Bengals fans may not have enough fingers to point at all those responsible for Cincinnati’s slow 2-4 start. But don’t be pointing at Andy Dalton.
On an offense which has had little to no success running the football, that lost two of its top three wide receivers from last year, Dalton has performed at a level just slightly below his career year of 2015 when he led Cincinnati to a 10-2 record before his season ended thanks to a fractured thumb against Pittsburgh.
In Sunday’s 35-17 loss at New England, Dalton completed his first 10 passes. By halftime, he was 13 of 16 through the air for 143 yards. On the afternoon, he completed 21 of 31 passes for 354 yards and a touchdown for a pass efficiency rating of 103.4.
That’s the fourth time in six games that Dalton has topped the 100 rating. He turned in a 114.0 at the New York Jets, a 111.8 against Miami and a 104.6 at Dallas. His 84.3 rating at Pittsburgh and 72.8 in the home loss to Denver brings his season rating down to 97.2.
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That’s not far behind last season when Dalton’s pass efficiency rating was 106.3. Prior to that, Dalton’s best year was 2012 when he posted an 88.8 rating.
This year, however, the former TCU star has been faced with several obstacles. One is the running game. Through six games, the Bengals have yet to produce a 100-yard rusher. Another is the offensive line. Thus far, Dalton has been sacked 19 times, an average of 3.2 sacks per game. New England’s third-quarter sack of Dalton for a safety on Sunday, when the Bengals were leading 14-10, helped turn the game in the Patriots’ favor.
Last but not least, Dalton has operated with a much different receiving corp. All-Pro A.J. Green is still doing A.J. Green things. But after Muhammad Sanu left for the Atlanta Falcons and Marvin Jones signed with the Detroit Lions, Dalton has had to break in new receivers Brandon LaFell, free agent signee from New England, and Tyler Boyd, the rookie out of Pittsburgh.
On top of that, Dalton has been without the services of All-Pro tight end Tyler Eifert, who underwent off-season ankle surgery. Just when Eifert was about to return, the former Notre Dame star suffered a back injury in practice. He has yet to play a single regular-season snap.
Despite all that, Dalton is third among NFL quarterbacks in passing yards and 11th in pass efficiency.
So why is Cincinnati 2-4? A rough schedule is partly to blame. The Bengals have just not been good enough to beat any of the playoff-caliber teams they’ve faced to this point -- a 24-16 loss at Pittsburgh, a 29-17 home loss to Denver, a 28-14 loss at Dallas, then Saturday’s loss at Gillette Stadium.
Bonehead plays have played a part in that. Key third down Cincinnati penalties aided Denver’s win at Paul Brown Stadium. The same thing happened last Sunday.
In the second quarter, a third-down illegal contact call against cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick gave the Patriots a first down on a 3rd-and-18 play. Six plays later, the Patriots scored
Before the Dalton sack, right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi was called for holding, pushing the ball back to the Cincinnati eight-yard line. The very next play, a blitzing Dont’a Hightower corralled Dalton in the end zone for two points. The Patriots took the free kick and drove 68 yards in five plays for a 19-14 lead.
In the fourth quarter, with Cincinnati down 25-17, cornerback Adam Jones was called for holding on a third-and-12 at the New England 48-yard line. Seven plays later, New England kicked a 31-yard field goal to make it a two-score game.
The schedule does get a bit easier. Former Bengals’ offensive coordinator Hue Jackson brings his 0-6 Cleveland Browns to PBS this Sunday. The following week, Cincinnati plays Washington in London. After that comes the Bengals’ bye week.
Can Cincinnati reverse course in time for a sixth straight playoff appearance? To do that, the Bengals need a better running game, the return of Eifert, a smarter defense and for Andy Dalton to keep playing the way he’s been playing.
Andy Dalton game-by-game stats