Dalton hopes to hit homer

Andy Dalton

One of the first things Andy Dalton can remember growing up on the outskirts of Houston are the great Rockets teams that dominated the NBA of the mid-'90s while he was learning to throw a football and baseball.

"Clutch City," Dalton remembered before Thursday's practice and isn't this always the way?

His town is in a tizzy over the NFL again even though it has been so agonizingly close with their Oilers never making the Super Bowl and the Texans yet to make the playoffs in their decade on earth. But with the Texans now a game away from clinching the AFC South, Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-WLW-AM 700) has engulfed the city.

Now the one guy that can provide heartbreak in the clutch for even just another week like a Jim Kelly or a Norman Julius Esaison is the redheaded kid from Katy whose father is pretty sure he threw the first high school touchdown pass ever at Reliant Stadium.

"That's the plan even though it is nice to see the Texans doing well," Greg Dalton said Thursday. "We usually have people over to the house if we're not at the game and the difference now is it's on network TV so some people might stay home to watch it. Mostly family and friends. They like the Texans, but this is blood and so there won't be anyone not rooting for the Bengals."

Greg Dalton says it is getting like it was back when he was an awed high school junior bumping into the Oilers as his team traded places on the Astrodome floor during practice before the high school playoffs.

He knows because the news crews have been out to the house all week interviewing him and Tina, Andy's mother.

"It was a lot of fun in 'The Love Ya Blue' days," Greg Dalton said. "Tina and I both went to Texas and so we loved to watch Earl Campbell. Dan Pastorini was the quarterback. (Center) Carl Mauck was a character. It was fun to be in Houston with Bum Phillips coaching and the players they had."

Combined, Greg and Andy Dalton have twice as many wins in the Astrodome than Esiason. Try 2-0.When he was a junior, Andy led Katy High School to a playoff win about 30 years after Greg quarterbacked Madison High School to two playoff games and a split in the old mausoleum back in the '70s.

"That old AstroTurf," Andy said. "Random dead spots in the middle of the field."

He remembers getting his autographs from his favorite Astros in the Dome, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, and Greg remembers taking him to watch the Texans for the first time. It was the week Andy turned 15 and the Bengals were in town.

"The Bengals went in there and beat them pretty good," Greg said.

But that was between two winless teams in November. This one at PBS has soaring playoff implications, the first meaningful December NFL game between teams from Cincinnati and Houston since James Brooks rushed for a Bengals-record 201 yards at Riverfront Stadium in the next-to-last game of the 1990 season in a 40-20 victory that all but assured the Bengals of the AFC Central Division title and sentenced the Oilers to a Wild Card berth. That forced Houston's run-and-shoot offense to come out of the comforts of the Dome into the cold again two weeks later for a first-round playoff game and the Bengals snowed the run and froze the shoot again, 41-14.

Dalton was barely three years old, but weather is as much a hot a topic as it was back then. The Texans played indoors last week at Reliant and rookie quarterback T.J. Yates bounced the Falcons. But with the second-ranked Texans defense and third-ranked running game, the temperatures that are supposed to be somewhere between 30 and 40 degrees should have virtually no impact on a rugged team.

At least that is the way Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is looking at it. The Houston's relentless defense had him raving after Thursday's practice.

"Those guys all rush hard. They all bring it. It looks like it's third down and 20 every time they get in their stance," Gruden said. "They're rushing every play. It's unbelievable and they don't get tired. Like I said after watching a couple of plays of them, you have to get a drink of water.

"Do they ever stop? They're fun to watch. You have to credit their coaches and obviously the players for the effort they play with; the motor they play with, I haven't seen anything like it from anybody."

It is another call for Dalton against a top 10 defense when he faces a unit ranked second overall but particularly stingy against the pass. The Bengals are 3-4 in their games against top 10  defenses this season: 2-0 against the No. 8 Browns, 0-2 vs. the No. 1 Steelers, 0-1 vs. the No. 3 Ravens, 0-1 vs. the No. 4 49ers, and 1-0 vs. No. 5 Jaguars.

No one can be surprised at the gaps in Dalton's numbers between those teams and the others, except maybe that he's held up as well as he has for a rookie with a 73.2 passer rating in those seven games against the top 10 with eight TDs and eight interceptions.

His 57 percent passing and his 6.5 yards per throw are quite a contrast to the other five games, where he has a 91.5 rating on nine touchdowns and four interceptions with 62 percent passing and 7.2 yards per throw.

But then, that's why those defenses are elite.

"There's a reason they're top five. Those are damn good defenses but we have to do a better job of getting them in better positions. We have to do a better job of getting big chunks of yards," Gruden said. "That was our main focus against Pittsburgh, to utilize some play-action and get some big chunks. We got one on the second play of the game but never really got (another) opportunity. We had a chance on the second drive of the game but didn't hit it. We have to get some bigger chunks is what I'm saying. For us to drive the ball down 12 plays a drive is tough against those teams."

Dalton has his least productive game last Sunday in Pittsburgh with 135 yards passing and he missed on some plays. Gruden thought the key drive of the game was the one that began with 1:48 left in the first half and the Bengals trying to cut a 21-7 lead at the half.

But it was a gruesome three-and-out that began when Dalton simply overthrew wide receiver Andrew Hawkins on an out route and got worse when tight end Jermaine Gresham dropped a ball over the middle and a false start made it an impossible third-and-15.

And on one of the three sacks, when the Steelers got a mismatch with Gresham on outside linebacker James Harrison, Dalton held on to the ball when he should have gotten rid of it. But Gruden continues to believe Dalton's accuracy is one of his strengths.

"He missed a couple of throws that he normally makes, like I said, but he's an accurate guy," Gruden said. "Some of the throws he anticipated where receivers were coming out one way and maybe they came out this way. (Jerome Simpson) ran a hook route. Instead of coming down a stem, he came down a little inside and Andy threw it right down the stem so it looked like he missed him by five yards but really he was trying to hit that window quickly. It happens. It happens with quarterbacks like that. It happens with (Ben) Roethlisberger. I've seen him do it. It happens with the great ones. But he's very accurate."

If there is one thing Dalton has learned going against the iron, it is how thin the margin of error is. A third-and-15 is virtually impossible to make. A touchdown or field goal called back almost always blows up in points on the other end. A miscommunication in pass protection can not only end up in a sack, but an injury, as Dalton found out last Sunday when he was benched after taking a shot to the hip and limped back to the bench.

"You have to be better than good. I said it last week that if you're just OK against these teams it's just not good enough," Gruden said. "You have to be great every series or you're going to be losing. He's got to be consistently great against those teams. It's one thing to have a series or two if things don't go real well but you have to be on top of your game with your protections and your throws and your reads. You have to be sharp against them at all times and we weren't. The play calls weren't very good, he wasn't as sharp as he normally is, we had a couple of drops here and there. We just never got into synch."

So the weather isn't going to matter against a defense with 35 sacks and plus-12 turnover differential. Gruden knows Dalton and gang have to play it close to the vest and even closer to perfect.

"They can hold the ball from you for a long time so it's very important for us to maintain some drives and keep our defense fresh so that they're not on the field all day," Gruden said. "If we're turning the ball over, giving them extra opportunities it's going to be a long day for us. We have to maintain some drives, protect the football and keep our defense fresh."

If Dalton can do that, Cincy is "Clutch City," and his hometown has to wait another week.

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