When the Bengals show it down with the Steelers Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 12), quarterback Andy Dalton has his team 4-1 while taking a page from Big Ben’s playbook.
For years (14 to be exact), Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has barged his way to Canton by torturing the AFC North with big play after big play roaming out of the pocket away from pressure or literally throwing under pressure with bodies hanging on him like some horror movie. (Remember when he made like Dracula and came out of the crypt in the Wild Card Game after the Bengals’ pressure had seeming driven a stake through his heart?)
But Dalton comes into Sunday, according to profootballfocus.com, as one of the best passers in the league under pressure. Never a big part of his game until quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt arrived this season, Dalton is tied with Tom Brady and Philip Rivers with the second most touchdown passes under pressure (five) and the seventh best passer rating in the NFL at 83.3.
That comes after a season he finished 19th in passer rating (75.9) and threw just six TD passes under the gun for his career high. Dalton points to the bag of disaster drills Van Pelt brought with him from his decade-long career coaching NFL quarterbacks.
“I’m glad he’s here. Good stuff,” Dalton said after Thursday’s practice.
Before Van Pelt, this minister of mayhem, got into coaching he was an NFL back-up quarterback for another decade and lived the pressure. Then he went to Green Bay and helped Aaron Rodgers join Roethlisberger for a Night at the Improv in Canton one day.
“Every quarterback should be able to drop back and throw a 5 route or come-back route in a clean pocket,” Van Pelt said. “Any quarterback should be able to do that. It’s when the body is under duress. That’s my approach. It’s when you have to throw off your back foot or throw when your left foot is behind your right foot and you’re all messed up down below. That’s what we try to emphasize during those individual periods.”
So Van Pelt makes his quarterbacks practice the worst-looking throws this side of a middle-school game. The really great completion to Van Pelt looks more like a Beechmont Avenue fender-bench rather than an Andrew Wyeth painting 50 yards through the seascape.
“A lot of awkward throws,” Dalton said. “Not being set. Not being in the same spot. Not having your feet in the right spot all the time. What we’ve been doing in practice we’ve been able to apply in a game.”
Exhibit A came last Sunday against the Dolphins. Dalton’s 18-yard touchdown pass with his legs chained in the embrace of Miami defensive end Charles Harris turned the tide of the game when it came moments after the Bengals defense held on third-and-a-foot. The how-did-he-do-that frustration of the Miami defenders when they saw running back Joe Mixon haul it in was palpable and a precursor.
“That was a classic,” Van Pelt said. “Free rusher. Stepped up. Ball security tucking it under his left arm pit to keep it away from the defender. Leaned into the free rusher and broke through. That’s the epitome of what we’re doing.”
But Dalton’s favorite throw of the day may have come earlier in the game. They went play-action and there was more action than play from the Dolphins as they swarmed him.
He moved up in the pocket and ended up no only throwing on the run, but throwing while running forward and not being able to get a thing on the ball. It was a wobbler, but a perfectly thrown wobbler to wide receiver A.J. Green working the right sideline for his longest catch of the day on a 23-yarder.
“Threw it to a spot,” Dalton said. “That was one of my better throws.
“It’s similar what we do in the drills. We don’t have anybody hanging on us (like the TD) and you throw it. But it helps. There were definitely no legs in that throw.”
The throw to Mixon emphasized Van Pelt’s emphasis. But maybe even more indicative of his play against a swarm was his alertness in the pocket in Atlanta when he didn’t give up a strip-sack in the winning drive.
“Big teaching points are you have to disconnect you upper and lower body,” Van Pelt said. “Your lower body may be in a different state, but your upper body still has to be able to throw accurately … If you practice the hard stuff, it’s easier in the game.
“He’s a good athlete. He can run. I hope it’s helped him. I hoped it’s made him more comfortable.”
Two years ago Van Pelt commandeered Rodgers through a season he led the league passing under pressure with a ridiculous 12 touchdowns against one interception. Dalton has two picks this year under pressure, but the concept is the same.
“In practice we’d break down plays so we could use the scramble drill and the receivers would get used to reacting to him out of the pocket,” Van Pelt said. “You get about six to eight plays a game that are unscripted like that and they’re always the potential for big plays.”
Exhibit B: In Carolina, chased out of the pocket against a five-man pressure, Dalton ended up having to throw across his body when he glimpsed wide receiver Tyler Boyd continuing his route across the back of the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown. Running to the left? Dalton made it look easy.
“You can get big plays against pressure. A lot of times there’s not as many guys in coverage,” Dalton said. “I think it shows our offensive line is picking stuff up and our guys are playing fast.”
Meanwhile, the minister of mayhem keeps drilling.
“To me, that’s something you have to work on because they’re such big plays,” Van Pelt said. “You can score on them or change field position.”