Maestro Dalton hitting right notes

Andy Dalton is second only to Aaron Rodgers in NFL passing.

Everyone wants to know the difference.

Who is this Andy Dalton, a career 85.0 passer now rated the AFC's best passer and challenging future Hall-of-Famer Aaron Rodgers for the NFL passing title?

Who is this red-head that has imploded on prime time but on Sunday brought one of the NFL's most hostile home fields to its knees twice in a 4:27 span of bloodless efficiency with a pair of 80-yard drives that erased two deficits?

"Look at last year's 3-0," said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson on Monday, the mute button on NFL Network as Dalton's heroics were replayed and rehashed in the league's draining 24-hour recycle on his TV set. "Now look at this year. The guy has eight touchdowns and one interception. That's the difference."

Simply more. Last year it was two touchdowns and a pick. As Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese says, "We've got more of Andy. We've got more of the guy we knew we were getting when we drafted him."

Zampese, intimately involved in Dalton's selection as the 35th pick in the 2011 draft, is talking as much about personality as he is knowledge. As much about mid-week deportment as he is pre-snap reads.

"Everything. We've seen it for five years," Zampese sai

Cincinnati Bengals take on the Baltimore Ravens in week 3 of the regular season 09/27/2015

d Monday after he met with the quarterbacks. "As he's gotten older, he's gotten better at all these things and as he's gotten older we've added more pieces around him and right now we're all young, healthy and hungry like we were in '04, 05, and '06."

Jackson has the Bengals ranked No. 2 in offense, the highest they've been since they were No. 1 after the 13th week of 2005. After the first month of the season, Dalton has a better yards per attempt than Rodgers and Tom Brady, more TD passes than either Manning brother, and fewer interceptions than Russell Wilson.

But if people would erase the mute button and stop looking at the most recent, numbing 24-hour loop, they would see that this Dalton didn't fall out of the sky Sunday in Baltimore in the middle of the fourth quarter:

_A scant 55 weeks before, he capped a fourth-quarter comeback in Baltimore on his 77-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver A.J. Green with 4:56 left to give the Bengals the only September road win in the seven Ravens seasons of John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco. Until Sunday.

_Three years ago in the din of Heinz Field with the season on the line he threw a 21-yard razor to Green with eight seconds left to set up the field goal that put the Bengals in the playoffs.

_Two years ago this October he put together a 4-0 run with a 116.8 passer rating and was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month. That was 11 TDs to three interceptions. Remember the old days of 2013 when he had Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert? He threw a Bengals record 33 touchdown passes and became the first Bengal since David Fulcher in 1989 to win the three monthly or weekly AFC awards in the same season.

_Last year at Paul Brown Stadium with another season on the line on fourth-and-one from the 1, he improvised at the line of scrimmage with less than a minute left. Just like he did Sunday with 2:16 left. Last year it worked, too, when he snuck in for another fourth-quarter win that propelled the Bengals to a half-game lead over the Ravens and led to another play-off berth.

But everyone is looking at the recycled playoff loop with the mute button clicked on.

Is there really a difference?

As Zampese says, "When you put the nail in the coffin in Baltimore with (the improv), it's a big deal," and people notice.

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Hue Jackson wanted more than pre-snap reads from Andy Dalton and his QB has responded.

Maybe it's only the jokes that are different. The smiles. The ease. More Hue and more Andy.

So it's not that he changed  last Sunday's winning play at the line, when he saw  yet another blitz coming, switched up the protection by motioning in Eifert from wide to in tight and then threw another seven-yard dart to Green for a touchdown. He's been doing the right pre-snap reads long enough that both the NFL-seasoned Jackson and Zampese say he's one of the best they've ever been around at doing it.

And Jackson says he's given Dalton as much freedom as anyone he's ever had. That would include Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer, and a young Michael Vick. Call Dalton "Carte Blanche," as long as it's on the sheet.

So that's not different. But maybe what is different is how he reacted to losing the ball on a sack and strip for a touchdown that gave the Bengals their first deficit of the season with 6:49 left.

"Andy looked at me and said, 'OK, Coach. Let's go. Don't even worry about it.' That's what he said," Jackson said. "A year ago, I can't tell you he said that. This year, he said, 'Coach don't worry about it. Hey, we don't have to get it all back right here, but if you want to, we can do that.'"

Poof. Twelve seconds later, on ball thrown so well that A.J. Green zipped 80 yards down the seam to suck the air out of the place.

