Matchup Of The Game: Bengals Seek To Spoil Dalton's Return, But With A Salute

Geno Atkins meets Andy Dalton.
Geno Atkins meets Andy Dalton.

BENGALS DT GENO ATKINS VS. COWBOYS QB ANDY DALTON

In a red-headed game of emotion, the Bengals current Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee lines up against a former nominee who also has deep ties in the Cincinnati community when Dalton quarterbacks the Cowboys in his Paul Brown Stadium return Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) against Atkins' Bengals defense.

Atkins is one of eight players from Dalton's best Bengals team, the 2015 club that began the season 8-0 and vaulted the Bengals to their fifth playoff appearance in Dalton's five seasons.

The Bengals' winningest quarterback ever and one of their more respected players in and outside the locker room, Dalton returns as a backup for a limping Cowboys team seeking steam in the suddenly percolating NFC East. His old team is also run by a backup in the wake of the loss of Joe Burrow, Dalton's successor as the franchise quarterback.

Atkins, an eight-time Pro Bowler, was named as the Payton nominee Thursday near the end of his 11th season in Cincinnati. Hampered by a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the first three games and has limited him to just 13 percent of the snaps that have come largely on third down, Atkins is looking for his first sack of the year after a decade of 75.5 that has put him on a Hall of Fame pace.

The season hasn't deterred Atkins from continuing his good works as he and wife Kristen shifted their battle to COVID.

Back in the spring the couple donated $100,000 to the Freestore Foodbank to provide 300,000 meals to families in Southwest Ohio, Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana during the rise of the virus. Then last month in Thanksgiving week he expanded his family's third annual Atkins Week of Giving to eight days and focused on those hit by the pandemic.

And those were the kinds of moments Dalton reflected on Thursday in a joint conference call of Dallas and Cincinnati media. The Jordan and Andy Dalton Foundation is also a power couple charitable effort, one that left an inedible mark in Cincinnati that emphasized lifting up ill children and their families.

"When I think about Cincinnati, obviously we think about the football and the success we were able to have but we don't just think about football when we think about Cincinnati," Dalton said. "We think about the impact we were able to make, the hospital, these kids and their lives and the people we met along the way. I think that's right now being away from Cincinnati now and looking back at it, we think about all the people we were able to meet and all the relationships we were able to make."

What takes place Sunday doesn't happen very often.

For just the 14th time in their history the Bengals play one of their former starting quarterbacks. And Dalton is making his sixth appearance in one of them.

The win over Fitzpatrick's Bills marked Dalton's first PBS victory, a 23-20-Mike-Nugent-at-the-gun special back on Oct. 2, 2011 that was the first of his 24 game-winning drives as a Bengal. But that day didn't come to mind right away when asked to reflect on his most memorable moments at The Paul.

BENGALS VS. FORMER STARTING QBS

(Courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau)

Table inside Article
Date Opponent Opposing QB Bengals Result Bengals QB
9/25/1983 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jack Thompson W, 23-17 Ken Anderson
11/21/1993 New York Jets Boomer Esiason L, 17-12 David Klingler
12/18/1994 Arizona Cardinals Jay Schroeder L, 28-7 Jeff Blake
10/25/1998 Oakland Raiders Donald Hollas L, 27-10 Neil O’Donnell
11/10/2002 Baltimore Ravens Jeff Blake L, 38-27 Jon Kitna
12/01/2002 Baltimore Ravens Jeff Blake L, 27-23 Jon Kitna
11/02/2003 Arizona Cardinals Jeff Blake L, 17-14 Jon Kitna
11/21/2010 Buffalo Bills Ryan Fitzpatrick L, 49-31 Carson Palmer
10/02/2011 Buffalo Bills Ryan Fitzpatrick W, 23-20 Andy Dalton
11/25/2012 Oakland Raiders Carson Palmer W, 34-10 Andy Dalton
11/22/2015 Arizona Cardinals Carson Palmer L, 34-31 Andy Dalton
9/11/2016 New York Jets Ryan Fitzpatrick W, 23-22 Andy Dalton
12/22/2019 Miami Dolphins Ryan Fitzpatrick L, 37-34 (OT) Andy Dalton

"It's hard to pick just one. I had several really good games," Dalton said. "I had a five-touchdown game against the Jets. I had a couple four-touchdown games against the Vikings and Colts. There's games I could go back and think about that were really good. The comeback against Seattle in '15, at the end of that (overtime) game. That's one of those games where we needed to make a play and we were able to get it done. So there's some stuff that now being away from it a little bit and thinking back on my time in Cincinnati there were some really good games with some really good teams. Fun to go back and kind of reminisce."

