Red Rifle Locked, Loaded, and Ready to Pull the Trigger for 2013

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I’ll be honest.  Most of the second half of last season was pretty tough to watch.  Really, once December hit, Cincinnati went from cruising in four-wheel drive to being stuck in the mud on offense.  The fact that we had a solid winning record in the last month of the regular season (4-1) is actually a miniature miracle.  That, combined with the fact that the Eagles gave us an early Christmas on Week 15, and the Ravens rested their starters in the season finale.

To see what I mean by ‘miniature miracle,’ just take a look at the offensive statistics that Cincinnati put up during that stretch.  More specifically, the passing stats.  In the final five games of the regular season, Andy Dalton went a combined  92-154, with exactly 900 yards passing.  That, along with his four touchdowns to a staggering five interceptions, four of which came in the games against Pittsburgh and San Diego.

And of course, those numbers, as well as the following calculations don’t include the terrible performance that Andy Dalton had in Houston, during the wild card match-up this past year.  I did this for two reasons.

1) The statistics for NFL quarterbacks are normally separated into the regular season and the postseason to be fair.

2) Just like other Cincinnati fans, I’d prefer not to relive the unbearable suffering during those three hours, as well as the bitter aftertaste I faced for the next three weeks.

Continuing where I left off, 59.7% accuracy isn’t necessarily a terrible number for a quarterback to have.  However, it doesn’t look nearly as pretty as the 62.3% accuracy rate that he posted over the course of the 2012 season. 59.7% looks even less appealing when you see his 2012 statistics for the year, minus those five games.  Through the first eleven games, Dalton posted an impressive 63.4% accuracy on 237-374 passing.  For a quarterback to have his accuracy fall an average of 3.7 percentage points over the course of just five games usually means one of two things.

Either the quarterback entered a stretch of opponents known for tough defenses, or the quarterback had one or two unusually poor performances that knocked down his numbers.

In Dalton’s case, it was more or less a combination of the two – although much more of the first option.

Up until the month of December, the team’s defenses against the pass that Dalton faced averaged an 18.1 ranking, with 1 being the best, and likewise, 32 being the worst.  Remember that this statistic does not include yards gained on the ground, as gauging a passing defense is the only way to judge a quarterbacks’ performance based on his opponents.  During the last five games of the season that I’ve focused on up until this point, the average defensive ranking against the pass rose an astounding amount, to 11.8.

Of course, the lower the number, the tougher the defense.

Putting aside the irony of the switching of digits, (18.1, 11.8) we see that this certainly played a factor in Dalton’s slump.

Then again, many quarterbacks would see a decrease in performance against defenses like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.  Looking past the two Pennsylvania teams, Dallas, San Diego, and Baltimore are no pushovers either, each ranking 16th, 17th, and 18th respectively.

Perhaps the largest problem that Dalton faced towards the end of his 2012 season was turnovers.

After starting the season off with a high-flying pass attack, the young gunslinger was sure to have his fair share of turnovers to go with his scores.  He’s still young, so it’s only to be expected.

However, it seemed like Dalton settled in very well.  The scores kept coming in the middle of the season, and the turnovers seemed to see a decrease.  At one point, Dalton had a three game stretch of zero turnovers.

A lot of magical things happen in the month of December.  The most joyous holiday of the year is full of time with family, friends, and the exchange of gifts with them.

Who knows?  Perhaps Andy was feeling generous in the month of December.  It certainly looked like it, as he repeatedly handed the other team the football.

Before the month of giving, Dalton tossed the pigskin for 23 touchdowns, as opposed to 11 interceptions.  As mentioned earlier, the five game span starting in San Diego then saw him throw just four touchdowns to five interceptions.  That’s not something you want from your starting signal-caller.

The fact that Cincinnati won four out of five of those games was actually in spite of Dalton.  It was the defense that kept Cincinnati from a huge falloff heading into the playoffs, and it was actually the defense that scored quite a few points in the final games.  Namely, interceptions returned for touchdowns by both Leon Hall and Carlos Dunlap to aid in their wins against Pittsburgh and Baltimore in consecutive rival weeks.

This off-season seemed to begin on a very slow note for Cincinnati, angering many of the fans, including myself.  The attitude could be summed up by saying, “We’re coming off of two great years for the franchise, making back-to-back playoffs appearances, and now we’re just going to be content with that?”  Or at least, that was my opinion at first.

What I slowly realized was that the front office was quietly having quite the productive off-season.  The idea was simply to resign as many important skill players as they could.

Heading into the 2013 season, it is certainly an exciting idea to consider that basically all of our key players on defense are returning.  The same players on the same defense that could potentially lead the NFL next year.  It’s certainly a shoe-in for the top-five.

Especially after we’ve become even nastier.

Once we identified the one thing that we were missing, a vocal leader, we promptly went out and found the scariest, most fear-injecting, manhandling person left in the NFL.

James Harrison.

If you call yourself a Bengals fan and somehow didn’t know this, you are welcome to let out a collective gasp at this time.

I certainly did when I first heard of the signing.

The point is that once our defense was solidified by eleven of the best, even underrated, players in the league, we used the draft to address the offense and help Dalton.

It started with the selections of Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard in the first two rounds.  The first player gives Dalton a large target with phenomenal hands, especially in the red zone.  The second gives the young quarterback an effective pass-catcher out of the backfield in addition to being a speedster for the running game.

This is not to mention all his other targets.  Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu will quickly become fantastic complements to A.J. Green, as they had just enough time to develop a chemistry with Dalton with limited starting time.

In my opinion, the second WR position will likely be Sanu’s to lose, as head coach Marvin Lewis seemed to indicate.  Still, Jones will certainly see extended playing time and will look to make it count.

Comparisons have been drawn between Cincinnati and the Patriots’ offense with two potential stars at the tight end position.  While this comparison may be a little misplaced, the Bengals now have the all-around talent to create a full-scale west coast pass attack, and also to give Andy Dalton a shot at one heck of a third year in the NFL.

Dalton didn’t necessarily have a sophomore slump last year; it was more so of a five-game problem.

With everything that’s happened in Cincinnati since then, don’t expect to see the same problem again.

Let us know what you think!