Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

13 Nov 2014

Film Room: Andy Dalton

by Cian Fahey

Primetime games have never been kind to Andy Dalton.

The Bengals have gone 2-9 with Dalton as their quarterback in nationally televised games. While Dalton isn't spectacular in normal NFL games, it does appear that his play drops off even further when put under the spotlight. Even though Dalton has collapsed in the first round of the playoffs over the past three years of his career, last Thursday night's performance against the Cleveland Browns should go down as the worst of his career.

Statistically, Dalton's display will be a footnote in NFL history as one of the worst performances ever in terms of passer rating. By completing 10 of 33 pass attempts for 86 yards, zero touchdowns and three interceptions, Dalton set a passer rating of 2.0 on a scale that goes up to 158.3. Dalton is only the fifth player since 1960 to achieve that low of a number. Furthermore, Dalton's quarterback rating was the worst for a quarterback with at least 20 pass attempts since 2004, and his completion percentage under the same criteria was the worst since 1992.

While Dalton's statistics condemn his display, his performance leaves little evidence that anyone else deserves the blame.

Unlike Cam Newton, another quarterback who struggled in Week 10, Dalton can't shift the blame onto his offensive line or his receiving options. Newton doesn't deserve a complete pass for his display last week, but at the very least he was fighting through injury while playing behind an awful offensive line and throwing to a very limited set of receivers. Dalton didn't have Giovani Bernard, Tyler Eifert, or Marvin Jones in his offense, but he was still surrounded by talented players who performed well enough to help him produce.

One of the first things that is always suggested when Dalton struggles against the Browns is that Joe Haden shuts down A.J. Green, which makes it tougher for Dalton to find open receivers. As previously noted, Haden is an overrated cornerback who hasn't shut down Green whenever they have met. Last year, Green and Haden faced off in coverage 28 times. Green came free on 13 of those plays, a huge percentage relative to other receivers and other cornerbacks; the biggest reason he didn't get the ball to put up numbers was Dalton.

Once again this season, that proved to be the case.

Dalton targeted Green on his first pass attempt of the game, a shallow crossing route when the receiver was open but trailed by two defenders, Haden being one of them. Dalton wildly overthrew Green. That would only have been a short gain, so it wasn't that significant a play, but soon after Green would come free down the sideline and Dalton would fail to find him once again.

On this play, the Browns send a delayed blitz with five defenders going after Dalton. Dalton doesn't panic and his offensive line comfortably picks up the pressure to give him time and space in the pocket. Despite that, Dalton stares down Greg Little down the left sideline. Little is double covered from the start, but that doesn't put Dalton off. Meanwhile, Green has created space against Haden to the top of the screen with an excellent release of the line of scrimmage. Haden is playing underneath coverage because the safety is coming to his side of the field, but for the route that Green is running, Dalton has plenty of space into which he could drop the ball.

If Dalton hadn't stared down his worst receiving option against double coverage, he would have had time to turn back to the other side of the field and throw the ball to Green. Furthermore, Green wasn't the only other option.

At the point when Dalton begins his throwing motion, he still has plenty of space in the pocket and no pass rusher coming free. Simultaneously, Mohamed Sanu has badly beaten the underneath coverage on a post route. With the deep safety being drawn towards Green from the middle of the field, Sanu is running into wide-open space, through which he could easily carry the ball into the end zone.

Not only are Sanu and Green better receivers than Little, both players have created easier throwing options for Dalton. From a clean pocket, NFL caliber quarterbacks should be expected to make both throws with relative ease.

Green did have two drops, one on a slant route when he beat Haden inside and one on an underneath pass against zone coverage, but for the most part it was Dalton who was letting Green down with his lack of awareness, timing, and accuracy. That was an issue Dalton was having with all of his receivers, not just Green, so it's no surprise that nobody on the Bengals roster produced as much as they should have.

Dalton did most of his disastrous work in the first quarter. As previously shown when Dalton stared down a double-teamed Greg Little, Mohamed Sanu missed a big-play opportunity and a potential touchdown in the first quarter. He also missed what should have been an easy touchdown because of his quarterback.

Lined up to the bottom of the screen, Sanu runs a precise double move that completely eludes the defensive back, Buster Skrine. Sanu got the better of Skrine throughout this game, so it was no surprise that he came free on this play. Dalton only needs to lay the ball out into space down the sideline so Sanu could run under the ball. Even on an imperfect pass, Sanu would have been in position to adjust to a badly thrown ball because the defensive back wasn't in position to look back to and play the football in the air.

Dalton floats the ball out of bounds so that it is completely uncatchable.

On this play, Dalton stares down Sanu, which isn't a problem because of the play call and the defense's coverage. The problem on this play was Dalton's movement (or lack thereof) in the pocket. Dalton has a relatively clean pocket, with only Paul Kruger pushing his blocker backwards. If the quarterback feels that pressure and shifts slightly to his right, he will have plenty of time to release the football without any impact from the pressure.

