Bengals need Dalton to step up play

BALTIMORE — Andy Dalton was on a quarterbacking roll no other quarterback in the history of the Bengals had ever been on. Dalton had thrown for more than 300 yards in four straight games, something Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason, Jeff Blake or Carson Palmer could not claim, and the Bengals had put up more than 400 yards of total offense during that span.

Both of those streaks came to a halt Sunday in a 20-17 overtime loss to Baltimore that tightened the race up in the AFC North. The Bengals still gained 364 yards, with Dalton throwing for 274 yards on 24-of-51 passing. Two of his completions to A.J. Green accounted for 94 yards — a 43-yarder that Green tipped to himself in the third quarter and the 51-yard Hail Mary touchdown on the final play of regulation.

Nothing the Bengals gained off the Ravens’ defense was easy. That’s nothing new for Dalton. In the four full games he’s played against the Ravens in his career (Dalton played just one half in last year’s regular season finale that was inconsequential to both teams’ postseason seeding) he’s never finished with a passer rating of more than 65.7 and he’s never had more touchdown passes than interceptions.

He was intercepted three times Sunday while throwing two touchdowns.

There has been a central thought to this season, a belief that the Bengals will go as far as their third-year quarterback takes them. That thought has played out through the first 10 games. When Dalton has been good — we’ll use having a passer rating of 80.0 or better as that statistical line of demarcation — the Bengals are 6-1 this season. Sunday was the third time this season Dalton’s passer rating has been below 60.0. The Bengals have lost all three games.

“We thought he played inconsistent,” said head coach Marvin Lewis on Monday. “We thought he had some marvelous plays, some great audibles and some great checks and some things that way. He had a couple things that we wish he could have done better, and guys have to do a little better for him too. He’s got their eyes and they’ve got to finish the play. He’ll continue to play better. 

“We put the pressure on him always to play better. He is the offense, he runs the offense. When we’re going good he gets all the credit. When we’re not as good as we should, it’s us that needs to be fixed. He had some plays he could have done better like everybody did, including the head coach.”  

Dalton doesn’t have to be great, but he has to be in a flow of making good decisions and being confident with his calls and throws. The only loss the Bengals have suffered with Dalton playing his role to that level was at Chicago in the season opener. He rarely looked the part of that confident Dalton against the Ravens.

The Bengals did themselves no favors with the number of long third-down situations they put themselves in. That’s a tough enough predicament against most defenses but even more so against Baltimore and the pressure it can produce with the likes of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. 

The Bengals were just 5-of-19 on third down against the Ravens. Dalton was 8-of-16 passing for 42 yards, was sacked once and threw one of his three interceptions on third down. His longest completion on third down was for 14 yards to Mohammed Sanu in the first quarter. He scrambled for 12 yards on a third-and-10 play in the fourth quarter to snap a streak of 10 straight failed conversion attempts. 

Their poor execution on third down and an aggressive attitude by Lewis led to the Bengals attempting five fourth-down conversions. They got three of them but the two failed attempts — on their first possession of the game just inside Baltimore territory and again in overtime from the Baltimore 33 — led to 10 points for the Ravens. 

Of the 19 third downs the Bengals faced, only three were for less than five yards. Three were for five yards. The other 13 were for at least seven yards and averaged more than 10 yards in length. They converted just two of nine chances in the first half, when only once did they have a third down of less than seven yards. 

“It seemed like we had a lot of third-and-long plays,” said Dalton. “In the second half we did a much better job and we didn’t have so many third-and-long plays.”

The Bengals have been good on third down this season. They were converting at a 43.3 percent average before Sunday and their 41.1 percent conversion rate after the game is still good enough to be ninth in the NFL. But there were too many missed opportunities that came back to haunt them against the Ravens. 

Dalton sailed a throw intended for rookie tight end Tyler Eifert down the middle of the field in the second quarter that was picked off by safety James Ihedigbo and set up Baltimore’s second touchdown of the game, giving the Ravens a 17-0 lead. Dalton and Eifert again misfired in the third quarter, this time in the end zone when Eifert couldn’t hold on to a pass thrown behind him. The Bengals had to settle for a Mike Nugent field goal instead of seven points. 

“I got my hands on the one and Andy said the one (interception) just sailed on him,” said Eifert. “We’re on the same page, but those are plays I’ve got to make.”

Those are plays Dalton has to find a way to make if the Bengals are going to fulfill their expectations this season.