Andy Dalton was signed in the offseason to provide both competition and insurance for Jameis Winston. With it taking just four weeks for the New Orleans Saints to need to turn to Dalton through injury, did he do enough to earn the job going forward? Let’s take a look at Dalton’s Week 4 performance in London and what it could mean for the Saints going forward.
Did Andy Dalton do enough to earn the New Orleans Saints starting QB role?
Dalton’s final passing line was respectable against the Minnesota Vikings. He threw the ball 28 times, completing 20 passes for 236 yards.
It wasn’t the prettiest start for Dalton and the Saints, accumulating just 26 yards on offense and going 2-for-3 through the air for 14 yards in the first quarter. In that time, New Orleans punted twice and committed four penalties for 21 yards.
In the second quarter, Dalton settled into a rhythm, completing all six attempts for 39 yards and a touchdown. Dalton’s settled nature seemed to calm the Saints, who did not have a single penalty in the second quarter. The only blot on the record in the second quarter for Dalton was a fumble at his own 20-yard line that set the Vikings up with a chance to take a commanding halftime lead.
What was so impressive about Dalton’s performance was how he grew into the game. In the early part of the game, he kept the ball relatively safe in terms of passing it. His 8-for-9 line with 53 yards and a touchdown was hardly exciting, especially when coupled with an ineffective run game. However, it did not cost the Saints the game and instead allowed the defense to bend but not break and restrict the Vikings to just a six-point lead at the half.
In the third and fourth quarters, Dalton and the run game began to provide more of a spark. He went from averaging just 5.89 yards per passing attempt in the first half to 9.33 yards per attempt in the third quarter and 9.9 yards per attempt in the fourth quarter. When the Saints needed Dalton to be bold, he was.
He hit Marquez Callaway deep down the left sideline as part of their comeback. Late in the game, he threw a laser to Chris Olave down the middle to set up Will Lutz’s field goal attempt that ultimately was unsuccessful.
Dalton’s presence on the field provides the team with a solid option. In the locker room, tight end Adam Trautman was effusive in his praise for Dalton. When asked about how Dalton ran the offense, Trautman said Dalton “has great control of the huddle, makes quick decisions, and is decisive. We all rally behind that, and he is a hell of a player.”
Dalton’s passing chart from Week 4 underlines his ability. He spread the ball around and was able to make completions on short, intermediate, and deep routes.
When you look at his completion rate above expectation, Dalton excelled this week. His expected completion rate was just 60.5% as he dealt with an offense without Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. However, Dalton completed 71.4 percent of his passes to finish an impressive 10% above expectation.
The one real negative early on was the inability of the Saints to put together drives, and that could partly be laid at Dalton’s feet with his cautious start. Their first two drives saw them run six plays in total and gain nine yards, including penalties. Just four of their 10 drives were four plays or longer. All four of those drives ended in points, demonstrating the importance of being able to string those drives together.
That inability to extend drives, be it to score points or even flip field position, was something that Jarvis Landry discussed as being an area the Saints need to improve in the coming weeks.
“We have an offense that can score a lot of points, we just got to start faster, less conservative, eliminate turnovers, ” Landry said following the game. “Even if it’s not scoring points, need to be having good drives to flip field position. All those things come into play.”
Has Jameis Winston’s play been sub-par enough to lose the starting job?
The other side of the coin is Winston himself. Through three games, Winston is completing 63.5% of his passes for 858 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions. In Week 1, he led the team back for a win in a somewhat similar vein to Dalton’s performance in this one. A conservative start, followed by a more dynamic second half.
The performance in Week 2 was a poor one. But in Week 3, he had two tough turnovers that were not entirely on him. It is strange with Winston because the intention to spread the ball around is clearly there. Entering Week 4, he led the league in intended air yards per pass attempt at 11.4. He is also consistently throwing the ball past the sticks, leading the league in intended air yards to the sticks at 2.3.
The problem is that the Saints’ offense is not always helping him. His expected completion rate is just 58.5%. Winston, in fact, is outperforming that by 5.2&.
The problem is that Winston is consistently trying to squeeze the ball into tight windows. Next Gen Stats aggression tracking looks at how often a QB tries to thread a ball into a tight window. At 25.2%, Winston also led the league in that stat entering Week 4.
With one in four of his passes being into windows where the defender is less than a yard away, there will always be mistakes. One of the concerns has been the inability of Michael Thomas to get separation. Thomas had the third lowest average separation entering Week 4 (1.7 yards). At 2.8 and 3.2 yards, Olave and Landry are not offering much bigger windows, and tight end Juwan Johnson is only slightly ahead of Landry at 1.8.
Therefore, the problem with this offense appears to be less about the QB and more about the offense in general. Even in Week 4, Dalton was threading the ball into tight windows with a 28.6% aggression rate. He didn’t throw an interception and finished with a passer rating over 100, so the outcome certainly looks prettier. However, the offense struggled with the same things we have seen previously. Receivers not getting separation and conservative play calling early in the game left the Saints chasing the game in the second half.
It will be interesting to see Dalton gets further opportunities with the offense. He definitely grew in confidence in his first regular-season action of the year. Whether it be due to Winston’s back injury or the coach’s decision, Dalton did enough this week to put himself in the frame. He didn’t quite do enough to dislodge Winston completely, but this is more of a competition than it appeared to be entering the year.
At the very least, Dalton demonstrated in Week 4 that the Saints offense can lean on him while Winston recovers. That is a valuable commodity as it allows Winston to get himself fully healthy from his back injury before pushing himself back onto the field. The problem is that the Saints’ season is maybe only a couple of losses from being over, at least in terms of the playoffs.
Therefore, Dennis Allen may have to make a tough decision over who he feels gives this team the best chance to win — an injured Winston or a seemingly fully healthy Dalton. On today’s performance, Dalton has at least given himself a chance to be named the starter in Week 6.