Tyler Eifert

Dalton, Bengals have ‘good outing’ in loss at Jags (VIDEO)

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) The Cincinnati Bengals were so sharp against Jacksonville that Andy Dalton and several teammates were done long before halftime.

Dalton led the Bengals to two touchdowns in three possessions, earning him a little extra rest in a 26-21 loss to the Jaguars in the preseason Sunday night.

“It was a good outing for us,” said Dalton, who completed 6 of 10 passes for 77 yards and a TD. “Two touchdowns in the first half of a preseason game is pretty good, and we got them both ways. … It’s a good feeling to do it both ways.”

The Bengals (1-2) felt good on both sides of the ball, too. Dalton found Giovani Bernard for a 19-yard score on a third-down play, and then Jeremy Hill capped a 9-minute drive with a 1-yard scramble to the pylon. Defensively, the Bengals held Jacksonville to just 90 yards in the first half. Jacksonville’s first three drives: turnover, three-and-out and three-and-out.

Cincy’s only concern in the regular-season dress rehearsal was the health of three Pro Bowlers.

Receiver A.J. Green left in the first quarter with a bruised right knee, but said he’s fine. Cornerback Adam Jones strained his right calf in preseason warmups and did not play. And special teams ace Cedric Peerman broke his left forearm and could be out for the season.

“It’s unfortunate guys have injuries, but you can’t worry about that,” Dalton said. “You’ve got to worry just about the stuff you can control.”

Safety Tashaun Gipson (bruised knee) was Jacksonville’s only injured starter.

The Jaguars (1-2) had bigger problems – the offense and defense both failed to show – that raised questions about what’s supposed to the franchise’s most talented team in nearly a decade.

T.J. Yeldon fumbled on the opening possession. Center Brandon Linder and quarterback Blake Bortles each were flagged for false starts to open drives. And the left side of Jacksonville’s revamped offensive line was mostly manhandled.

“We kind of killed ourselves. We did some stupid things, really, at every position,” Bortles said. “They didn’t do necessarily anything to stop up, which is a good sign because it’s a good defense. … We were comfortable and confident in what we were doing. We just didn’t execute it and get things done.”

DEBUTS

Bengals: WR Brandon LaFell caught one pass in his Bengals debut. Signed in free agency to help replace Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, LaFell also drew a pass-interference penalty that set up a score.

Jaguars: Playing his first game since tearing a knee ligament last October, LT Kelvin Beachum looked rusty. And Luke Joeckel, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, looked lost at times at LG.

ROOKIE WATCH

Bengals: WR Alex Erickson scored for the third straight game, stating his case to make the team. Erickson caught a 21-yard TD pass from AJ McCarron early in the third quarter. It was his second TD catch of the preseason. He also returned a punt for a touchdown.

Jaguars: DE Yannick Ngakoue got the start ahead of Dante Fowler Jr., but only because the Jaguars wanted to see Ngakoue get some snaps with the first-team defense. Ngakoue finished with two tackles.

POSITION BATTLES

Bengals: Second-round pick WR Tyler Boyd, vying to start opposite Green, had a 9-yard reception.

Jaguars: Fourth-year RB Joe Banyard ran 11 times for 54 yards, including a 7-yard TD run in the third quarter, and had his most extensive work of the preseason. Banyard and Corey Grant are competing to be the fourth-string back.

INJURY UPDATE

Bengals: LB Vontaze Burfict and TE Tyler Eifert were among a dozen players ruled out before the game.

Jaguars: Eight players were ruled out beforehand, including DT Roy Miller, rookie DT Sheldon Day and FS Peyton Thompson.

QUOTABLE

Bengals: “I do feel faster this year because I feel healthier.” – Hill.

Jaguars: “We played bad at every position and usually that is what happens when you play bad: you do not score a lot of points.” – Bortles.

AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Andy Dalton and the Problems of Familiarity

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Through the first nine weeks of the season, Andy Dalton was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. His unexpected improvement was one of the keys to the Cincinnati Bengals’ perfect start. His struggles Monday night — just 203 yards on 44 dropbacks, plus an interception — were a big reason why Cincinnati surprisingly fell from the ranks of the unbeatens against Houston.

In fact, Dalton’s struggles against the Texans should not have been a surprise, for reasons that suggest the fifth-year quarterback could well bounce back against the Arizona Cardinals this week but will likely struggle once again in the postseason.

Familiarity Creates Problems

The problem for Dalton is he performs significantly better against opponents who have not played the Bengals recently. This phenomenon was discovered by Bengals analyst Joe Goodberry. Against what he terms “uncommon” opponents, those who did not play the Bengals earlier that season or the previous season, Dalton is an excellent quarterback who has a great deal of success. Against “common” opponents, those who have faced the Bengals previously, Dalton finds the going much more difficult. Table 1 has the basic details.

