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Dalton gets the drop on spring

Andy Dalton

Andy Dalton can be found these days in the Bengals locker room jokingly flexing but seriously challenging.

"C'mon. What do you think?" he might ask standing on the scale.

If you guess his draft day weight of 217 pounds, you'd be wrong.

"Nope," he might say triumphantly. "Try 224.6."

Most of the new thickness is through his chest and shoulders after Dalton went home following the Wild Card loss in Houston trying to figure out how to quarterback his team deeper into the NFL hunt. After the 16-game pounding and the 24-hour flu bug before the playoff game shriveled him to 208 pounds, he felt like he needed to get stronger in the weight room.

But while Dalton lived with the weights he also watched tape of his rookie struggles with the long ball and he knew he needed to make putting more meat on his deep passes one of his offseason priorities.

With Dalton preparing for his first voluntary camp as a pro next week in Tuesday's first practice, the two issues are related only in the sense people can tell he went after it, which just may be his most important leadership contribution in this young season.

"We're going to start faster this year," Dalton said this week. "There were games where I stunk in the first half. I'm not going to have those games."

Under the watchful eye of quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, Cincinnati's maven of mechanics, Dalton is reportedly going long better and easier than he did last year. No one, not Zampese, not offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, questions Dalton's arm strength. For Dalton, the long ball starts with the legs, not the arm.

In the games that have already begun, which are merely pitch-and-catch with his receivers, Dalton has reportedly looked sharp. His fastball seems to have more zip to some. Gruden isn't sure about all that but says Dalton looks stronger and in one throwing session this week word was he hit all but one deep "Go" route, with the only incompletion a drop.

And when he's not throwing to receivers, Dalton and the rest of the quarterbacks are throwing to Zampese's invention. Hockey may have the Zamboni, but the NFL has the Zammy, which is basically a movable basketball hoop and net mounted on a cart that can be placed at any distance, height and angle.

When the quarterbacks practice the deep balls, they put the Zammy at 42 yards down the sideline. It's the same magic number the Bengals quarterbacks coach used at Spinney Field 40 years ago when Bill Walsh dragged out a garbage can or one of Tom Gray's laundry baskets.

"It's something we've taken the time to emphasize," Zampese said. "After we throw, we'll put on some film and compare it to last year and see why it's better. He's got a better base to throw from now than he did during the season, which gives you the distance and the arc. He's got more control of himself when he gets back there with the fifth step. It's more balanced."

When Dalton was able to finally decompress back in February, after a stretch of his wedding, a lightning training camp, his first 16 NFL starts, a playoff berth, and two Pro Bowl touchdown passes that occurred in all of 199 days, he didn't like some of the things he saw on tape.

"When I threw my Go ball, I wasn't very good last year," Dalton said. "I know there were sometimes I was rushing my drop because I felt like I had to get back quicker than I really had to. I thought there was going to be pressure when there wasn't really going to be pressure. Little things mentally. I knew what was going on, but I'd go back quicker and when I did I'd step on my back foot. The ball wasn't where I wanted it to be.

"I'd rush the top of the drop," he said of the last two or three steps in the five-step drop. "I'm not hitting that fifth step, hitching up, and getting it out. It's a hit the fifth step, kind of have to gather, and then hitch, and then try to throw it, so the timing is off."

Spring is for flowers, lovers, graduations and NFL coaches. The players didn't have one last year because of the lockout and the first casualties were the fundamentals. Now for the first time, Zampese says, he's able to work on specific parts of Dalton's game for longer periods.

"In the spring," Zampese said, "you can slow it down. More specific. More detailed."

Lost in Dalton's warp speed conversion from college to the pros was his large number of snaps under center compared to the shotgun snaps he primarily took at Texas Christian. He didn't have to deal with the transferring of weight and getting his feet right since he was already taking the snap in the pocket. He didn't drop back all that much.

"You're transitioning more, you're moving with more speed because in the gun you're already back there," Zampese said. "Now he's got more control over his weight so he can transition it into the throw. I like his balance. He's made progress."

Maybe the Bengals didn't get that one more explosive difference-maker in the draft (Michael Floyd? Isaiah Pead?) to team with a Pro Bowler at wide receiver in A.J. Green and one at tight end in Jermaine Gresham. But improvements to the running game and the long ball may have some of the same impact.

"My focus has been more on getting that fifth step and really getting that hitch, and really getting more into it," Dalton said. "Rather than trying to feel a throw out there. Just let it go. There were so many times last year we were running by guys even if they were the off corner. A.J. and some of these other guys are going to get past them. It can be frustrating when you know you've got it and you just missed the throw. Hopefully it will happen a little less this year."

It was Dalton's ability to forget the last throw and think about the next one that was at the core of his four fourth-quarter comebacks. He rarely shows frustration, but when he did it was usually from a missed deep ball. Now he's got the spring to think about it. And not only that, Green and the young receivers are getting the work they didn't get last spring, either.

"The 42 yards is a pretty common number," said Zampese of the long ball Zammy. "We like it because we want to give A.J. Green the chance to run into the end zone."

The Zammy may no longer be a bucket, but it is definitely on Dalton's list this spring.

"Throwing the football is all footwork. If your feet aren't right it's a lot tougher to throw," Dalton said. "If you're finding yourself underthrowing guys, that's when you're not getting everything into it and it's all upper body, all arm."

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