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Inconsistent Andy Dalton Has Much to Prove in Fourth Straight Playoff Appearance

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2014

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) plays in the first half an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

It's Andy Dalton week again.

For the fourth season in a row, Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals will play in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. To this point, Dalton has faltered in each of his playoff appearances, meaning that despite twice being the higher seed, the Bengals as a team still haven't won a playoff game with him as their starting quarterback.

Despite winning significantly more than 60 percent of their regular season games since drafting Dalton, he has always come unstuck during the postseason.

In three consecutive postseason losses, Dalton has completed 56.9 percent of his passes for 718 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions. While statistics can be misleading, especially at the quarterback position, Dalton's numbers accurately reflect his performances in those games.

During the regular seasons before those games, Dalton attempted a total 1,630 pass attempts, completing 992 for a 61 percent completion percentage. He averaged 3,787 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and 16 interceptionsΒ per season during those three years.

In this year's regular season, Dalton has attempted a total 482 passes, completing 309 for a 64 percent completion percentage. Those completions went for 3,398 yards, 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Those numbers reflect what Dalton has done in Hue Jackson's offense.

Early on during the season, Jackson made a concentrated effort to limit Dalton's impact on games. He threw a lot of low-risk passes while relying on the running game and defense to win games.

Once this game plan became less effective against better opponents, Dalton was put under more pressure to be a more traditional dropback passer who could complete throws down the field. With both Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones sidelined, the Bengals needed Dalton to elevate those around him more than ever before.

Through the first four games of the season, Dalton threw for 926 yards (231.5 per game) while completing 65 percent of his passes. He threw just one interception, was sacked just once and accounted for four touchdowns.Β 

Within Jackson's ultra-conservative offense, Dalton helped the Bengals to a 3-1 record. However, that one loss became significant as the New England Patriots emphatically beat the Bengals in Week 5.

After that loss, Dalton threw 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 12 games. If Dalton tried to point to his depleted receiving corps as an excuse for his poor play, it wasn't what was reflected on the tape. Dalton still had viable, if not spectacular receiving options while playing with an above-average running game and outstanding pass protection.

In the final game of the regular season, Dalton threw two critical interceptions when targeting A.J. Green.

The first could be considered a miscommunication where Green was at fault, but Green appeared to make the right adjustment to the coverage in front of him because he would never have had a chance to make a play on the ball Dalton ultimately threw. Green adjusted for a back-shoulder throw that never came.

On the second, Green got his hands on the ball but Dalton's pass was way too high when his receiver was wide open on a post route. Dalton's pass was tipped into the defensive back's hands, but only because his accuracy forced Green to fully extend to try and make a play on a poorly thrown pass.

By losing to the Steelers in Week 17, the Bengals set up a trip to face the Indianapolis Colts during the Wild Card round of the Playoffs.

The Colts aren't a spectacular team. They have somewhat limped into the playoffs while playing in one of the worst divisions in football. However, if the Colts have one significant strength, it's at the quarterback position.

Last season, the Colts hosted the Kansas City Chiefs and initially fell behind by a huge score. However, during the second half, Andrew Luck dragged his teammates out of that deficit and helped them win a shootout.

If the Bengals are to beat the Colts, Dalton needs to perform better than he has in previous playoff games. However, if they get dragged into a high-scoring game, he needs to elevate his play significantly higher than what it has been throughout his career.

When the Bengals went to Indianapolis during the regular season, the Colts enjoyed a convincing 27-0 victory. Dalton completed less than 50 percent of his passes for 126 yards and no touchdowns in that game.

Green missed that game, but that doesn't mean Dalton didn't leave plays on the field often.

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As the Colts did so often during this game, they keep two safeties deep at the snap on this play. The Colts play a lot of man coverage underneath with two safeties deep. This puts pressure on the quarterback to either find a hole quickly underneath or hold the ball to allow his receivers to find space.

Dalton is given time to hold the football on this play with no pressure arriving.

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The Bengals run play action to the left side which draws most of the opposition's pass-rushers away from Dalton in the pocket. When he settles in space behind the line of scrimmage, he brings his eyes to the right side of the defense.

Dane Sanzenbacher is running a crossing route from that side, but as he continues across the field he plants his foot to sharply cut back towards the opposite sideline. Dalton keeps his eyes on Sanzenbacher to the point of his cut but doesn't anticipate the receiver coming open so he turns away from him.

If Dalton was an anticipation thrower, he would have stayed with Sanzenbacher and threw a pass that led him back towards the sideline further because the defensive back had been beaten in the break.

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Instead of throwing to Sanzenbacher, Dalton brings his eyes further infield to Mohamed Sanu who is running a deep in-route. Sanu is running into space, but his route is being undercut by the outside defensive back who has trailed him through the play.

To give his receiver the best possible chance of making a catch on this play, Dalton has to lead him across the field.

Had Dalton understood the coverage, he would have made sure to miss the receiver inside rather than outside. Had he done that, there would never have been a chance at a turnover. Instead of throwing an accurate pass, Dalton throws the ball high and behind Sanu.

Sanu adjusts brilliantly to the football, but he can't make the tough reception as the defensive back aggressively attacks the football.

Dalton does receive a lot of criticism for his play these days, but his lack of intelligence as a quarterback is still understated. He regularly makes bad decisions and threw an interception once per 28 pass attempts this season despite playing in a conservative offense behind impressive pass protection.

This is nothing new for Dalton either. Through his career he has 66 interceptions in four regular seasons.

