Can Andy Dalton Handle Big-Game Pressure?

Andy Dalton against bad defenses is like Peyton Manning. Against good ones? Geno Smith.

Andy Dalton doesn’t get a lot of nationwide publicity because he’s one of the more mediocre quarterbacks - at this point in his young career - that you’ll find starting in the NFL. Either that, or the world does indeed hate gingers.

Entering Week 16, Dalton ranked 16th among relevant passers (at least 250 drop backs) in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP), a metric we use at numberFire to determine how many points – based on game situation and down and distance – a player is adding for his team on passes only.

But the cumulative total doesn’t tell us how the ranking came to be. It doesn’t tell us the story. And the story aspect for Andy Dalton is filled with compiling ridiculous numbers against some of the most ridiculously bad defenses, perhaps taking advantage of good matchups more than any other passer in the entire league.

This is Andy Dalton’s story.

Collapsing Under Pressure

Full disclosure before we get into this analysis: I’m a Pittsburgh guy, born and raised, and now reside outside of Cincinnati (Northern Kentucky to be exact). I hear a lot of back and forth in the area about Dalton and whether or not he’s the right guy for the Bengals. And, most of all, the talk surrounds Dalton in important games – games where the opponent is tough and the stakes are high.

And that narrative is a big reason why I wanted to do this analysis. I wanted to see if Andy Dalton is simply taking advantage of poor defenses, while struggling against the top ones. The eye test can certainly show this to an extent, but to see if the numbers back up the “he’s not clutch” theory would really solidify current feelings surrounding Dalton.

I looked at each of the Bengals contests this season and compared Andy Dalton’s Passing NEP total in those games to where the opponent’s defense ranked in terms of our pass defense metric, Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points. In essence, the Adj. DPNEP number looks at how well a team is performing compared to how they should be performing. This is then adjusted for strength of schedule.

The chart below displays these two sets of information.

WeekOpponentPass Def. RankPassing NEP
3Green Bay27th-0.64
5New England13th-1.33
8New York (Jets)22nd24.11
13San Diego25th2.16

Before we go deeper, it’s important remember a few things. First, the passing yards allowed statistic doesn’t let us know how good or bad a defense is against the pass. The expected point numbers capture this more effectively, as they actually look at down and distance and game situations.

Second, if you see a team on here that “shouldn’t be ranked so high”, remember that these rankings are adjusted for strength of schedule. And, in addition, keep in mind that “fantasy points against” doesn’t necessarily show how good or bad a particular unit is as well, although it often times lines up nicely with the metric’s rankings.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dig into this a bit. Dalton’s played in five of his six divisional games so far this year, and the Browns, Ravens and Steelers rank 14th, 15th and 16th against the pass respectively. In those games, he’s totaled a Passing NEP of -33.77. To put this another way, Dalton should have rewarded the Bengals with nearly 34 more points than he actually did this year during division games, which equates to nearly a touchdown per game.

I mention the division games first because that seems to be the most basic regular season “important” game you can find on a schedule. If we think of “being clutch” or “not collapsing when the team needs you most”, you would think that player would perform well within his division. This season, Dalton has not.

In fact, Dalton’s play of -6.75 Passing NEP per game within divisional matchups this year is worse than the average that Geno Smith, numberFire’s worst-ranked quarterback, has had all season long (-6.34). So, for fun, you could say that, when the Bengals are up against a division rival, they’re effectively playing Geno Smith at quarterback.

And it’s not just the divisional games for Dalton, either. If we just look at games when Dalton’s faced a top-half pass defense versus bottom-half ones, you can see just how dramatic the results have been this year for Dalton:

Top-Half DefenseBottom-Half Defense
Passing NEP-33.9867.67
Passing NEP per Game-3.7813.53

Cincinnati has faced nine top-half (ranking 1-16) defenses this season, while seeing just five bottom-half ones. But in those five games, Dalton’s added 67.67 points for the Bengals, an outrageous average of 13.53 points per game. That type of production is only seen from elite quarterbacks in the league.

Is This Variance Normal?

Now, a counter-argument here could be, “But don’t all quarterbacks play a lot better against bad defenses?” My answer is, “Of course.” But there is a caveat – do their scores vary nearly as much as Dalton’s do?

I chose a few quarterbacks that rank similarly to Dalton in terms of cumulative, season-long Passing NEP. I then did the same exercise with top-half vs. bottom-half defenses for said quarterbacks. Check it out:

Alex Smith

Top-Half DefenseBottom-Half Defense
Passing NEP7.4533.98
Passing NEP per Game2.483.09

Ryan Tannehill

Top-Half DefenseBottom-Half Defense
Passing NEP-0.6024.63
Passing NEP per Game-0.066.16

Carson Palmer

Top-Half DefenseBottom-Half Defense
Passing NEP-45.4568.51
Passing NEP per Game-7.588.56

Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill and Alex Smith were the subjects, as each of them rank right next to Andy Dalton in terms of total Passing NEP on the season. But as you can see, their average game contributions against top- and bottom-half pass defenses don’t appear to be as varying compared to Dalton's averages.

Alex Smith has only faced three top-half pass defenses this year, and has contributed just 0.6 points less per game when facing that type of opponent compared to a bad one. Ryan Tannehill's numbers fluctuate a little more, playing under expectation – barely – versus top-half units, while he manages to add a little over six points for the Dolphins when facing bad pass defenses.

Carson Palmer is the wild card here, but I think the “top-half” defense side of things is a little skewed compared to Dalton. While the Bengals have rarely faced a defense in the top-10 against the pass, Palmer’s gone up against San Francisco twice, Seattle once (yesterday’s game is not in this sample), New Orleans and Carolina – all top-10 pass defenses. In other words, five of Palmer’s six games against top-half secondaries came against units that rank in the top 10, not the top 16.

And, moreover, Dalton’s variance – the difference between his Passing NEP average against a top-half versus bottom-half defenses – is largest among these passers, including Palmer. Dalton’s NEP swings 17.3 points, Palmer’s 16.1, Tannehill’s 6.22 and Smith’s 0.60. In other words, the matchup, arguably, matters most for Andy Dalton.

Can Cincinnati Win the AFC?

The Bengals defense is superb, and as our own Leo Howell pointed out here, they are a nearly unstoppable unit when playing in Paul Brown Stadium.

Unfortunately, it looks as though the only game the Bengals will be playing at home this postseason will be wild-card weekend, meaning more pressure is going to rest on the shoulders of Andy Dalton.

There are two locked-in defenses in the AFC playoffs that rank in the top 16 in terms of Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points: Kansas City and New England. But if the Bengals end up getting the three seed, facing off against other top-half squads like Miami or Baltimore - watch out. Bengals fans may experience what they've experienced the last two seasons: An early playoff exit, thanks to mediocrity from their quarterback.