Instead he stands still, in a position where he isn't touched by the incoming pressure, but he reacts to it with undisciplined in his mechanics. Dalton doesn't step fully into his throw and deliver the ball with decisiveness, he is wary of the potential contact and fades away from it slightly. This causes his throw to go out of bounds.

For as long as Dalton has been in the NFL, he has played behind a relatively impressive and at times brilliant offensive line. That has allowed him to get away with some very questionable decisions in the pocket.

Because of his decent athleticism, Dalton has a tendency to move his feet like a scrambling quarterback rather than simply reset in the pocket to scan the field. This leads to him move into pressure rather than away from it too often, and in previous seasons he has regularly run out of completely clean pockets into the flat. In short, Dalton is a quarterback who panics at the thought of pressure.

In this game, we saw different examples of this, with one more notable than the rest.

Once again, on a first-quarter play, Dalton fails to show awareness and intelligence from the pocket. He knows the play call before the play begins, so he understands immediately that he only has three receivers running routes down the field and none of them are going to be quick options. Dalton comes into this play understanding that he is going to have to hold onto the football in the pocket and give his receivers time to get free. He will have time because he has seven blockers protecting him.

Significantly, once the ball is snapped, the defense only rushes three defenders after the quarterback. This should tell Dalton immediately that he has to trust his blocking and hold the ball even longer because there should be no pass rush and his receivers are outnumbered down the field even more than he expected them to be.

It can't be emphasized enough that Dalton understands where his receivers are going and how many blockers he will have protecting him before this play even begins. Therefore, when he stares down A.J. Green, he should know that he has time to survey the rest of the field before adjusting in the pocket again. Dalton could have actually attempted a difficult pass to Green, who had created space outside with a good route, but with his arm talent it probably wasn't a good idea.

Nonetheless, immediately scrambling from a clean pocket wasn't the right decision. Dalton could have tried to manipulate the coverage to create a throwing window to his receiver running a deep in across the middle of the field or hung in the pocket to give his receivers time to extend their routes. Instead he immediately planted his left foot and dropped his eyes to run into the right flat.

If Dalton hadn't dropped his eyes so quickly, even after leaving the pocket, he had a chance to convert for a first down to his receiver who had worked his way towards the sideline on the other side of the field. Dalton would need to show off some arm talent, but placing the ball towards the sideline would have given his receiver a good chance of making a reception ahead of the defensive back. Instead, Dalton continued to scramble with his head down, not realizing what was in front of him.

The veteran quarterback eventually did bring his eyes back upfield and locate that receiver to throw the ball, but he was too late.

Dalton wasn't so late that he threw an interception. Instead, he was so late that he threw an illegal pass. After leaving a completely clean pocket due to a lack of awareness, Dalton showed a lack of awareness of where the line of scrimmage was, attempting a pass when he had already crossed it by a couple of yards. Decision making, awareness, and accuracy. Three things without which a quarterback can't succeed. Three things at which Dalton continued to fail throughout this game.

And that's without even considering the interceptions he threw.

Dalton had a couple of interception-worthy plays in this game that weren't caught, but it could be argued that he wasn't really at fault for any of the three balls that were. That's not something I would argue, but it's something around which a feasible argument could be crafted. One of his three interceptions came when the defense appeared to interfere with a receiver running a slant route, and another came when Dalton forced an inaccurate pass late while trying to spark a comeback.

The most damning of the three interceptions was the first one, and yes, that play came in the first quarter too.

On the very first drive of the game, the Bengals are facing a second-and-10 at their own 30-yard line. The first thing that stands out on this play is the tight end stopping in his route. The natural reaction is to blame the tight end for not running through his route and being where the quarterback expects him to be. However, the tight end appears to be making the right adjustment to the coverage on this play, whereas Dalton is just leading him into a situation where he is going to be blasted by an incoming defender for a 1- or 2-yard gain at best.

Even if you believe that the tight end was wrong to stop in his route, the decision by Dalton is still difficult to defend.

The tight end is always covered and it's second-and-10. He's not in a position to set up a manageable third down. Dalton is under no pressure in the pocket, partially because he did a good job stepping up to avoid the edge pressure on this occasion. Despite that positive, Dalton stares down one side of the field and never brings his eyes away from the tight end once he sees him. Instead of throwing to the tight end, Dalton should be able to tear his eyes away and find the receiver running behind him in space.

That receiver is in a good position to catch a pass and would have a chance at a first down. At worst, presuming the receiver caught a relatively accurate pass from Dalton, he would set up a very manageable third-down situation.