Bengals right end Carl Lawson is trying to make sure Sunday doesn't turn into one of those nostalgic moments for Dalton. He enjoyed being Dalton's teammate as much as anyone, but he knows Dalton gets it out of his hand fast. And he's better when he does.

About 57 percent of his passes have come when he's in the pocket less than 2.5 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus. He's completing 73 percent of those for four of his seven touchdowns and four of his six interceptions. He finds himself in a similar predicament to Bengals backup Brandon Allen as they work behind banged-up offensive lines.

"I mean, I'm just taking it as another week, but I have nothing but good things to say about Andy. While he was here, he was a great dude," said Lawson Thursday in a pre-practice media Zoom. "He's seen it all. He's a vet. We know Andy. He's been here for a couple years, coverage, he knows how to pick apart a defense. You know, he's going to do what he does best, get the ball out, stay in the pocket, things of that nature."

Since Dalton was here last year, there is some concern about the defensive verbiage being barked out on the field. Anything familiar could be deadly since Dalton is so good at the line of scrimmage interpreting defenses. Lawson indicated they're working on the codebooks.

"It's always a big deal. You don't want the opposing team to get your calls," Lawson said.

You can forgive Dalton if he recognizes the calls, but not the numbers. If the Bengals start the game like they did in Miami last week on defense, there'll be only three starters from Dalton's finale against Cleveland last Dec. 29.

"He's very smart. He does a lot of things for the offense," said left end Sam Hubbard, one of those three. "Communication wise at the line of scrimmage, he can pick up on things and we've just got to be smart about what we're doing, how we communicate because some of our language and stuff, he's obviously familiar with and he's going to be tuned into what we're doing, so, we just got to be sound." 

Dalton has had quite a bumpy ride since taking over for Dak Prescott. Barely had he come off the bench to lift them to a last-play win over the Giants for game winning drive No. 25 when he suffered a 1-2 punch of concussion and COVID. He missed nearly a month and while he came back to beat old friend Mike Zimmer in game winning drive No. 25, the Cowboys have been outscored, 77-33, in the two games since.

"At the end of the recovery from the concussion I got a headache and all of a sudden I started to get the body aches and chills and then realized this is more than just a headache from the concussion," Dalton said. "And then I had to do the whole process with COVID and get through that. I think from the concussion standpoint, it was probably nice that I had the extra couple weeks just to have my head heal and have that extra time. But then had to deal with all the stuff with COVID.

Dalton has a clear-headed history of saying just the right things and always stayed off the AFC North bulletin boards. No difference now.

"It's going to be a little different to be on the other sideline, be in the other locker room, all that kind of stuff," Dalton said. "But preparation is the same and you're going about it the same way, trying to do everything you can to win."

But no one doubts "The Red Rifle," is going to be oiled up.

"He's a competitor. He's spent a lot of time here in Cincinnati, done a lot of great things for the Bengals," Hubbard said, "and I would be shocked if he didn't feel a little extra motivation coming back here. 

 Dalton admitted he didn't like some of the things that transpired at the end last season, but since he didn't elaborate it's a pretty good guess he still hasn't forgotten the three-game benching and not getting to free agency in March. But, as always, he kept it classy and he realizes there were far more good moments.

He's texted all year with "a lot of," old mates and the cross-over tape allowed him to keep track of the Bengals on film. So he saw Burrow.

"I thought Joe's had a really good year, he's done a really good job, a lot of really good things and thrown the ball really well," Dalton said.

"At the end of the day," he said, "I'm thankful for my time in Cincinnati."

So are the guys here, like center Trey Hopkins, the man that delivered Dalton's last Bengals' snap in the kneel-down win over Cleveland.

"I'm not going to lie and say we had the closest buddy-buddy relationship. We didn't," Hopkins said. "But he was a leader and he was a guy that I looked up to on this team because he was always the same person. No matter what was going on, Andy was always the same person. He was able to keep his cool. He was able to maintain his poise. He was able to always remember the mission, I'll say. There was never a second where he let his emotions or his personal feelings overshadow the goal of the team or the goal of the offense. That's one thing I learned about Andy and I know about Andy and I respect him for."

The calendar always seems to have the final say and it's no different here. Sunday is five years to the day Dalton pulled into his PBS parking space to lead his 10-2 Bengals against the Steelers with a career record of 50-25-1 and a string of 77 straight starts.

The rest, as they say, is history.

He never made it to halftime, breaking his throwing thumb on a season-ending injury. But he and the Bengals are meeting five years later on what both hope is the way back up.

"At the end of the day," Dalton said, "you want to be who you are and you don't want your circumstances, you don't want anything to change that."

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