CINCINNATI — Andy Dalton leads the AFC in yards passing. His interception rate is among the lowest in the league.
So far, his encore season is going as well as could be expected, except for one area — touchdowns.
Dalton had a breakout season last year, leading the AFC in passer rating and setting club records while leading Cincinnati during a 12-win season that matched the best in its history.
He sat out the last three games and a first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh because of a broken thumb on his passing hand.
His goal heading into his sixth season was to grow a little more in the subtleties of running the offense. He’s had to take more of the load as the Bengals (2-2) introduce two new receivers, their running game remains stuck, and their best target at the goal line is still sidelined.
Dalton has thrown only two interceptions, one of them tipped.
“I knew I needed to do a better job of that early on,” Dalton said. “Several years ago I had too many turnovers, so it was making the conscious effort. If you don’t turn the ball over, you’re giving the team a better chance to win.”
Dalton had his breakout season last year, leading the AFC with a passer rating of 106.3. He eliminated his propensity for throwing interceptions, getting picked off only seven times in 13 games. He broke his thumb while making a tackle after throwing interception No. 7 against Pittsburgh on Dec. 13.
Dalton’s return showed he was ready to take another step.
With no running game and little time to throw — the Jets sacked him a career-high seven times in the season opener — Dalton rallied the Bengals in the fourth quarter to a 23-22 win on the road.
After four games, he leads the conference with 1,234 yards passing. His average of 8.4 yards per completion is among the league’s best.
During a win over Miami last Thursday night, Dalton showed how he’s grown in his ability to run the offense. He changed from a passing play to a running play five times in the first 20 snaps.
“He was 4 out of 5 on those throws,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “We give him the liberty to do that, and later it led to a touchdown. He continues to do a good job on his decision-making, accuracy, and running the offense with good tempo.”
The only drawback: Not enough touchdowns. The Bengals rank last in the league in getting touchdowns after crossing the opponent’s 20-yard line.
Part of it is having two new receivers — Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd — still adapting. There’s also the lack of a consistent running game, a problem in all four games so far.
And the Bengals sorely miss tight end Tyler Eifert, who has yet to play because of offseason ankle surgery.
“It’s a little different,” Dalton said. “The guy that we’ve been playing with hadn’t played in a lot of games before.”
The Bengals need to get their offense in gear with road games at Dallas (3-1) and New England (3-1) coming up. The Cowboys’ defense ranks 18th in yards allowed.
“We’re a .500 football team right now,” offensive coordinator Ken Zampese said. “And we all have contributed to where we’re at, and we’re all going to contribute to us being better from here.”
Notes: Eifert didn’t practice on Wednesday because of a sore back as well as his recovery from the ankle surgery, an indication it’s unlikely he’d play in Dallas. He’d practiced on a limited basis for the past two weeks. Eifert was limping slightly on Monday after a light team workout. … CB Dre Kirkpatrick, who missed the game against Miami with an injured hamstring, practiced fully. … Among those limited in practice were RB Jeremy Hill (chest), G Clint Boling (shoulder) and OT Jake Fisher (back).