Numbers don’t lie: Dalton struggles when Bengals need him most

Dalton has turned the ball over seven times (six interceptions, one lost fumble) in his last nine quarters of play.

Andrew Weber/Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — The numbers don’t lie and Andy Dalton can’t hide from them. The Bengals quarterback threw 23 incomplete passes in Thursday night’s 24-3 loss to Cleveland, more than double the amount of passes he completed while compiling a passer rating of 2.0 against the Browns. It’s the second straight home game against Cleveland he’s been stifled to the point of confusion.

The Bengals got away with it last season in a 41-20 victory against the Browns because the defense came to the rescue after two Dalton interceptions put them in a 13-0 hole. There was no one being rescued on Thursday.

For the second time in four games, the Bengals failed to reach the end zone. It happened in Indianapolis when they were shutout 27-0 by the Colts, managing just 135 yards and eight first downs in the process. Cleveland held the Bengals to 165 nets yards and 11 first downs Thursday while forcing four turnovers — three interceptions of Dalton and a lost fumble by running back Jeremy Hill — and only three times allowing Cincinnati to gain as much as 20 yards out of 14 possessions.

In the two games in between against Baltimore and Jacksonville, the Bengals put up 60 points and 773 yards of offense. The Ravens and Jaguars had defenses rated better than the Browns but anything the Bengals attempted against Cleveland was routinely thrown back in their face.

It’s enough to force a coach to lose sleep over, which was the case for head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Lewis said on Friday that he didn’t leave Paul Brown Stadium until 3 a.m. after reviewing the game. He was back in his office two hours later.

"I’m not going to sleep anyway, so there was no reason for me to go home and try to go to sleep. It’s very important for me to look at everything quickly," said Lewis.

Jackson said he hadn’t slept at all, instead watching the game multiple times over by the time he met with media members in his office early Friday afternoon.

"This one won’t get less sick. It’s in there pretty good," said Jackson.

Dalton’s struggles stick out the most. The fact that it happened again in the spotlight of a national TV stage adds insult to injury. Dalton has performed at his worst in the biggest games over his four seasons with the Bengals, who are now 2-9 in playoff and prime time games with Dalton at quarterback.

In their three losses this season — at New England, at Indianapolis and against the Browns — Dalton completed less than 56 percent of his pass attempts (53-of-95) for 416 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions for a passer rating of 60.7. In the team’s five wins and tie against Carolina, Dalton has posted a rating of 86.9 while completing 118 of 186 passes (63.4 percent) for 1,544 yards and an equal number of six touchdowns and six interceptions.

Dalton has turned the ball over seven times (six interceptions, one lost fumble) in his last nine quarters of play.

"I should (take the blame), and I deserve it," said Dalton after the game. "It all starts with me. It all goes through the quarterback. I’ve got to play better to put our team in a position to win."

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The Bengals signed Dalton to a six-year contract extension in August that runs through the 2020 season. If he plays out the entire contract it would be worth $96 million but at this point only $17 million of the contract is guaranteed. The Bengals paid for a starting quarterback but they didn’t necessarily overpay given the market for the position. Dalton’s contract is ranked as the 12th most expensive among quarterbacks by the web site overthecap.com and his cap number being less than $10 million this season and next.

The Bengals haven’t lost faith or trust in Dalton. Even if they had, their options would be limited. Veteran Jason Campbell is the backup but would be only a temporary fix. Rookie fifth-round pick A.J. McCarron is on the non-football injury list with a bad shoulder. He hasn’t taken a snap since OTA workouts back in May.

This consistent issue of inconsistent play by Dalton is one that will have to be worked out from within.

"I think the first thing is you got to have total belief in yourself and in your preparation and who you are and what you are. I believe Andy has that whole-heartedly. I don’t think that’s not the case," said Jackson. "You have to go back to work and go rally your teammates, your offensive mates to go get this thing on a consistent basis to be what you know it should be. There are times they look very good, you guys know it and have written it, have talked about it. There are times we’ve looked very, very bad. (Thursday) night was one of those times. He is the centerpiece of it all. I’m not running from that. I don’ think he’s running from that. He’s the key. He’ll bounce back."

The Bengals (5-3-1) are now chasing Pittsburgh and the Browns (both 6-3) in the AFC North division race, and just a step ahead of Baltimore (5-4). All four teams have had moments of clarity where they’ve looked like Super Bowl contenders. They’ve all had confounding stretches where nothing goes right. The final seven games of the season, five of which are on the road, won’t offer any easy opportunities for wins.

They can’t afford to have the Dalton that showed up Thursday night reappear. They can’t afford to have any of the players that showed up Thursday night reappear.

"We lost a football game. We don’t have to turn anything, but turn ourselves, and right the ship, and go get ready to play in New Orleans this next coming Sunday," said Lewis. "We lost the football game. We didn’t fall off a cliff. We’re all right there."