If Dalton’s The Key, Week One Bodes Well

Nearly every preview story about the 2013 Bengals fits the same basic theme:

“Cincy has the defense and the game-changing wideout – all it needs is Andy Dalton to elevate his game to win the AFC North crown and finally make some postseason noise.” – Andy Benoit (MMQB.si.com)

“If the Bengals are to be taken seriously, which I think we all feel they are, (Dalton) definitely has to go to the next level.  He has to be a difference-maker if they want to make it to the Super Bowl.” – Boomer Esiason (NFL on CBS)

“So why is there trepidation when it comes to making the Bengals a Super Bowl contender?  Look under center.  That’s where you will see quarterback Andy Dalton.  Despite leading the Bengals to two playoff appearances in his first two seasons, Dalton has a ton of doubters.” – Pete Prisco (who picked the Bengals to win the Super Bowl on CBSSports.com)

“But Dalton knows – everyone in Cincinnati knows – that he has to be a more complete passer for this team to play at home in January instead of being a road wild-card team destined for an early exit.” – Peter King (Sports Illustrated)

If there is any truth to the “Bengals Will Go As Far As Dalton Takes Them” meme, then Cincinnati should feel good about its prospects this season despite the loss in Chicago.

Dalton in Chicago

After one week, Dalton leads the NFL in completion percentage (78.8) and ranks 7th in average yards per attempt (8.55).  And if A.J. Green had not dropped a perfect pass that ricocheted to Charles Tillman for an interception, Andy would have had a passer rating of 112.4 instead of 97.2.

“There are a couple of plays that I’m sure he wishes he had back – as we all do – but for the most part, we’re happy with his performance,” said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.  “He played very well.  Seventy-nine percent on the road against Chicago’s defense is impressive.  We just have to do a better job of protecting the ball.”

Dalton is constantly questioned about his ability to throw deep, but in the season opener, Andy was 3-for-3 for 107 yards on passes thrown more than 20 yards in the air and completed all six of his passes thrown more than 10 yards down the field.

“We spent a lot of time in the spring identifying what the issues are, and what the next level is for him in a lot of areas – mental, physical, and technical,” said quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese.  “It was good to see what the product was going to be as the bullets started flying.  I like the improvement he’s made.”

At the age of 25, Dalton has 35 NFL starts under his belt after starting 49 games at TCU.  At this point, has he seen about all there is to see from opposing defenses?

“Probably percentage-wise,” said Zampese.  “He’ll see some things that are new every week because everybody comes up with such great stuff in this league, but he’s seen a lot at an early age which is good.”

That includes four looks at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense under Hall of Fame coordinator Dick LeBeau.  After losing his first six games against AFC North heavyweights Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Dalton ended last season with back-to-back victories over the Steelers and Ravens, and Zampese says it was significant for Dalton to get “over the hump” against those division rivals.

“There are all sorts of mental humps that you have to get over because somebody always puts something in front of you:  You haven’t done this yet or you haven’t done that yet,” said Zampese.  “It never ends until you retire.  That was something that got overcome last year.  But we haven’t beaten them this year, so there you go Andy.”

He’ll get his next chance against Pittsburgh on Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium, and while Dalton’s play will obviously be under the spotlight, his head coach sounds confident in his quarterback – this week and beyond.

“If everybody else plays up to Andy’s standards, we’ll be fine,” said Marvin Lewis.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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