Young guns on display

Andy Dalton

You'd like to say for the sake of the storyline that Sunday's game in the Washington D.C. environs (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) pits two Texas gunslingers ambling into a shootout when Texas Christian's Andy Dalton and Baylor's Robert Griffin III meet at FedExField.

But they are more like a couple of savvy hitmen sent out to do the cold-blooded work of their bosses. Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has dispatched Dalton with a scope to aid his sharpshooter while Washington's Kyle Shanahan has built a platform for what even the most sedate of NFL analysts are calling Griffin's howitzer.

"Two completely different guys," Gruden said after Wednesday's practice. "You have to play to your strengths and I think the coaches over there, Kyle Shanahan, are doing a great job of using the read option with him and a lot of naked (bootlegs) to get him outside where he can use his arm and see.

"Andy is doing a little more in the pocket. Changing protections, doing some more conventional quarterback stuff right now. Physically RG is in a class by himself."

Griffin has also had a brilliant start in trying to better what Dalton did last season, when he became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to start 16 games, throw 20 touchdown passes, and lead his team to at least an eight-win season. After two games Griffin has led 1-1 Washington to an NFL-best 68 points with the league's fourth-highest passer rating and three touchdown passes.

(There's always a Cincinnati connection. Griffin is the first rookie quarterback to throw a touchdown pass of 65 or more yards in each of his team's first two games of the season since Greg Cook of the Bengals did it in 1969.)

Griffin is so good that he has even made taciturn Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer spill a superlative.

"Wow," Zimmer said.

Dalton, meanwhile, has numbers ahead of his Pro Bowl rookie season with passer rating (93.9-80.4), yards per attempt (7.93-6.59), and completion percentage (67.8-58.1). Washington head coach Mike Shanahan, noted quarterback guru, has noticed.

"You can tell the poise he has and you can tell he's a natural quarterback, very cool, calm and collected, very relaxed," Shanahan said in his conference call with the Cincinnati media. "He's got a great throwing motion, great footwork that gives him the ability to be a consistent thrower. And you like his poise in the pocket. He's got the ability to focus downfield, he's got a great release and you can tell that he reads defenses extremely well."

The two Texans (Dalton is native, Griffin is transplanted) have only a passing knowledge of each other with Dalton two and a half years older.

"I've met him a couple of times, played against him in college. So I know him a little bit," Dalton said Wednesday. "You can tell he's talented. He's got a strong arm and he's mobile, ran his 40 (like) a track guy. So I think those kinds of things make him capable of doing a lot of things."

"I remember him tearing up our defense at Baylor; Andy is a good player," Griffin said in his conference call with the Cincinnati media. "And you definitely can't talk about Andy without talking about his (red) hair. He's a good guy. I've met him and talked to him. I wish him the best."

And that's right about where the similarities begin and end. Except both are tremendous students. Griffin is an expert reader of the zone option and Dalton knows Gruden's West Coast offense inside and out.

And he should. One of the many reasons Gruden had Dalton on the top of his list in the 2011 draft is because TCU ran so many similar schemes to what he was crafting in Cincinnati.

Gruden calls them "carryover" concepts, a trend he is seeing more and more. With rookie and second-year quarterbacks all over the NFL landscape, it's just another example of how similar the college and pro games are becoming. Dalton-RGIII is one of two matchups Sunday featuring a rookie vs. a second-year guy. Andrew Luck of Indianapolis opposes Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert, and Dalton gets Gabbert next week.

"I think the college game has become a lot more sophisticated where they're using similar-type concepts," Gruden said. "The transition period isn't great for quarterbacks anymore."

The college kids have enough of a base in the pro game that a special player like Griffin can mesh his talents right away with an NFL system. But the system still has to be tailored.

"If you've got a great zone reader and a guy with a cannon, you don't have to put him back there and make him sit back in the pocket to read coverages," Gruden said. "We don't want to use Andy on a bunch of zone reads, although he wants to do it. We ran one today and I thought he pulled a hammy."

But there is something else Dalton and Griffin have in common. Dalton is quietly showing that he can also extend plays on the edge. Not as spectacularly as Griffin, but effectively enough to keep drives alive. The most obvious example came last Sunday against Cleveland when Dalton scrambled to his right and threw a rope to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins back across to the middle of the field for an amazing pluck-and-run 50-yard touchdown.

RG III-ish.

"If you have great vision and see a window, then have at it. You don't want to make a habit of that," Gruden said. "But in that situation he was on it big time and made a great throw. RG does that pretty well also."

But with Dalton working out of the pocket, there is a fine line between trying to make something happen and taking a bad sack. He never got sacked more than three times in a game as a rookie, but the Ravens got him four times and the Browns six times to open this season.

Yet the Bengals are pleased with the protection of the five linemen. Six of the 10 sacks have been for three yards or less, indicating that Dalton is either stepping up or scrambling away to make something happen if coverage won't allow it initially.

"Seven of the 10 are him trying to scramble up and make a play," Gruden said. "You lose a yard, it counts as a sack but it probably should be rushing yardage for him. It's not like he's getting tackled in the pocket. It's more of, 'A three-step drop if it's not there I'm going to push up in the pocket and try to run for three or four yards.' We preach try to keep plays alive, but we also don't want to take sacks on first down. If he's trying to push up in the pocket and he loses a yard ...

"The scramble to Hawkins is a great example. There's risk-reward. Just losing a couple of yards but the reward is great. He's good on the run. We just have to do a better job of getting open on the run.  We see it every week; guys on the move making big plays."

Gruden says the bulk of the four sacks in Baltimore came at the expense of the running backs with the one coming off the line on an end-tackle stunt that he says is difficult to block for anyone, never mind for rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler.

Against Cleveland, a miscommunication between Dalton and left tackle Andrew Whitworth resulted in a sack. Later, old friend Frostee Rucker dumped Dalton for a 10-yard loss after working on left guard Clint Boling, but that was one where Dalton more or less fell into him as he looked downfield.

"The first game we had little miscues at running back picking up the protection, but we feel like we've got that handled," Dalton said. "I feel the sack total is skewed a little bit. They're maybe taking away one read and I'm getting on the move trying to make a play and I end up losing a yard or two. So I feel the protection has been pretty solid."

Some of it, too, is managing the game. A held ball is better than the other team holding the ball.

"That's kind of part of it; it's not forcing anything," he said. "Kind of me moving around a little bit and trying to make something happen."

Gruden appreciates the fine line.

"There were a couple of times he should have thrown it away; never take a sack on first down," he said. "But you also don't want to give up on a play. It's kind of a catch-22. You can't tell a guy how to play the position. He's got to understand the situation. If you have an ability to hold the ball and move around in the pocket and find somebody in the second or third window, then do it."

With these two guys, Sunday looks like it's not going to be open and shut.

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