Is this the real Andy Dalton?

Andy Dalton's ability to throw the deep ball has been a question. It's been a solution, lately. Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals were floundering on offense less than one month ago. Coaches and players said the team was searching for an identity. Andy Dalton's stat line following a 17-6 defeat at Cleveland awakened lingering questions about whether the third-year quarterback was holding back an offense filled with talent. A general manager from another team encouraged patience, suggesting the Bengals were simply a young team finding its way.

The temptation now is to say Dalton and the Bengals have found their way, after four consecutive victories and three stellar performances from Dalton in particular. Dalton's career-high five touchdown passes during a 49-9 victory over the New York Jets in Week 8 gave him 11 scoring passes over the past three weeks. The victory also pushed the Bengals to 6-2 and gave them a 2.5-game lead in the AFC North. But any Bengals fan knows Dalton has gotten hot before without sustaining consistently strong play. That included separate three-game stretches last season when Dalton had an 18-5 ratio of TDs to INTs for the six games in question.

We've seen a good Dalton. But mediocrity has filled the gaps between those flashes of brilliance. Consider the nine regular-season starts heading into Dalton's current three-game tear. He had eight TDs, eight INTs and a 39.5 QBR score (50 is average) over those games. The Bengals posted a 6-3 record anyway, but if they're going to take the next step and factor in the playoffs, they'll need their quarterback to play more like he's been playing lately. They'll need to make fuller use of A.J. Green and their other weapons.

None of the question marks surrounding Dalton has been tougher to shake than his perceived difficulties to deliver the deep ball. A defensive assistant coach consulted for this piece agreed to analyze Dalton in that area to see what strides, if any, the quarterback has made. Through this prism we get a better feel for what Dalton must do to more consistently maximize his abilities.