Nov 2, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) looks on during the first half against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
The Bengals have undoubtedly taken a step backwards thus far this year. After earning a wild card spot in both 2011 and 2012 with records of 9-7 and 10-6 respectively, the Bengals won the AFC North crown in 2013 with a record of 11-5. Entering this season, it was easy to make the argument that the Bengals were primed to take another step in the right direction. Yes, losing Mike Zimmer was a big deal, especially in hindsight, but with his protégé, Paul Guenther, taking the helm on defense and Marvin Lewis being the type of defensive mind he is, his loss could’ve been seen as manageable.
More than that, the Bengals’ offense was seeing a change in leadership from Jay Gruden to Hue Jackson. This change was expected to be a positive for the team as Jackson’s penchant for running the ball was seen as a better fit for the Bengals versus Gruden’s passing focus. Yet, the Bengals’ season hasn’t gone as well as expected to date, and with both Dalton and the defense faltering, one has to wonder which aspect of the Bengals is more to blame for the teams’ struggles.
Beginning with the Bengals’ defense, the unit has taken a sharp turn for the worse this year. Minus defensive end Michael Johnson, this unit is largely the same as last year’s. As a quick aside, I would argue that James Harrison’s retention for leadership within this unit would’ve helped greatly during the transition of coordinators (not to mention a “helping hand” within the pass rush. Losing Mike Zimmer was undoubtedly going to be a hurdle for the defense, but with several veterans within this unit, the defense was expected to be a strong point for the Bengals. This has been far from the case this year. After finishing as one of the league’s top defenses since 2011, the Bengals have struggled mightily this year. Here’s a look at how the Bengals’ defense has performed within the league since 2011.
[table id=54 /]
As is easy to see, the Bengals have taken a large step in the wrong direction on defense. Much of the problem lies with the Bengals’ run defense. Not only are they allowing the sixth most yards/rush in the league, but they’re also allowing the second most rush yards/game (143).
Allowing this many rush yards on a game-by-game basis hurts the team in several ways. When opponents can rush so effectively it keeps the Bengals’ defense on the field a lot more, which gives the offense less time to get into a rhythm and score points. These rush yards also allow opposing offenses favorable second and third downs, which makes it harder for the defense to stop drives and momentum. Possessing a poor rush defense is a huge hindrance for any team. But for a team that plays in the AFC North and will face some excellent rushing offenses the rest of the season, it’s an overwhelming hurdle.
But the hurdles don’t stop there for the Bengals. Andy Dalton’s play this year has been similarly hindering for the Bengals. It’s even more concerning more when considering the adjustments the Bengals have attempted to make for Dalton within their game planning.
Andy Dalton’s pass attempts/game are at a career low this year (31.2). This is an attempt less than Dalton executed in his rookie year (32.2). This effort was made in an effort to take some of the offensive onus off Dalton. When looking across Dalton’s collegiate and professional career, he seems to thrive within a run-heavy offense rather than when the offense asks a lot of him. Even more to Dalton’s benefit, the Bengals’ running game has slowly picked up, which can only help him going forward.
The Bengals have also run more plays this year that allow easier reads for Dalton. They often run short, quick routes allowing Dalton to get the ball out of his hands quickly while giving him high percentage throws. It is intended to make his reads easier and hopefully decrease his turnovers.
Yet, Dalton’s play continues to be of much concern. This effort to remove pressure from Dalton seems to be failing as Dalton continues to struggle when throwing the ball. After starting the year in relatively impressive fashion, Andy Dalton has eight interceptions in the past five games. In the past two games, Dalton has five interceptions alone. His turnovers kept the Jaguars in the game two weeks ago while they pretty much handed the game to the Browns last week.
Despite all his mistakes, Dalton has been steadfastly supported by teammates and the organization up until the most recent game when George Iloka became the first player to say anything remotely negative in reference to Dalton.
"“It’s like damn here we go again. That’s just how I feel. He threw a pick early, here we go again. Let’s knuckle up it’s going to be a dogfight.”"
Yet players continue to support Dalton even in his darkest hour. Andrew Whitworth had this to say recently following Dalton’s fiasco against the Browns.
"“He’s a competitor. He’s ready to get back at it and prove who he is. We all have bad nights and all of us share losses. It’s not just him. He’s always going to take blame because he’s the signal-caller. He’s got the ball in his hands, but at the end of the day, all of us share in it. He just wants our team to win. That’s what he wants more importantly. He believes in this team. That’s what’s important.”"
Andy Dalton’s confidence doesn’t seem to be improving though even with the relentless support of his teammates. His mistakes have continued to drag this team down at times and the support and alterations to the game plan doesn’t seem to be helping. It’s a difficult problem for the Bengals and may lead to the team investing in another quarterback in the coming draft if things don’t turn around; based on Dalton’s contract, they’d have about two years to develop any young quarterback.
When deciding which facet of the Bengals needs to improve the most going forward, be it fair or not, it’s the defense. Obviously, Dalton’s play is hurting the Bengals at times while doing little to uplift them when the Bengals need to be kicked into gear. Dalton’s leadership simply isn’t doing much of this team and, at times, their confidence seems to reflect his own.
But regardless of what the Bengals say, their actions tell us they never expected Andy Dalton to be the next great quarterback. But they did count on their defense and were looking to hang their offense on the running game. Several teams have found success and Super Bowl victories with strong defensive play and an effective running game; just look at last year’s Seahawks. But with the defense faltering, the Bengals’ plans have gone out the window.
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This isn’t an excuse for Andy Dalton. He needs to play better and, at least, manage the game and avoid turnovers. He’s had an incredible offensive line in front of him, been given countless receiving weapons, an improved running game, and a game plan that is better suited to his skill set. His play lately is inexcusable. Solace can be taken in the Bengals’ hedging of their bet with the very team-friendly deal they had Dalton sign.
But the defense must improve if this team is to find success down the stretch of 2014. They have the pieces in place to be successful. The pass defense has been as strong as ever. With Geno Atkins getting healthy and beginning to look like his old self, the defense will only get better. The returns of Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga will help in the middle of the field and give the Bengals a much better presence against the run. If the Bengals’ defense can improve, and especially their run defense, this team has the chance to make the playoffs once more. With a game against the Browns left and two against the Steelers, the Bengals can still win the division. It’s a long shot, but all hope is not lost if Paul Guenther and the defense can get it’s act together.