OWINGS MILLS – Precision spirals, intuitive decisions, decent zip on the football and physical and mental toughness have defined precocious Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton.
Although he’s not in the gunslinger category like former Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, Dalton has capably replaced the former Pro Bowl passer with leadership qualities and acumen that have made up for a lack of a cannon arm.
"The kid’s playing really well,” Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s playing beyond his years: great release, really poised in the pocket. He’s playing at a really high level and gets the ball out quick. So, we’ve got our hands full.”
Heading into Sunday’s pivotal AFC North clash against the Ravens (6-3) at M&T Bank Stadium, Dalton has spearheaded the Bengals’ turnaround with an uncommonly good start during his first season in the NFL.
Since being drafted in the second round out of Texas Christian, Dalton has led the Bengals (6-3) to a surprising spot of contention.
And he’s been historically productive so far.
With 14 touchdown passes, Dalton has delivered more scoring tosses in the first nine games of his career than any NFL quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 as he’s eclipsed the 13 touchdown passes during the same span of time by Jim Plunkett (1971) and Dan Marino (1983).
Dalton needs two touchdown passes against the Ravens for the most by a rookie in his first 10 games as the record is 15 shared by Marino and Peyton Manning. Manning owns the full-season record for touchdown passes by a rookie with 26, and Dalton is on pace for 25 scores through the air.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot,” Dalton said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “I feel like I’m seeing things a lot better, and I have a really good understanding of what we’re doing and what the defenses are doing. So, the biggest thing I’ve just got to keep improving, keep getting better each week.”
That’s just what Dalton has done since hsi arrival in the NFL.
He’s thrown at least one touchdown pass in every game other than a 13-8 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the third game of the season.
Dalton has completed 60.3 percent of his throws for 1,866 yards with nine interceptions for a respectable 82.6 passer rating.
Although he fell short against the Pittsburgh Steelers a week ago in a 24-17 loss as he threw a critical interception against the defending AFC champions, Dalton passed Greg Cook for the most passing yards by a rookie in franchise history.
“First and foremost, the coaches have done a great job with him,” Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard said. “You look at Andy Dalton, and he’s not playing like a rookie. The coaches allow him to run their game plan and put it on his shoulders.”
Dalton has impressed everyone from Steelers veteran middle linebacker James Farrior to Super Bowl Most Valuable Player quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
He ranks 17th in the NFL in passer rating, 20th in passing yards and 24th in yards per pass, fairly ordinary statistics.
With Dalton, though, it’s about more than numbers. He’s a winner, and he has defied erroneous predictions that he would struggle initially as a rookie starter following the NFL lockout.
It’s been exactly the opposite case for the 6-foot-2, 220-pound red head.
"He’s a good quarterback,” Farrior said. “He’s a young guy with a lot of potential, a lot of upside and I think he held his own. He had a lot of poise. He’s got a good pocket presence and got rid of the ball when he needed to.
“He didn’t get rattled. A lot of young quarterbacks can get a little in awe of our defense and get confused, but he did a good job on us.”
Dalton has already engineered a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks to beat the Buffalo Bills and the Tennessee Titans.
With four victories and no defeats in October, Dalton was named NFL Rookie of the Month.
Ever since an eye-opening Senior Bowl week and going 42-7 as a starter in college, Dalton has been proving doubters wrong.
“He fits into the offense,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Dalton. “I think they’ve built it very well for him. He has, obviously, a very quick release. He has a nice release. He’s an accurate passer.
“He gets the ball out quick when he needs to. He moves around the pocket pretty well. And, he’s made good decisions. I think he’s protected the ball really well. That’s what winning quarterbacks do, and he’s done a good job of that.”
Dalton established a franchise record for single-game passing yardage by a rookie quarterback with 332 yards against the Denver Broncos.
And Dalton is sharp enough to take advantage of his downfield targets, connecting 41 times so far with rookie first-round wide receiver A.J. Green for 635 yards and six touchdowns. Green leads all rookie receivers in every category.
“He’s a great quarterback,” Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “He’s making great, solid, accurate throws with great timing. They’re growing well together, he and A.J. We’re going to see him for a long time.”
One week after being unable to finish off the Steelers, another huge challenge looms for Dalton and an emerging offense that only ranks 24th in the league in total offense and 15th in scoring with a 23.6 average per contest.
He’ll square off Sunday with Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, All-Pro free safety Ed Reed, All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the leaders of the third-ranked defense in the NFL.
“They’ve been really good, and they’ve been really good for a while,” Dalton said. “So, it’s definitely going to be a big test for us. You see the heart and soul of the defense with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They get the guys going, and they’re the guys doing a lot of the communication. So, you’ve got to find where those guys are, and we’ve just got to execute. We’ve got to go out and just execute our plan.”