Table 1. Dalton vs. Common and Uncommon Opponents

Comp. Pct. Yards/Att TD% INT%
Common Foes 59.0% 6.5 3.4% 3.5%
Uncommon Foes 67.1% 8.0 6.7% 2.5%

Dalton completes a higher percentage of his passes, for more yards per completion, throws many more touchdowns, and throws fewer interceptions against teams that have not played the Bengals lately. Table 2 has the numbers for just 2015, adding Football Outsiders’ per-play DVOA metric and another factor, Dalton’s sack rate.

Table 2. Dalton v. Common and Uncommon Opponents, 2015 Detail

Comp Pct. Yards/Att TD% INT% DVOA Sack%
Common Foes 63.7% 7.7 5.2% 3.0% 3.2% 6.9%
Uncommon Foes 68.3% 8.6 6.8% 0.6% 47.8% 2.4%

More Than Just Opponent Adjustments

The simple explanation is that Dalton is faring worse because he is facing better defenses. Many of the Bengals’ common opponents are AFC North foes and other teams who have ranked highly in their division. Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics, however, suggest this is not the case. Opponent adjustments say Dalton’s 2015 performance against uncommon opponents has been even better than the raw statistics suggest, while his performance against common opponents has been worse than it looks.

Opponent adjustments were a part of the 2014 story, but only a very small part. Dalton had a non-adjusted VOA of 15.7 percent against uncommon opponents against an adjusted DVOA of 14.4 percent and a VOA of -20.9 percent and DVOA of -19.8 percent. Adding in opponent adjustments explains a very small part of the difference last year, and none of it this year or in 2013. There really does seem to be something else going on.

Sacks Are Part of the Story

The last column in Table 2, on sack rate, is especially informative. This is one area Dalton has improved from his younger days. He took an NFL-leading 17 coverage sacks in 2012 according to Football Outsiders’ charting data. Dalton has done a much better job of avoiding sacks and especially coverage sacks the past three seasons, but he still gets sacked at a much higher rate by common opponents.

Table 2’s cumulative numbers conceal one very interesting detail. Dalton’s 2.4 percent sack rate in his five games to date against uncommon opponents breaks down as four sacks by the Seattle Seahawks and no sacks by any of the other foes. Meanwhile, Dalton has been sacked at least twice in every game against a common opponent.

This season’s sack data continues a trend from 2014. That season, Dalton had a personal adjusted sack rate of 6.1 percent against common opponents compared to just 2.4 percent against uncommon foes, who often did not even sack him at all. Whatever Dalton does so well against uncommon opponents is reflected here as well.

Deep Balls Are Part of the Story

One thing that stood out Monday night was how much Dalton struggled throwing the ball down the field. He completed just two of his nine attempts thrown more than 15 yards downfield. This is another theme that runs through the common vs. uncommon opponents distinction.

Dalton has been a better deep ball thrower this year against common opponents, with great success against the Baltimore Ravens most notably, but the splits still stand out. His worst deep games were against Houston and the Pittsburgh Steelers, while he has posted an above-average DVOA in deep passes against all uncommon foes.

Last season’s numbers are cloudy because of an injury-plagued season from wide receiver A.J. Green and the absences of tight end Tyler Eifert and wide receiver Marvin Jones, but 2013 shows just how much difference common and uncommon games can mean to Dalton’s deep ball performance. In uncommon games, Dalton had a DVOA of 156.9 percent and a success rate of 56 percent on deep passes, versus a DVOA of -20.1 percent and a success rate of just 28 percent against common opponents. To put that in context, Dalton against uncommon foes was the best deep passer in the league by a significant margin and the second-worst deep passer in the league against teams more familiar with the Bengals.

What It Means Going Forward

Andy Dalton is a much better player against teams the Bengals have not faced recently. In particular, he is sacked much less frequently and is a much more effective downfield passer. This is one reason the Bengals have fared so well in interconference play and why he could do well against the Cardinals on Sunday night and the St. Louis Rams the next week. The bad news is, the Bengals still have four common foes left to play in the regular season, and most of the likely AFC playoff teams — New England, Denver, Pittsburgh, and even Indianapolis — are common foes. After an inspiring start, Cincinnati could be looking once again at a disappointing result and another fast playoff exit.

