep passes he's thrown this year have even been dropped. He's shown signs of improvement in this area, but yet he's not getting many more opportunities at the deep pass than last year. While the yards after the catch being put up by his receivers are working for now, they eventually won't as long as Dalton ceases to be a deep threat.
Dalton's overall accuracy is much better than the previous two years. He's currently 11th in the league in accuracy percentage, at 74.1, compared to 19th last year, at 72 percent and 20th in his rookie year, at 70.1 percent. The perception that Dalton is somehow a problem or not progressing is just that—a perception, and mostly a wrong one.
It's more that he's been given fewer opportunities to show off his improved downfield passing. Now he's coming off as a weak-armed game manager when he could be—and is—much more.
By holding Dalton back, the Bengals are ultimately holding down their entire offense. Yes, the Bengals receivers' success at making plays in space has paid off thus far, but there's no sense in avoiding deep passing when there are receivers able to catch those passes and a quarterback capable of throwing them.