After a poor start to the fantasy season, made worse by back-to-back outings with fewer than 10 fantasy points, Andy Dalton was imprisoned in fantasy jail for the wrongful impersonation of a starting quarterback. And if you started him last night against the Miami Dolphins, you're thinking he deserves it. But, much like Andy Dufresne in "The Shawshank Redemption," has Dalton been wrongfully imprisoned? Prior to Thursday night, over the last three weeks Dalton averaged 27.88 fantasy points per game -- outscoring every other fantasy quarterback during the same time span. Dalton's numbers during that run are eye-popping: 66.3 completion percentage, 1,034 yards, 11 touchdowns, one interception, 10 yards-per-attempt and an average quarterback rating of 122.5. So what's the cause of this offensive explosion? Play-calling? The emergence of Marvin Jones? Or has Dalton finally chipped away at his quarterbacking limitations with a rock hammer long enough to find his freedom behind a Rita Hayworth poster? The answer, is a little bit of each.
We went to the tape using GameRewind to determine why Andy Dalton has succeeded so spectacularly of late, and whether or not you'll be able to trust him down the fantasy stretch. Below are three key reasons why Dalton's escape from fantasy prison is legit, and why he could make a difference for you in the fantasy playoffs.
The Bengals offense was sputtering in the first quarter of the season and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had to get creative with Dalton under-center. Rather than put the pressure on Dalton to force the ball downfield to his young playmakers like A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Tyler Eifert, Gruden focused on short, clever passes to give his playmakers the ball in space. The results have been dramatic.
The emphasis on short passes makes sense; prior to Thursday night just over 70 percent of Dalton's attempts have been under 10 yards in the air and he is completing 74.1 percent of those attempts. Yet, despite the shorter passes, the Bengals offense hasn't slowed down. In the last three weeks they've had more explosive pass plays (15 yards or more) than every team aside from the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions. Take a look at the screen grab below from the Week 6 game against Buffalo.
This is a well-designed play-action wide receiver screen to A.J. Green. At the snap, Dalton fakes a handoff to electric rookie Giovani Bernard, and the whole defense bites. Look at how many Bills players have their backs turned to Green when Dalton lets the pass fly. I count eight. Left tackle Andre Whitworth (highlighted) pulls wide and is athletic enough to be Green's lead blocker. The result is a 54-yard completion.
Throughout the last four weeks, the Bengals relied on a variety of bubble screens, quick outs, and swing passes to give their explosive playmakers the ball in space, where they can do the most damage and limit Dalton's chances for mistakes.
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Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham have become increasingly important to the Bengals offense and Dalton's success. On the season, 31 of the Bengals 53 explosive pass plays (58.5 percent) have come with at least two tight ends on the field, and they've only had one explosive play with no tight ends on the field. Sticking with the Bills game, here's a screen grab of the Bengals formation on Giovani Bernard's 20-yard touchdown catch.
Eifert and Gresham are lined up together off the left tackle. At the snap, they both break out into pass routes as Dalton drops back, causing the safety, cornerback, and middle linebacker Kiko Alonso to all drop into coverage on the two tight ends.
This vacates the middle of the field for Bernard. Dalton dumps the ball off to Bernard, who shakes off his would-be tacklers and dances into the endzone for six.
Below, while on the road against Detroit, the Bengals line up in an empty set, with Jones, Eifert and Gresham to the left, and Green and Mohammed Sanu to the right.
The safeties respect the sidelines with the threat of Green and Jones on each end, which opens the middle for Gresham one-on-one with a linebacker. Dalton places the ball perfectly and the Bengals pick up 30 yards on the play.
Over the last four weeks, Dalton continuously made accurate, confident throws like these in the intermediate range leading to tons of yardage and touchdowns for the Bengals (and points for fantasy owners). He made two bad throws that led to interceptions against the Dolphins, but his third pick came off a drop by Sanu. Watch that throw again. Dalton threads the needle between two defenders and hits Sanu in, of all places, the hands. That's a confident throw coming off two early interceptions, and a good sign for Dalton moving forward.
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Gruden opened up the offense to attack the Jets secondary deep. This is a secondary, mind you, that had allowed only 10 touchdowns in seven weeks. And their opposition included Tom Brady (twice), Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Jake Locker (who had three of those touchdowns before being injured). Dalton threw for five touchdowns and 325 yards against the Jets ... and could have had more.
Dalton and Green twice connected on 53-yard strikes. The second of which was once again a result of defenses respecting the threat of Gresham and Eifert. Below, Gresham can be seen breaking out into the soft spot of New York's zone. Kyle Wilson (No. 20) watches Gresham for a split-second too long.
Green makes his break and turns on the burners, blowing past the secondary as Wilson was too slow to turn his hips with his eyes on Gresham.
Now, if you watch the replay, Dalton does underthrow Green a bit, but his first 53-yarder to A.J. was a gem. In all fairness, Green and Jones each dropped beautiful deep strikes from Dalton that could have pushed him closer to 500 yards passing on the day, instead of his "paltry" 325. Gruden and Dalton have found ways to successfully stretch the field by taking calculated deep shots using their tight ends as decoys, and off of play-action as they did on the 82-yarder to Green against the Lions.
So what does all of this mean for your fantasy team? Well, it's time to trust Andy Dalton as a starting fantasy quarterback. Jay Gruden has found a multitude of ways for Dalton to attack opposing defenses, and Dalton has responded with aplomb, even against stiff competition. The Bills were allowing only a 53.8 completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, and had given up just nine touchdowns when Dalton rolled in and completed 65 percent of his passes with three scores. Likewise, Dalton made the Lions improving secondary look like it was 2008 all over again (when the Lions went 0-16, in case you forgot) as he posted an outrageous 10.9 yards-per-attempt against them, completing 70.6 percent of his passes with three more TDs.
After watching these last four Bengals games, if Dalton wasn't already owned in all my leagues, I'd be picking him up. I'm not overly concerned about Dalton's struggles last night, either. He completed over 60 percent of his passes with a multitude of drops, and had a touchdown taken off the board by a ticky-tack holding call. He moved the Bengals offense up and down the field all night, and let's not forget he was on the road on a short week of preparation.
Dalton's success doesn't appear to be a flash in the pan, and as Adam Schein noted the Bengals are brimming with confidence on offense. You should be too, if you have Dalton. He plays the San Diego Chargers in Week 13, typically the start of the fantasy playoffs, who are allowing the second-most fantasy points to quarterbacks. He has a tougher match in Week 14 against the Colts, but then gets the Vikings in Week 16, i.e. the fantasy Super Bowl. There's no reason to believe he can't succeed against any defense on the rest of his schedule given what we've seen over the last month. If you pick up Dalton now, or have already, you may just be able to kick back on the beach in Zihuatanejo with your fantasy trophy this offseason.