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Unflappable

Posted Dec 12, 2013

Andy Dalton's progression continues to mirror the NFL's top quarterbacks. Will the Bengals running game put him over the top?

After 45 starts he has won more games (28) than Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning. He has more touchdown passes (72) than Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. He has more yards (10,486) than Philip Rivers, Brady, Brees and Ryan. He has fewer interceptions (45) than Manning, a better completion percentage than Ryan (60.8) and his passer rating (85.1) almost mirrors Brady's 85.3.

And the Hall of Famer Andy Dalton faces Sunday (8 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in Pittsburgh? After his first 45 starts, Dalton has more touchdown passes and yards than Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger had in his first 45 starts from 2004-2007, along with one more interception (45). Dalton has also thrown 369 more passes, and as offensive coordinator Jay Gruden talked about Dalton's latest AFC Offensive Player of the Week award Wednesday after practice, he shook his head.

"He's still in the process of learning and seeing things. I think he's accomplished in three years as much as any quarterback in a long, long time," Gruden said. "Expectations are high. I think he's met most of them. It's just I think they're a little bit unrealistic sometimes for him."

Probably because Dalton's highs are so high. He's the first Bengals offensive player to receive three NFL awards in the same season. And because the lows have been a bit low. His 275 yards last week almost matched his output of the previous two weeks. Dalton is debated so furiously, but what can't be debated is he's on the threshold of becoming the first Bengals quarterback to lead his team to three straight playoff berths and his flappability factor remains lower than last Sunday's mean temperature throughout the NFL tundra.

“To play this game, you have to have thick skin, especially at the quarterback position, unless you have proven yourself and won a lot of Super Bowls," Dalton said Wednesday, as if he'd won the office raffle. "You never know what you are going to get if you lose a game. It comes with the position, and I’m not worried about it. We’re 9-4 and in a good position right now. Hopefully with better games and plays, it won’t be so dramatic when nothing goes our way. I’m going to be me regardless of what anyone says.

“I feel like there are times when (criticism) can be extreme. With social media, anyone can say what they want. I don’t feel like if they saw me on the street they would say it right directly to me, but they can hide behind a computer or social media. That’s part of what it is today, but I’m not worried about it.”

Since Dalton got drafted in the second round in 2011, there have been two constants: wins and a demeanor that borders on flat line, two qualities at the top of the list for NFL quarterbacks. The more heat Dalton gets, the more he shrugs and the more resolved he gets.

How bad of a year can it be if your team is 9-4 and you've just won your second player of the week award and the only guys that have done that this year MVP candidates Manning and Rivers?

"That's one of the traits you have to have as a quarterback. If you're too emotional and think you're too good when you're playing good and think you're too bad when you're playing bad, you have no chance," Gruden said. "You can't listen to the hype when people are patting you on the back and writing good articles and you can't believe it when they tell you that you stink and can't play. You have to stay the course, be consistent in your approach to the position, study hard every week. It’s a grind. This week we've got Dick LeBeau and the Steelers defense at their place and it's not going to be easy again."

But what can be debated is Dalton's Common Denominator. What are the same principles in his best performances? Certainly lack of pressure is a leading symptom. Last Sunday was the third straight game he wasn't sacked. When he threw for five touchdowns against the Jets he was sacked once. When he outpitched Matthew Stafford in Detroit, he was sacked once. When he struggled in the overtime losses in Miami and Baltimore, he was sacked five times each. Pro Football Focus has him rated as the 21st quarterback throwing under pressure.

Obvious?

"Take some pressure off of him. Get him in second and five and first down," Gruden said, alluding to Sunday's game. "We had some play-action passes that he hit, second and two, and first-and-10 a lot. We only had 12 third downs in (77) plays, which was excellent. That means we were staying out of them, those third downs that were long. It's not like we were in a lot of third-and-12s, third-and-10s. We were in makeable down and distances where we didn't have to take deep drops, let patterns develop down the field. Mess with all the protections. It's something we could keep in his wheel house and do things he's comfortable doing."

The one sure thing that relieves pressure and offers space is the running game and when the Bengals are running and running well, Dalton thrives. When the Bengals run it at least 30 times with Dalton, they are 19-3. This season when they run it more times than they pass—or have the same number of attempts—they are 4-0. Dalton has six TDs and three picks off play-action passes for a 99.1 passer rating, according to PFF.

"Sometimes we don't run the ball 30 times, we're not having a lot of success so we stop running it. In my mind I have to do a better job of making sure we continue to have the balance," Gruden said. "Trying to force the balance. Keep him in comfortable situations. That’s not always going to be the case. Sometimes you get down, 17-0, or 14-0 or whatever it is.

"We were forced to throw it (in Baltimore) and in the third quarter we had the wind so we had to hurry up and try to score with the wind as quick as we could, so we threw it. Then in the fourth quarter we had to throw it. Every game is its own entity. Every game plan you have the idea going in that you want to be balanced. Every coordinator does. Sometimes it doesn't work out that way. When it doesn't, those are the times we need to do a better job that he's comfortable somehow."

Gruden says this is the most confidence he's had in in the running game in his three seasons here and why not? Big back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and fleet Giovani Bernard are in a race for the team rushing title with numbers for two backs that haven't been seen in Cincinnati since Ickey Woods's rookie year of 1988. Both are on pace for at least 760 yards.

"Cedric (Benson) had some good runs. Benny has had some good runs. The combination of Gio and Benny, we haven't had that one-two punch, in my opinion," Gruden said. "We were hoping (Bernard) Scott would be that guy, unfortunately for him he had those injuries. But when you bring in a guy like Gio, it's different. We haven't had two guys like that."

The confidence in the running game seems palpable. Andrew Whitworth has been lobbying publicly for his club and offensive line to be more physical and with five straight games of at least 30 rushes the Bengals are getting the chance. Whitworth's move to left guard the past two games with a total of 73 rushes almost seems to be the punctuation mark. He's one of these guys that believes the running game is a staple no matter the era.

"If you can run the ball effectively, you’re putting less opportunities for the D-linemen to pass rush well and also creating scenarios where teams get a little hesitant to blitz as much," Whitworth said before Wednesday's practice. "Because if you run the football really well, they blitz themselves out of it and that’s where you get some of your big runs. When you’re just throwing it over and over again, teams start to bring more and more pressure and just tee off on you. We’re creating that scenario where it’s hard to know which one you want to do. Even though people are saying throwing is the new generation, running the football will always be the hammer in the sense that it can eliminate many defensive game plans. That’s why it’s so pivotal to be able to stop it for every team in the league. If you can stop the run you’re going to be a good defense, and if you can’t, you never will be a good defense."

The mark of the Steelers under LeBeau has always been stopping the run. Somehow the Bengals beat them in Pittsburgh last year even though they rushed for 14 yards. This year Pittsburgh has struggled with some injuries and falling behind early and are ranked only 24th against the run. Gruden has maintained the Steelers and Ravens are two difficult defenses to run the ball against, but we'll have to wait until Sunday to see how he views that now.

"Coach LeBeau is a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator. Pittsburgh's record is down a little this year, but still they play good defense and they're sound in what they do, they force you to make mistakes," Gruden said. "They're a physical group. Any time you have a team that's hard to run the ball against and they force you into throwing the ball, you play right into their hands. The big thing for us is to have some consistency running the football. Like we've been doing in this win streak."

 

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