Sometimes quarterbacks throw a lot of interceptions because they're put in tough positions and asked to do a lot with a poor supporting cast. Sometimes quarterbacks are just unlucky with the passes that are caught. Neither excuse can be applied to Dalton's career so far.

Interceptions are a good barometer for bad decision-making, but much more goes into it than that. Dalton repeatedly showed off poor decision-making against the Colts in their most recent matchup.

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On this play, the Colts don't have two safeties deep but they are only rushing four players after the quarterback. This gives Dalton time to survey the coverage down the field. His receivers are running four vertical routes, so Dalton sets about manipulating the deep safety with his eyes.

Dalton holds the deep safety in the middle of the field before turning to his left, where he has seventh-round rookie wide receiver James Wright running down the sideline against Vontae Davis.

While his reputation can be a bit bloated at times, Davis is the Colts' best cornerback and a major matchup advantage for the Colts against Wright. Furthermore, Wright is running a route that plays to Davis' skill set as he is more of a linear athlete than a versatile one.

Furthermore, as the above image highlights, Davis is always in good position to cover Wright. He is on top of the receiver, whereas Sanu at the bottom of the screen has already gained a step on his defender.

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To complete a pass on this play Dalton was always going to have to make a difficult throw, but his decision meant even a perfect throw was likely to be intercepted. Davis did ultimately fail to make an interception he could have made, while Sanu was left with no opportunity to highlight his separation down the other sideline.

Dalton made this decision from a clean pocket against a coverage that didn't attempt to confuse him.

The Colts simply showed their intentions; Dalton seemingly understood them, yet he still made the worst decision he could possibly have made. This is the kind of play that doesn't show up in the stat sheet because the interception wasn't caught, but it's the kind of play that helps to limit the Bengals offense.

Predetermining throws is something the veteran quarterback has done since his rookie season and it's something that should have long since been eradicated from his play.

Quarterbacks who predetermine throws are often prone to panicking because they aren't comfortable in their decision-making. As such, when the throw isn't predetermined, hesitation can set in and cause a ripple effect that repeatedly ruins how the called play is supposed to work.

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On this play, the Bengals are running three curl routes so Dalton has to make quick decisions with the football. If his first read isn't available, it's unlikely his second read will be available for too long because the Colts aren't hinting at an aggressive blitz.

Naturally, Dalton's eyes are initially drawn to the bottom of the screen where Davis is lined up in off coverage against Sanu.

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To throw this ball to Sanu, Dalton needs to see Davis hold his depth outside at the snap. He also needs to be aware of the movement of the underneath linebacker who appears to be in zone coverage. That linebacker could undercut any potential pass if he moves outside quickly.

As the play develops, Dalton gets the coverage he wants to throw the ball to Sanu. He needs to throw the ball fast, but Sanu has plenty of time to turn and make the reception before taking the hit.

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Even though he initially drew the ball back to begin his throwing motion, Dalton checked his throw at the last second and hesitated in the pocket. He didn't throw the ball to Sanu, instead he held it and looked to his slot receiver who was well covered.

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By the time he had done that, the coverage on the back end had smothered each of his receivers down the field. Dalton had time in the pocket, but only Giovani Bernard was immediately open. Bernard was open for the catch, but he had two defenders arriving to take away any potential gain even if the pass was completed.

Nothing about this play can be blamed on the wide receivers.

Each player ran their individual route and Sanu was open for the reception. Dalton simply made a poor decision. Having A.J. Green on the field for this play wouldn't have changed anything. Realistically, that can be said for most of Dalton's poor plays in this game.

Green does alter the offense, but not so significantly that it should excuse Dalton from any kind of evaluation. He made mistakes through this game that he has routinely made throughout his career when Green was on the field, so the correlation doesn't really exist.

Checking the ball down is an important part of any quarterback's repertoire, but as the above play shows sometimes it can be a negative play. This is a recurring theme for Dalton.Β 

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On this third-down play, Dalton is going to be put in a position to hold the ball before delivering it downfield for a first down. He will initially have time in the pocket, but a delayed rusher will get in his face just as he finishes his throwing motion.

The Colts are in their nickel package with three defensive backs deep but six in position to rush the passer.

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As Dalton drops back in the pocket, the defense sends five players after him. This leaves more space on the back end, but it also allows the edge rusher to beat Andre Smith off right tackle. Dalton has space to step up into in the pocket.

He effectively does that to set himself up to continue surveying the field.

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Dalton initially looked to his right. Therefore, the deep safety is held over the middle of the field. This leaves a huge amount of space for Sanu to run into down the left sideline as he runs a pattern that releases inside the cornerback covering him before breaking back towards the sideline.

As the above image shows, Dalton has a simple completion underneath, but that simple completion is well short of the first down marker and has an arriving defender.

Dalton needs to throw the ball at this point of the play because of the arriving defender. The easier, higher percentage throw is to the option in the flat, but the smarter throw is the more difficult one down the sideline.

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The more difficult throw requires an understanding of the coverage that the defense was playing, and in particular the aggressiveness of Davis through the initial stages of the route, as well as the ability to make accurate anticipation throws down the field.

Although he can make difficult throws down the field, Dalton isn't a good anticipation thrower. This costs him opportunities and limits the effectiveness of his wide receivers.

The Bengals are fortunate they play in the AFC and even more fortunate the AFC North was given the NFC South and AFC South on their schedule this season. If the Colts had proven to be a more consistent team over the season as a whole, it would be hard to think the Bengals have any chance to win this game.

However, the Colts haven't been consistent so the opportunity does exist.

If the Bengals are to come away with their first playoff victory in the Andy Dalton era, then their quarterback will need to buck the trend of his career to this point.

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