Even if we accept that the tight end was wrong and we include the potential for the tight end to break the first tackle that comes his way, there is a second defender who is drawn towards the ball as Dalton lets it go who would be in position to tackle the tight end after 2 or 3 yards. Whatever way you look at the throw, the decision from Dalton was bad and he lacked awareness both of the receivers running down the field and the game situation.

This game was the pinnacle of the veteran quarterback's struggles. He can play better than this and he has many times throughout his career. This game, however, simply highlighted his traits that are constantly visible. Because of the strength of his supporting cast, the Bengals have been able to mask Dalton's flaws and limitations to this point in his career. As the surrounding cast around him declines, it's more and more likely that we see more of these kinds of displays from the offense as a whole.

Even though the Bengals paid Dalton like a top-tier NFL quarterback, he remains a below-average player in a very favorable situation.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 13 Nov 2014

14 comments, Last at 14 Nov 2014, 3:43pm by themothership

Comments

1
by Pat :: Thu, 11/13/2014 - 1:58pm

On the first play, I know mentioning Green first makes sense because of the storyline, but with a good throw that's a clear touchdown for Sanu, whereas Green or Little were only picking up ~15-ish yards or so. Sanu beat that safety *bad*, and it's amazing Dalton didn't even glance to see that.

2
by tuluse :: Thu, 11/13/2014 - 2:19pm

The amazing thing is with only 3 choices, one of which the receiver is wide open, and one of which is one of the best receivers in the game single covered and open-ish, he goes for the double covered bad receiver.

If you're gonna stare someone down and force a throw into double coverage at least make it Green.

3
by themothership :: Thu, 11/13/2014 - 3:13pm

Thing that always amazes me with Andy Dalton is how good his supporting cast is. When you consider the importance of the offensive line and how its probably one of the top 5-7 units in the league, this really is one of the best 10 player supporting casts anybody could ask for. And the result: Dalton having the lowest QB rating in the ENTIRE LEAGUE since week 4.

What do you think Tom Brady would do with this kind of supporting cast? Russell Wilson? Even in less extreme cases: Rivers with this offensive line, Luck with an actual offensive line and running game, Ben Roethlisberger with this offensive line, Eli Manning with this supporting cast, Matt Ryan with this kind of line, the list goes on and on. We tend to place too much emphasis on a QB's performance on his doing rather than acknowledging his supporting cast, well Dalton really does have it as good as you can, and this is the result. Just incredible really.

To take it one step further; what do you think Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, Matt Flynn, what other bust QBs you can think of, what would they do with this supporting cast? You really don't think they can play relatively close to the level of Dalton and put up the volume stats Dalton does which is really what is saving his job and got him that extension?

I mean we saw last year an example with Josh McNown what supporting cast can do to volume statistics. It really is something to think about just how steady Dalton's supporting cast is and how that should make even an average QB look pretty darn good and instead what Dalton looks like. That in itself is remarkably telling.

4
by theslothook :: Thu, 11/13/2014 - 3:33pm

Dalton puts a team in the ultimate blind spot. He's been good enough to make the playoffs and has improved each year. You can almost convince yourself that by the mid chunk of his career, he will be a solid top 15 qb. Even those type of player's don't grow on trees. So in that sense, I don't really fault the bengals. And frankly, what will happen next year? They aren't going to be a top 10 drafting team and qb is such a need for so many teams drafting below them that I just don't know what they can realistically do but stick it out with dalton for another year.

5
by Will Allen :: Thu, 11/13/2014 - 3:57pm

Kinda' makes you think you might be better off just building your roster with the proverbial Best Players Available, and hope you get lucky with whatever qbs are available when you decide one is the Best Player Available. Or something.

10
by themothership :: Thu, 11/13/2014 - 8:38pm

This is a common viewpoint but I think we might be looking at it wrong. Maybe this is just a spur of the moment overreaction but it might just be that the Bengals have put such a supporting cast around Dalton that it looks like he's good enough to take them to the playoffs when in reality almost any QB could do it. I mean like I said above, look at what he has, a top offensive line, AJ Green, Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, Mohammad Sanu, Tyler Eifert. There a ton of QBs, many bad, who could carry an offense to decent levels with that kind of group(see Josh McNown almost leading a high scoring Bears team to the playoff despite the worst run defense in over 50 years at a 5.6 ypc allowed). And while he didn't always have this kind of talent with him, he always had AJ Green and a good offensive line and at those earlier times a far better top tier defense.

So I don't necessarily think this might be QB purgatory, it might just be the result of putting together a good strong roster and a bad bad QB.