"There was a calmness. There was a veteran player who had been through the wars, who had been through a lot of things here that looked me in the eye and said, 'Let's go.'  . . . That's what it was, and that's what I've been looking for. So it's there. And now it will pay off for us in the long run."

A long run to maybe Vegas. Apparently Steve Smith Sr., wasn't the only guy firing out side-line one-liners.  

"He was laughing. There were jokes going on out there between me and him sometimes. That's how comfortable this has become, and that's what you want," Jackson said. "There was a time yesterday when I'm in a timeout and I'm saying something and he knows what I'm saying, and he's just sitting there looking at me and laughing.

 'Hey, Coach. I got it.' That's just how he is. The last play that was remarkable, I'm giving him the play and about to talk him through the scenario in case this happens and he goes (clap!), 'Coach I got it. Here we go. Let's go.' I mean, that's a comfort level. That's spending time in here, that's spending time in the classroom. That's what you want from your leader, from your quarterback. That's why he has so much respect down in that locker room because they know the time that he puts in."

A difference? Maybe it is Jackson's Type A personality mixing in with all the coaching, repetition, and drills. There's no question that shortly after the Wild Card loss in Indianapolis back in January ended their first season together Jackson gave Dalton the biggest challenge of his career as he sought more leadership from the guy that could do everything you'd want at the line of scrimmage.

But he needed something else from him. And when he saw the placid Green erupt Sunday, he knew he had it.

"I think you guys all saw it," Jackson said. "After the 80-yard touchdown run, are you kidding me? I mean, that guy was on fire. But it's getting to be contagious. It stems from Andy. It starts with him."

Scrambling? On Sunday, Dalton had three huge scrambles, one for a TD, one to convert a third down, and one that led to running back Giovani Bernard's 23-yard catch to ignite the winning drive. But Zampese can click off three big scrambles in his career before Sunday.

And Zampese, the master mechanic, hasn't seen major changes in Dalton's throwing motion. The three stints at Dr. Tom House's quarterbacks camp in the offseason have clearly made an impact.

"He's quicker, more compact, more balanced, more accurate," Zampese said.

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QBs coach Ken Zampese has watched Andy Dalton grow since the 2011 draft.

But that doesn't explain the 16-yard rope to wide receiver Marvin Jones for the TD that made it 14-0. It was a seed on a slant that the amazed Jones said was released just four steps into his route.

"That's trust and anticipation and trust with a guy you've done it with 100 times," Zampese said. "If that's a guy we just picked up off the street and he'd been here a week, it's different because you don't have time on task. But it's Marvin Jones, a guy that had 10 touchdowns two years ago, a guy he's thrown to in big situations."

Zampese also hasn't seen a change in Dalton's study habits. When they scouted him at Texas Christian, they knew he was "a football smart guy."

"He wants to do it right," Zampese said. "Whatever you give him to memorize, he will memorize it like it is nothing. But then on top of that he has an ability to see things before they happen by who is located where and it helps eliminate certain things before the snap or adjust to certain things before the snap that puts the odds in our favor more often."

No one wants to sit down and watch tape with you and tell you how he does it. What he sees. That would give away too much. As Dalton walked to the bus Sunday after quieting the hysteria of half-an-hour before, he would only confirm what 70,970 and a CBS audience saw.

"Yeah," said Dalton with the same laugh he gave Jackson. "A.J. was in the slot. I'll give you that."

It sounds like geometry the way Zampese looks at it. He has been around some of the best. Brett Favre in Green Bay. Kurt Warner in St. Louis. Look at the AFC and NFC leaders in third down and fourth quarter passing. Dalton and Arizona's Carson Palmer. Palmer, the man Zampese coached in Cincinnati during that '04-'06 run.

"What he sees and feels at the line of scrimmage, his ability to manipulate the offense to fit the look is up there with the best of them. That's a big positive in his column. He's been doing that for five years," Zampese said.

After five years, it's to the point when Zampese is making more and more notes in his mind that say, "He's already seen that."

"He's comfortable in the offense. He's comfortable in the expectations, what the parameters are," Zampese said. "What his role is in directing guys and the plays and the protections and the runs and what the freedom is for him. When you know where the boundaries are it makes it easier to play within them . . . It brings confidence to me that we're not limited in our imagination because we have a guy that we can do anything we want with him."

And Jackson plans to do exactly that.

Maybe that's the difference.

"We try to take the gray out of a quarterback's mind, play like you're in the backyard," Jackson said. "You kind of play. But it's all driven by pinpoint accuracy by the quarterback, being able to throw very accurately and be smart and trust the guys that we put around you."

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