When the Bengals showdown with the Steelers Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.), quarterback Andy Dalton has his team 4-1 while taking a page from Big Ben’s playbook.
For years (14 to be exact), Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has barged his way to Canton by torturing the AFC North with big play after big play roaming out of the pocket away from pressure or literally throwing under pressure with bodies hanging on him like some horror movie. (Remember when he made like Dracula and came out of the crypt in the Wild Card Game after the Bengals’ pressure had seeming driven a stake through his heart?)
But Dalton comes into Sunday, according to profootballfocus.com, as one of the best passers in the league under pressure. Never a big part of his game until quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt arrived this season, Dalton is tied with Tom Brady and Philip Rivers with the second most touchdown passes under pressure (five) and the seventh best passer rating in the NFL at 83.3.
That comes after a season he finished 19th in passer rating (75.9) and threw just six TD passes under the gun for his career high. Dalton points to the bag of disaster drills Van Pelt brought with him from his decade-long career coaching NFL quarterbacks.
“I’m glad he’s here. Good stuff,” Dalton said after Thursday’s practice.
Before Van Pelt, this minister of mayhem, got into coaching he was an NFL back-up quarterback for another decade and lived the pressure. Then he went to Green Bay and helped Aaron Rodgers join Roethlisberger for a Night at the Improv in Canton one day.
“Every quarterback should be able to drop back and throw a 5 route or come-back route in a clean pocket,” Van Pelt said. “Any quarterback should be able to do that. It’s when the body is under duress. That’s my approach. It’s when you have to throw off your back foot or throw when your left foot is behind your right foot and you’re all messed up down below. That’s what we try to emphasize during those individual periods.”
So Van Pelt makes his quarterbacks practice the worst-looking throws this side of a middle-school game. The really great completion to Van Pelt looks more like a Beechmont Avenue fender-bench rather than an Andrew Wyeth painting 50 yards through the seascape.
“A lot of awkward throws,” Dalton said. “Not being set. Not being in the same spot. Not having your feet in the right spot all the time. What we’ve been doing in practice we’ve been able to apply in a game.”
“Big teaching points are you have to disconnect you upper and lower body,” Van Pelt said. “Your lower body may be in a different state, but your upper body still has to be able to throw accurately … If you practice the hard stuff, it’s easier in the game.
“He’s a good athlete. He can run. I hope it’s helped him. I hoped it’s made him more comfortable.”
Two years ago Van Pelt commandeered Rodgers through a season he led the league passing under pressure with a ridiculous 12 touchdowns against one interception. Dalton has two picks this year under pressure, but the concept is the same.
“In practice we’d break down plays so we could use the scramble drill and the receivers would get used to reacting to him out of the pocket,” Van Pelt said. “You get about six to eight plays a game that are unscripted like that and they’re always the potential for big plays.”