As Super Bowl XLVIII approaches, all Cincinnati Bengals fans can do is sit back and wonder what might have been. A devastating loss to the underdog San Diego Chargers in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs forced the Bengals to go one-and-done once again under head coach Marvin Lewis.
There were multiple things that went wrong for Cincinnati during its 2014 playoff loss—none was more blatant and heavily scrutinized as the play of quarterback Andy Dalton.
Dalton wasn't all bad on that fateful Sunday. He did some things that he had failed to do in his two previous playoff appearances—throwing a touchdown pass was a step in the right direction.
Despite having glimpses of alluring play, the question still remains: Is Dalton good enough to take the Bengals deeper into the playoffs?
During the game against the Chargers, Dalton showed the good, the bad and the ugly of his game. He was wildly inconsistent throughout the contest, and a handful of plays can easily sum up his strengths and weaknesses.
Early in the game, Dalton began to show signs of life as a playoff-caliber quarterback. He was able to deliver a short touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham and showed a good amount of accuracy due to refined footwork and mechanics.
One play in particular really stood out—a 49-yard bomb down the sideline to wide receiver Marvin Jones.
Here, Jones is lined up out wide at the top of the screen. The Bengals are in a typical shotgun formation with three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back on the field:
Dalton notices the man coverage on Jones on the outside. He does a good job recognizing that the safety is not dropping back deep enough to be a factor in covering Jones. Dalton releases the ball early enough, knowing that Jones' speed will prevail:
A perfectly thrown pass results in a 49-yard gain:
Here, we see how Jones was able to break free. Dalton looks over the middle of the field and freezes the safety in his position:
Once Dalton decides to deliver the pass, he steps up and plants his front foot while driving the back end of his body through the throw with flawless mechanics:
If Dalton would be able to maintain his fundamentals in this manner, there would be no question as to whether he has the ability to succeed in the NFL. Unfortunately, that simply isn't the case.
Later in the game, things started to fall apart for Dalton. He began making poor decisions and seemed to get flustered in the pocket. A combination of these two ingredients immediately spelled disaster for Dalton and the Bengals offense.
This third-quarter interception is really where things began to crumble for Cincinnati.
Here, Dalton's target is slot receiver Mohamed Sanu. The Chargers are showing blitz, and Dalton must look for a quick outlet before the rush gets to him:
With pressure in his face, Dalton continues to stare down Sanu. It appears that the wide receiver is open; however, the secondary knows exactly where the ball is going due to Dalton's failure to look off his intended target:
Dalton telegraphs the throw to Sanu and the ball is easily intercepted by a fast-breaking cornerback:
Why was this pass so easily intercepted? We see here that due to the pressure in Dalton's face, he throws off his back foot as he is retreating from the blitz. This creates a late throw without much velocity which gives a defensive back plenty of time to make a break on the ball:
Dalton must learn that forcing passes like this can easily sway the outcome of a game. When a blitz gets through in this manner, sometimes it is just best to throw the ball away and live to play another down.
In the fourth quarter against San Diego, things completely fell apart for Dalton. At this time, the Bengals were behind by a good margin and the quarterback began to force balls into tight coverage in attempt to make something happen.
Unfortunately, the mix of his poor mechanics and throwing into tight windows doomed the Bengals for the remainder of the game.
Here, Dalton is looking to hit tight end Tyler Eifert on a quick out. Eifert has a favorable matchup against a linebacker, and this should be a relatively elementary play:
Dalton watches Eifert make his break and simply needs to lead his receiver enough to complete the play. The linebacker in coverage shadows Eifert while watching Dalton wind up to throw:
The pass is intercepted due to a lazy throw from Dalton. He puts very little velocity on the pass and throws behind Eifert. The linebacker—who was watching Dalton's every move—makes an easy interception:
Dalton's mechanics are to blame here. He does not get enough of his weight transferred to his front foot and throws a late, lazy pass in Eifert's direction. Had he put more into the throw, it would have wound up as an easy completion:
Is this the quarterback of the future for the Bengals? As of right now, the coaching staff seems content with sticking with Dalton for at least another year. The 2014 season is a contract year for Dalton, so if his play does not improve, there is a fair chance that he will not be re-signed once the season ends.
For now, Cincinnati could look to the later rounds of the 2014 NFL draft to find a developmental prospect at the quarterback position. After all, with Dalton showing this kind of inconsistency on such a big stage, it would be very wise for the Bengals to prepare for the future.
Here's looking at you, Andy Dalton.
All screen shots courtesy of NFL Game Rewind.