If the Chargers can force Andy Dalton to make mistakes, they can pull off the upset on Sunday.
If it weren’t for quarterback Andy Dalton, the Cincinnati Bengals would be one of the favorites to win the AFC. The Bengals have a great wide receiver, a good running game and a solid defense—a trifecta that few playoff teams enjoy.
Dalton threw 20 interceptions in 2013—an interception on 3.4 percent of his attempts. Both those numbers were the fifth highest in the NFL for a quarterback who started the whole season and the highest of any starting quarterback on a playoff team.
The San Diego Chargers' 11 defensive interceptions in 2013 ranked 26th in the league. If the Chargers are going to win a playoff game on the road, there is a safe bet they will need to win the turnover battle. Intercepting Dalton at least once on Sunday is a good place to start.
Although the Chargers struggled defensively all season, they still have to put together a plan to take advantage of Dalton’s propensity to throw the ball to the other team. With a good game plan and execution, the biggest underdog in Wild Card Weekend could emerge with a victory.
Weddle Intercepts Dalton
The Chargers lost to the Bengals 17-10 in Week 13 at home, so they've already had a chance to create a game plan for Dalton. For the most part, it was an effective plan in Week 13, as Dalton had his second-lowest passing total of the season and threw an interception.
Normally when safety Eric Weddle makes a play, it’s because he’s a really good football player. In the case of his interception of a Dalton pass, he simply caught a ball that looked like it was shot out of the air by Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.
The key to the interception was the interior pressure applied by nose tackle Cam Thomas. Dalton threw off his back foot, and the ball came out of his hand like a dying bird. From there, it was a relatively easy play for Weddle to make.
After seeing this, the obvious question that comes to mind is how many of Dalton’s interceptions are coming when he is pressured. This wouldn’t be that surprising because Dalton is not particularly mobile, and many quarterbacks struggle under pressure.
According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), the answer is unclear because Dalton threw 14 of his 20 interceptions when not under pressure. When under pressure, Dalton threw just six interceptions.
However, Dalton’s PFF grade tells a bit of a different story. Dalton’s grade when not under pressure was quite good—a positive-11.7. When under pressure, Dalton had a negative-4.8 grade and was even worse when blitzed (negative-6.8).
Dalton vs. Interior Pressure
In order to get a good understanding of how to force Dalton to throw those costly interceptions, it’s important to understand what circumstances caused the 20 he threw in 2013. We already know that the interception Dalton threw against the Chargers was due to interior pressure, but was that a fluke or flaw?
In fact, when defenses have been able to get in Dalton’s face, he’s melted faster than a snowman in Southern California. Put pressure on Dalton up the middle, and he’ll force throws into double and triple coverage and overthrow his receivers. In some cases, it appears as though Dalton is feeling the pressure before he's even at risk of getting hit.
In all of Dalton’s worst games this season, teams have been able to get pressure in his face. Perhaps this is why the Bengals have been shuffling their offensive line recently with good success—only allowing three sacks over the final five weeks of the season according to Jay Morrison of The Columbus Dispatch.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is a great pass protector, but he’s been playing a lot of left guard in recent weeks. Considering Dalton’s struggles with interior pressure, it was an ingenious decision to move Whitworth inside.
The interior pressure hasn't always resulted in interceptions, but it has given the defensive team plenty of opportunities. In the middle of the first quarter against the Bengals for example, the Chargers blitzed and were able to get two players in the face of Dalton.
The result of the play was a pass that was far too high for wide receiver A.J. Green to catch. Green gave it a good effort and was crushed by rookie safety Jahleel Addae. The Bengals were lucky the ball wasn’t knocked straight up in the air or deflected toward another defender.
In Week 11 against the Miami Dolphins, Dalton again struggled against interior pressure. On 3rd-and-2 in the second quarter, Dalton overthrows his receiver streaking down the left sideline.
A flag was thrown, but Dalton’s throw was deemed uncatchable. In many cases like this one, Dalton is getting the ball away before the pressure even arrives. It doesn’t even look like Dalton is under that much duress, but having that guy shaking free of a block or unblocked coming up the middle seems to impact him.
Since the game against the Chargers, Dalton had been playing well until throwing four interceptions in Week 17 in Baltimore. Against the Ravens, Dalton’s old nemesis, also known as interior pressure, returned and caused one of his four interceptions.
On 3rd-and-7 in the third quarter, the Ravens blitzed up the middle. They don’t get great pressure on Dalton, but it was enough to force him to get rid of the ball. Dalton doesn't seem to be much better when he holds it and takes a hit, so it makes sense if his coaches have encouraged him to get rid of the ball.
It appears as though Dalton thinks his receiver is going to break off his route. Maybe on this play the interception was not all on Dalton. However, even if the wide receiver does run the wrong route, the Ravens were going to have a shot at the interception because the throw was high, and they had at least two defensive backs converging on the area.
Pressure up the middle impacts Dalton. Sometimes even the perceived pressure up the middle can impact him, so the Chargers need to come up with a game plan that can exploit that.
Ball Placement vs. The Out Route
In addition to interior pressure, Dalton has struggled with ball placement on out routes 10 or more yards down the field. Two of Dalton’s three interceptions against the Dolphins were the result of poorly placed passes. NFL Network TV analyst Mike Mayock even pointed out Dalton’s issues during the broadcast.
The first mistake came in the second quarter. If Dalton throws to the outside, only his receiver has a chance to make the catch. Dalton can even miss a little bit, and Green will probably still be able to use his body to shield the defender and make the catch.
Dalton misses way inside, giving the defender a chance to make the play. Dalton does it again in the red zone in the third quarter, but it hurts his team even more.
This throw was so bad that Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes took it back 94 yards for the touchdown—Dalton had no one to blame but himself. All Dalton has to do in this situation is put the ball outside where only his receiver is going to have a chance to make the catch, but he struggles putting the ball where it needs to be, which is deeper toward the sideline.
The Chargers would be wise to play inside leverage and have their cornerbacks play the out route aggressively. It can especially be effective when combined with interior pressure.
Going back to Week 3, the Green Bay Packers were able to get both interior pressure and force a bad throw by Dalton on the out route. First, the Packers bring the blitz up the middle and get pressure on Dalton.
With the pressure on, Dalton tried to get the ball out to Green, but just as in the previous examples, he throws it way inside. Green doesn’t really have a chance to make a play, but it’s a testament to him that he gets close.
There are other examples of Dalton struggling with interior pressure and failing to get proper ball placement on the out route this season. There are numerous examples in both games against the Ravens, against the Cleveland Browns in Week 11 and plenty of others. Clearly these are issues for Dalton that have not been easily correctable.
If the Chargers can get interior pressure on Dalton, they could force overthrows that have a decent chance of landing in the hands of Weddle or another defender. The Chargers should put together a blitz-heavy game plan with plenty of stunts and double A-gap pressure.
Cornerbacks Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall shouldn’t be afraid to jump an out route, and the Chargers should give them both safety help. A heavy dose of Cover 2 would make sense given the situation but will put the pressure on the front seven to stop the run without a safety in the box.
Although not exclusively, the Bengals tend to have Green run the out route, which could open up opportunities for the Chargers to rotate coverage to his side with a single deep safety. The risk would be putting the other cornerback on an island, but it’s a risk that could be worth taking if it means forcing a couple turnovers.