Teams emphasize to no end finding the right QB because it just is too much to try to win a Super Bowl without having a QB who can play at a high level. Flacco wasn't elite but played outstanding during the playoffs. Wilson played poorly in the playoffs but played well most of last regular season. You just need something from the QB position that's good to win it all. But that doesn't mean you can't win alot of games with medicore QB play as we've seen in the past. You wonder if we're at the point now we're Andy Dalton warrants a top pay day if some teams who already have strong rosters might just be willing to ride cheap with a medicore QB like Mark Sanchez or Tavaris Jackson and see what happens. That $10-15 mil/ year you save is enormous and a big part of the reason for Seattle's success is there paying Wilson under 500k and can spend that other $15-20 on the rest of their team in a way those who pay top dollars for Qbs can't.

11
by Will Allen :: Thu, 11/13/2014 - 9:49pm

Tavaris Jackson dreams of mediocrity.

12
by theslothook :: Thu, 11/13/2014 - 11:17pm

It's not like Andy is always awful. This was extreme by any standard. He's actually quite streaky, not unlike flacco.

You can definitely win with Dalton, it's just hard. Winning w Tavares Jackson is harder still.

13
by themothership :: Fri, 11/14/2014 - 3:38pm

I think the whole point of this is that you can win with any bad quarterback if the rest of the supporting cast is good enough as it has been for Dalton----either now with what he has on offense or in the past with what he has on defense. It's just now that he's playing SO BAD that's its almost impossible to put points no matter who you have around him. And no this isn't a flukish performance, since week 4 he has the NFL's lowest QB rating and this game was honestly just as bad as his performance vs the Colts last month.

Also we don't know with Tavaris Jackson entirely: obviously he's not a quality starter, but in terms of him not being better than some starting QBs it's not so clear cut. He was obviously god awful early in his career but 2011 look at his stats: not too far off a lot of medicore QBs and he didn't have nearly the supporting cast someone like Dalton does now. Not sure a number of medicore QB's could have done better and probably worse with what Jackson had to work with in 2011. But alas.

6
by Will Allen :: Thu, 11/13/2014 - 4:11pm

With all the money invested in trying to find and coach qbs, I'm halfway expecting to see some team pay for the development of virtual reality helmets that they strap on to their favorite prospect's head, and then have virtual 2013 Seahawks and 2002 Bucs defend play after play of the prospect trying to locate the best target available in less than 3 seconds. The Cowboys could intermittently have a virtual owner saying stupid sh*t to the prospect during simulated timeouts.

7
by theslothook :: Thu, 11/13/2014 - 4:57pm

You add the oakland raiders for a supporting cast and I guarantee you will turn every Peyton Manning like prospect into Ryan Leaf overnight.

8
by Will Allen :: Thu, 11/13/2014 - 5:44pm

Conversely, you could tell the computer to run last Sunday Night's Bear's defense out on the virtual field, and Joe Webb would become Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Fran Tarkenton, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning, rolled into one. Oh, and Aaron Rodgers, too, of course.

9
by theslothook :: Thu, 11/13/2014 - 5:53pm

Greg Cosell had an awesome comment about that game. He used the jordy nelson TD as an example. They lined up. Rodgers made a check to another play. The bears in response made a check of their own. And then when the ball was snapped, three players in the secondary ran three different defenses. The net result a wide open receiver 15 yards down the field. THis after a bye week.

Welcome to horrid defense bears fans...its something you've probably never experienced before. Ever..

14
by themothership :: Fri, 11/14/2014 - 3:43pm

It's hard to have a worse defense than they did last year when they allowed the highest opposing YPC on the ground in OVER 50 YEARS(5.6 ypc) but they've blown last year out of the water.

Here's something absolutely amazing; the Bears performance this year against the Packers when they had their offensive starters in 8 quarters.

START QTR POSS. YARD PLAYS YARDS RESULT
06:30 1 02:22 GB 19 6 81 Touchdown
13:58 2 03:47 GB 22 10 78 Touchdown
03:50 2 02:47 GB 39 7 61 Touchdown
15:00 3 04:03 GB 30 8 35 Field Goal
07:29 3 03:01 CHI 35 6 35 Touchdown
01:33 3 01:41 CHI 11 4 11 Touchdown
10:44 4 05:57 GB 41 8 39 Missed FG

Green Bay Drive Summaries
START QTR POSS. YARD PLAYS YARDS RESULT
11:57 1 05:44 GB 29 12 71 Touchdown
05:54 1 02:01 CHI 23 4 23 Touchdown
00:22 1 00:34 GB 28 3 72 Touchdown
13:39 2 01:30 GB 46 4 54 Touchdown
07:58 2 03:10 GB 5 5 95 Touchdown
02:18 2 00:36 GB 43 2 54 Fumble
01:02 2 00:48 CHI 32 6 32 Touchdown

Not ONE PUNT, the only two drives the Pack didn't score were a missed field goal at the end of the game in Chicago and a fumble already up 35-0 after driving 54 yards. Just INSANE.