All the world saw Thursday night why Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden loves the intangibles and competitiveness of quarterback Andy Dalton. The 34-13 victory over the Eagles had all the style points of a ham sandwich but Dalton found a way to get a victory on the road. He also showed Gruden why he needs Dalton to play better Dec. 23 in Pittsburgh in what amounts to a play-in game for the NFL tournament.
Dalton hit just 48 percent of his passes, didn't have a 20-yard completion, didn't find any other wide receivers other than Pro Bowler A.J. Green, and Gruden estimates half of Philly's six sacks went back to Dalton's decision-making.
And next up is Charles Richard LeBeau, the Steelers defensive coordinator who is 14-4 against the Bengals team he used to coach for 18 years, three of them as head coach. In those 18 games, Bengals quarterbacks have a 74.6 passer rating against perennial top five defenses. Dalton is going to hear all week how he's 0-6 against the Steelers and Ravens; 0-3 against LeBeau with a 64.6 passer rating compared to his career mark of 84.7.
"He's got the mental toughness where he doesn't get affected too much by events that happen early in games and he keeps fighting and that's a good thing," Gruden said Friday. "He's got to be more consistent. His accuracy for whatever reason was inaccurate. He did not pull the trigger like he should pull the trigger. He was gun-shy just a little bit. He's got the bullets in his gun; he just didn't fire. He's got to fire them. But it's all said and done; all we look for is victories and we try to correct the mistakes he had. The important thing is going on the road on Thursday night against a good Eagles defense and getting a win. I don't care how we got it."
But Gruden does care that Dalton hasn't been himself the last three weeks. The Bengals had a chance to go up 14-0 on their second possession and Dalton took a sack when he didn't unload it to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins open in the end zone. Dalton threw a screen pass into the ground and he didn't start running against the exotic and gambling Eagles stunts until the third quarter, Gruden says he needs Dalton to be more decisive.
"It was very un-Andy-like last night," Gruden said. "He missed some throws that he should make, he didn't throw some throws that he should throw, could have run for yards and tried to throw across his body and was almost intercepted. He made some plays that just weren't up to par. He missed (tight end Jermaine) Gresham on an out—he's 6-foot-5 for God's sakes and he throws it over his head—doesn't pull the trigger to (Hawkins) twice (in the end zone). Just a tough day."
Gruden is seeking consistency. In a three-game stretch from Nov. 11-Nov. 25, Dalton had nine touchdowns and no interceptions with a triple-digit passer rating. In his next three-game stretch (Dec. 2-Dec. 13) he has three touchdowns and three interceptions for a 72 rating.
"We expect to see progress and not regression, and he kind of took a step back last night," Gruden said. "That's disappointing but in fairness to him, it's a road game, a Thursday night game against a pretty good defensive front and they have two good corners and they did a good job. Hats off to the defense over there. They played hard and spirited and took it to us. But we had some plays that should have been made that weren't."
Dalton didn't have the greatest cooperation from his offensive line as it grappled with the Eagles stunts. He was the victim of two sacks and strips, but he also didn't have his trademark rhythm of quick, anticipatory throws.
"You never know how a guy handles that type of pressure. Hopefully it doesn't," Gruden said of being bothered by the rush. "Hopefully it won't affect him in weeks to come. He got pressured, but there also were three or four plays where he got pressure where he didn't have to. He could have unloaded the ball to an open guy. He just held it, thought he saw something that he didn't. He's got to get the ball out of his hands. And we've got to do a better job of calling better plays with quicker elements. But they did a good job taking a lot of that away."
Gruden also emphasized that it was Dalton's first experience coping with a short week and it may have been a factor in dealing with an Eagles defense that featured two good cover corners and a pass rush and stunts the Bengals apparently hadn't seen on tape.
"Thursday night games are hard for offensive players. I don't know how it is for defense, but for offensive guys seeing a team for the first time you don't have a lot of time like offensive line to check out the rush and how they rush and stunts and all that stuff, and blitzes," Gruden said. "You try to cram it all in there with the run game and different personnel groups. Next thing you know you are on a plane and kicking off. You don't get to rep a lot of the plays. Red zone, short yardage, goal line, it's just all crammed in there. It's probably tougher for younger guys. You'd like to rep plays a little bit more during the week before you play but it's the same for them, they have a young quarterback, too, and you can see their struggles. So, yes, I would agree for a younger guy it would be a little bit harder."
Gruden and Dalton know they can't have another like Thursday. Not only do the Bengals have LeBeau next, but they've got a Super Bowl MVP in Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the week after that a quarterback that has never missed the playoffs in Baltimore's Joe Flacco. And, Gruden is hoping a rematch with another Super Bowl MVP.
"We are 8-6 right now and we still have everything in reach that we want to reach for. We just have to play better and we know that," Gruden said. "We know that the team is not going to fumble and give us that field position all the time. We are going to have to grind some yards, protect the football. We gave two turnovers in their end of the field and that can't happen. Teams with Ben Roethlisberger and Flacco and Peyton Manning like that."