The return of Fitzgerald

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You could be forgiven if you wondered just how good Larry Fitzgerald would be in 2015. Coming off an injury-plagued 2014 where he didn’t even have 800 receiving yards, and with quarterback Carson Palmer coming off a torn ACL, it seemed unlikely the 32-year-old would put up big numbers. Yet, that is precisely what he has done. His 706 yards are just 78 short of 2014’s total, and he is on pace for a career high in receptions. By Football Outsiders’ numbers, he is the most valuable receiver in the league. How has Fitzgerald confounded our expectations?

Rediscovering the End Zone

Young Larry Fitzgerald was one of the best red zone threats in the NFL. Four times in five seasons, he caught at least ten touchdowns. Lately, six-point plays have been much harder to come by for the University of Pittsburgh product. In the previous four seasons combined, he had just 24, or less than he had in two seasons at his best.

In 2015, Fitzgerald is finding the end zone again. His seven touchdowns in the Cardinals’ first eight games are tied for second in the NFL, behind only Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert. By Football Outsiders’ numbers, he is the most valuable wide receiver in the league in the red zone.

Several things stand out about Fitzgerald’s red zone work. First, the Cardinals are relying on him a lot in goal-to-go situations in particular. His seven targets there are tied for fourth. Second, he is extremely reliable. Just two of the ten passes thrown in his direction have been incomplete, best among the 25 players with ten or more red zone targets. Third, the Cardinals are spending a lot more time in goal-to-go this year. Arizona receivers have been targeted 20 times in goal-to-go situations this year, compared to 19 all last year.

The Impact of the Quarterback

The last stat brings up an important point. The 2015 Cardinals are better on offense than the 2014 Cardinals were, but the 2014 Cardinals also had three different quarterbacks start. Drew Stanton did not play as well as Carson Palmer did, and Ryan Lindley was worse. How much did playing with Stanton and Lindley hurt Fitzgerald’s numbers in 2014?

The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is quite a bit. Table 1 has the details, relying on Football Outsiders’ cumulative DYAR and per-play DVOA statistics:

Table 1. Larry Fitzgerald’s Production by Quarterback, 2014-15

Season/QB DYAR/game DVOA Catch Pct.
2014/Palmer 27 41.3% 80%
2014/Not Palmer -15 -34.1% 48%
2015/Palmer 31 32.3% 79%

This says what Fitzgerald has done this year with Palmer is just a continuation of what he did in Palmer’s six starts last year. The red zone numbers were not the same because Palmer was not as efficient throwing to other Arizona wide receivers last year.

Palmer was injured at midseason and Fitzgerald suffered an MCL sprain two weeks later that caused him to miss the next two games and be hobbled afterward. How much did that hurt his performance, rather than the quarterback play? Only some of it. Even in Stanton’s early season appearances, Fitzgerald was not nearly as efficient as he was with Palmer.

Targets, the Lifeblood of Production

The decline in Fitzgerald’s numbers did not come from less usage. Both Stanton and Lindley actually targeted him more frequently than Palmer did. He was thrown the ball on 17.8 percent of Palmer’s attempts last year, compared to 18.5 percent for Stanton and 20 percent for Lindley.

This is one of the ways things have changed in 2015. Last season, Palmer and Stanton targeted Fitzgerald and four other players regularly, generally at least 10 percent of the time. This year, the Cardinals have concentrated on targeting Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd much more heavily. One reason Fitzgerald has put up such numbers is he has been targeted on 26.7 percent of Palmer’s throws.

The Return of Prime Larry Fitzgerald

The target data is just one more way 2015 Larry Fitzgerald looks like 2008 or 2009 Larry Fitzgerald. Those were Kurt Warner’s last two seasons and the last time Fitzgerald played with a veteran quarterback in the midst of an outstanding season. His 2015 target percentage is right in line with how often he was targeted in those seasons. Target percentage is just one number, but high volume and a good quarterback can go a long way.

Another way this looks like prime Fitzgerald is his red zone dominance. Playing with Warner, Fitzgerald led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in both 2008 and 2009. The rise of tight ends might mean he doesn’t do the same this year, but his six touchdowns from the 10-yard line and in are the most he’s had 2009. The numbers are not quite the same (his red zone catch percentage was not close to what it had been with Warner the past two years), but they are close enough you could say this is the same Fitzgerald we’ve seen before.

What It Means Going Forward

We have seen Fitzgerald do this before, so we know he can continue to do it. For him to continue his great season, health is paramount. The table makes it clear Carson Palmer’s presence is vital. Fitzgerald’s own health is of course also exceedingly important.

Arizona’s shift to a three-headed passing game means the health of the other passing game pieces is important. Fitzgerald is the most valuable receiver in the league by FO numbers, but John Brown is second, and he ranks ahead of Fitzgerald outside the red zone. The much-improved offensive line is also key. If the good health continues, Fitzgerald should continue his late-career resurgence even if his red zone numbers decline.