Higher level

Signs point to Ben­gals’ Dal­ton shed­ding his ‘av­er­age’ rep­u­ta­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY CHASE STU­ART sports@wash­post.com

Through three weeks of the 2015 NFL sea­son, it’s easy to dis­miss the great num­bers that Cincinnati Ben­gals quar­ter­back Andy Dal­ton has pro­duced as the prod­uct of a small sam­ple size. On 94 drop­backs, he’s thrown for 866 yards and eight touch­downs with just two sacks and one in­ter­cep­tion. That trans­lates to a 10.32 ad­justed net yards per at­tempt av­er­age, the best in football. But can Dal­ton main­tain this level of play?

Dal­ton’s strong num­bers are driven by three fac­tors: a large in­crease in yards per com­ple­tion, a big spike in touch­down rate and a de­crease in in­ter­cep­tion rate. It is not un­usual for a quar­ter­back to have stel­lar num­bers over a short sam­ple size in each of these three met­rics, but there are also promis­ing rea­sons to think Dal­ton can at least re­main an above-av­er­age quar­ter­back.

In each of Dal­ton’s first four sea­sons, he av­er­aged be­tween 11 and 12 yards per com­ple­tion, right around the league av­er­age. But in 2015, Dal­ton’s re­ceivers are av­er­ag­ing 14.2 yards per com­ple­tion, the third-best mark in the league.

It isn’t a fluke that Dal­ton’s yards per com­ple­tion av­er­age has in­creased. Last year, his av­er­age com­ple­tion came 5.44 yards down­field, ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion col­lected by the NFL’s Game Sta­tis­tics and In­for­ma­tion Sys­tem, while Cincinnati’s re­ceivers av­er­aged 5.56 yards af­ter the catch on each com­ple­tion.

This year, Dal­ton’s av­er­age pass has come 7.52 yards down­field, rep­re­sent­ing a much more ver­ti­cal style. Ben­gals play­ers are gain­ing 6.67 yards af­ter the catch per com­ple­tion, and while that is likely un­sus­tain­able, the in­creased em­pha­sis on down­field pass­ing is likely to stay. Dal­ton’s top deep threat, Marvin Jones, missed the en­tire 2014 sea­son be­cause of an in­jury, while su­per­star wide re­ceiver A. J. Green was lim­ited or out for stretches with a toe in­jury. This year, Dal­ton has at­tempted 15 passes to Green or Jones that were 15 or more yards be­yond the line of scrim­mage; he’s com­pleted 11 of those for 368 yards and four touch­downs.

Dal­ton is av­er­ag­ing a touch­down pass ev­ery 11.5 throws, a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment over his 2014 num­ber (25.3). Im­proved health among Dal­ton’s tar­gets has also helped his red-zone ef­fi­ciency. Tight end Tyler Eifert, a first-round pick in 2013, played well as a rookie be­fore miss­ing nearly all of 2014 with a dis­lo­cated el­bow. But the for­mer Notre Dame tight end has looked out­stand­ing so far in 2015, with three touch­downs in three games (and a fourth over­turned on a ques­tion­able call af­ter a re­view).

Per­haps the least sus­tain­able as­pect of Dal­ton’s strong play this year is his in­ter­cep­tion rate (1.1 per­cent). In gen­eral, in­ter­cep­tion rate is one of the least con­sis­tent sta­tis­tics in football, and Dal­ton has been the ben­e­fi­ciary of a pos­i­tive game script: He has thrown only six passes while trail­ing this year, com­pared to 75 while play­ing with the lead.

Dal­ton’s history sug­gests he won’t con­tinue to avoid throw­ing in­ter­cep­tions, par­tic­u­larly in games when the Ben­gals are trail­ing.

It is easy to as­sume that with Dal­ton, at age 27, what you see is what you get. But he made steady strides dur­ing his first three sea­sons, im­prov­ing his yards per at­tempt av­er­ages and touch­down to­tals. Last year, Dal­ton took a step back sta­tis­ti­cally, but that was likely be­cause of the in­juries to his top weapons. As he en­ters his phys­i­cal prime, and with one of the best sup­port­ing casts in the NFL, the stars are aligned for Dal­ton to no longer be syn­ony­mous with av­er­age.

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