The Cincinnati Bengals have made a lot of statements this year. They have bested both the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots. They have a 6-2 record and sole possession of the AFC North through eight weeks, and they look like one of the most formidable opponents in the NFL.
Most importantly, however, is that their quarterback, Andy Dalton, has made the third-year leap expected of him.
For three straight weeks, Dalton has thrown for more than 300 yards and three or more touchdowns. In all of 2012, Dalton had just three games of 300 or more yards, with five with three or more touchdown passes. This is easily the best stretch of his brief career, and none of those games made a bigger statement than the Bengals' 49-9 Week 8 defeat of the New York Jets.
In the win, Dalton completed 19 of his 30 pass attempts for 325 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. Four of those touchdowns were scored by Marvin Jones, the backup to No. 2 wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. On just 19 offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Jones saw eight pass targets. He caught all eight, for 122 yards.
There is no player for the Bengals doing more with less than Jones, who has six touchdowns in his last three games despite playing just 69 of a total 206 offensive snaps. Though Jones wasn't the only Bengals receiver to have more than 100 yards on Sunday—star wideout A.J. Green had three catches on seven targets for 113 yards—Jones was the one to score the points.
How did the Dalton-to-Jones connection work so well for the Bengals on Sunday?
Just looking at Jones' four touchdowns, it's clear that the Bengals have plans for him, even with his limited on-field opportunities.
Two of the scores—the first one, in the first quarter, and the final one, near the end of the third—were pass plays designed to go to Jones on the first read. Both were quick strikes from Dalton in and-goal situations, and in both, Jones is trusted to reach the end zone with both his speed and ability to shed tackles.
In the first, a 1st-and-goal from the Jets' 9-yard line, Dalton immediately noted that Jones was in single coverage with rookie cornerback Dee Milliner.
Dalton threw the ball quickly, practically immediately after receiving the snap.
Against Milliner, Jones had an easy reception for a touchdown.
The second quick-strike score came on a third-quarter 2nd-and-goal from New York's 6-yard line.
Again, Dalton threw quickly, with Jones as his first read.
Jones makes the catch, and with the aid of a block from tight end Tyler Eifert and his own skill at breaking tackles, Jones gets his fourth touchdown of the day.
Jones' second touchdown wasn't on a quick strike, but rather Dalton taking note of a good one-on-one matchup between Jones and another Jets cornerback, Darrin Walls.
As Dalton throws, Walls is just enough off of Jones for this to be a good scoring play.
Though Walls tries to get physical with the football, Jones hangs on for the touchdown.
And finally, Jones' third touchdown was not a result of being Dalton's primary read. As you can see, Dalton, with time in the pocket, is scanning the field for an open man. This is on third down, with seven yards to go.
Dalton sees a cushion between Jones and the two Jets defenders tasked to him—Walls, again, and safety Dawan Landry. With Jones in front of Landry and Walls too far away to affect the play, Jones again scores.
These four touchdown passes highlight just how well Dalton played on Sunday and how well he's played all year. Dalton's completion percentage this year is the best of his career, at 65.5. He has 2,249 passing yards thus far and 16 touchdowns to only seven interceptions.
Dalton is averaging 8.06 yards per attempt this season, up from 6.95 in 2012, and it's the sixth-highest yards per pass attempt among quarterbacks this year. He has also averaged over 10 yards per attempt over the past two weeks, silencing his critics who have spent the last two years criticizing Dalton's deep-ball accuracy.
He is presently fourth in the league in passes of 20 or more yards, with 17 completions on 37 attempts for 585 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Add in two drops by his receivers, and Dalton has completed 50 percent of his deep passes despite only throwing the deep ball on just 11.3 percent of his attempts.
via Pro Football Reference
Dalton's constant improvement and consistent play combined in a perfect storm on Sunday against the Jets. The Bengals wanted to surround Dalton with as many high-caliber weapons in his third year to get the most out of the quarterback, and he's risen to the occasion better than anyone could have anticipated.
He has improved field vision, is handling pressure better than his previous two seasons and is making smart decisions. He's aided by a talented group of receiving targets which opens up the field and gives him options. No young quarterback has been set up for success as much as Dalton has, and he's made the most of the opportunity.
With this five-touchdown performance capping off a three-game stretch of brilliant play and a half-season of very impressive passing, Dalton has now established himself as one of the most formidable quarterbacks in the NFL.
Dalton establishing his legitimacy this season may just be a bigger statement than his role in the Bengals' dismantling of the Jets on Sunday.