The NFL is a copycat league. At all times has been. If there’s one thing that works in opposition to a top-tier offense—like not blitzing Patrick Mahomes, or working 6-1 fronts in opposition to Sean McVay’s offense—it spreads like wildfire. So when the Cincinnati Bengals ran hog wild by the AFC playoffs with one of many league’s most spectacular passing assaults, it figured that the next season would characteristic a concerted effort from defensive coordinators throughout the league to take the wind out of their sails. Such has been the case for the Bengals offense over the primary two weeks of a nonetheless winless season. Cincinnati’s offense ranks twenty fourth within the league in EPA per play, and twenty first in factors per drive. Burrow notably has struggled—he’s final in DYAR and third-worst in DVOA. And there’s one magic sprinkle of fairy mud responsible for all of those struggles: good ol’ usual Cowl 2.
Final season, Cincinnati was a feast-or-famine group when going through Cowl 2. Burrow’s 9.15 yards per try in opposition to such protection ranked third within the league, whereas his sack price (14.1 p.c) really led the league. It could appear just like the Bengals had been a downfield passing group in opposition to Cowl 2, with Burrow typically discovering a deep goal or taking a sack on his Cowl 2 dropbacks—however that wasn’t the case in any respect. Burrow’s air yards per try in opposition to Cowl 2 (4.79) was among the many league’s lowest.
This appears shocking for such an explosive downfield passing assault, however these stunning sideline balls to Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins aren’t the one feathers in Burrow’s cap. Going again to his LSU days, Burrow has been a dominant quarterback in unfold, quick-game offenses. The evolution of Zac Taylor’s offense underneath Burrow has seen a gradual spreading out towards the sidelines, culminating in 2021’s super-spread offense. The Bengals had been second within the league of their utilization of empty formations and their utilization of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), behind solely the Rams. However whereas Taylor’s previous mentor, Sean McVay, was preserving his group in condensed formations, the Bengals had been spreading out, averaging the sixth-widest formations amongst offenses in 2021.
This divergence from the McVay offense is essential. It permits Burrow to see your complete discipline and determine not simply matchups, but in addition potential blitzers, which was crucial for Burrow given the poor state of the Bengals’ offensive line in 2021. He bore the chief duty of figuring out strain and eliminating the ball rapidly or escaping the hit and lengthening the play. With the receivers unfold out and the zones stretched, Burrow may use his fast launch and toughness to seek out house within the fast recreation, at the same time as rushers received early and infrequently in opposition to his leaky offensive line.
However this was by no means going to work eternally. The poor play of the offensive line in 2021 torpedoed the Bengals’ probabilities within the largest recreation of the season. Burrow took 70 sacks throughout the 2021 season, the third-highest mark in league historical past, together with seven within the Tremendous Bowl. Cincinnati wanted to enhance the offensive line—and so they did. Alex Cappa, Ted Karras, and La’el Collins had been all acquired in free company.
Bengals offensive line ranks on 58 true move set reps this season:
True Go Set move blocking grade: 4th
EPA per play on True Go Units: twenty fifth
I’ve information for the one’s who consider the overwhelming majority of the blame falls on the OL on this situation.
— Andrew Russell (@Andrew_Russell7) September 19, 2022
And but, Burrow’s sack numbers aren’t taking place—they’re going up.
This can be a counterintuitive phenomenon. Shouldn’t higher move safety result in fewer sacks?
It will depend on the quarterback. Whereas sacks are sometimes “given up” by an offensive lineman, a quarterback’s sack price tends to observe him from group to group, and stays comparatively secure at the same time as his offensive line modifications. A quarterback takes sacks not as a result of his offensive line is nice or dangerous, however due to how he chooses to behave when he’s within the pocket. If he removes the ball at lightning speeds, like Tom Brady does, he’ll eternally have a low sack price. If he holds onto the ball searching for deep pictures, like Russell Wilson does, he’ll eternally have a excessive sack price. It’s early in Burrow’s profession, however he at the moment seems like he falls cleanly into the second bucket. He himself would agree—he talked about being keen to take additional sacks simply this offseason.
Right here’s Bengals QB Joe Burrow speaking concerning the idea of taking sacks and why he thinks sacks in opposition to could be deceptive (through YouTube/Full Ship Podcast) pic.twitter.com/2IV6cw02BW
— Ben Child (@Ben_Baby) Could 18, 2022
Groups should not blitzing Burrow—he’s been blitzed on 20 p.c of his dropbacks, the fifth-lowest quantity within the league. Groups should not soundly beating the Bengals’ offensive line—although definitely, going through T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons in consecutive weeks to open the season has offered its challenges. Merely, when Burrow is pressured (on 31 p.c of his dropbacks, a league-average quantity), he’s getting sacked off of that strain at a league-leading price (38 p.c).
This is similar sensation the Bengals skilled final season—Burrow had a league-average variety of pressured dropbacks, however a league-high variety of sacks. Burrow’s excessive sack numbers wouldn’t go away if the 2016 Cowboys’ offensive line was enjoying in entrance of him. That is his play model. He’s a gamer, a threat taker, an I-can-make-you-miss-er. That is who he’s.
However final season, the Bengals had been capable of thread this needle with the distinctive efficiency of Burrow and his receivers. All of us bear in mind the story. Chase led the league in receiving yards over expectation. Higgins was fourth. The Bengals at all times appeared to have an explosive play of their pocket. This season, these explosive performs are now not there. Burrow’s yards per dropback is fifth worst within the league, and he’s accomplished just one move of greater than 20 air yards downfield on seven makes an attempt.
That is regression. It’s the inevitable development of all distinctive efficiency—exceptionally good and exceptionally dangerous—again right down to the imply. And since it was inevitable, the Bengals ought to have seen it coming. However they solely noticed some of it coming. The Bengals made no bones about their expectation that they’d see extra two-high coverages this season, with a defensive give attention to taking the downfield shot away from Burrow. Right here’s Burrow talking on the subject in June:
In the event that they noticed it coming, why don’t they’ve an answer for it? Why is each group sitting in Cowl 2 whereas Cincinnati’s offense sputters, and the way do the Bengals get them to cease?
It goes again to Cincinnati’s formations. Bear in mind, when Burrow and the Bengals had been exploding in 2021, Burrow was dicing up Cowl 2 with these brief, shallow, fast throws. He’s nonetheless doing that … however nonetheless taking tons of sacks when he will get pressured. Final season, when a group would lastly present solely a single-high security, Burrow would make them pay. Subsequent Gen Stats graded Burrow as the very best passer in opposition to single-high seems in quite a lot of metrics final yr.
Joe Burrow excelled when offered with single-high security shells earlier than the snap this season.
— Subsequent Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 14, 2022
So as to get a protection right into a single-high look, it’s important to make two-high coverages now not value it. Two-high coverages are solely potential when that additional security is taken from the field and added to the defensive backfield. This lowers the variety of gamers within the sort out field for the protection, making it harder to cease the run.
If you wish to get a protection out of a two-high look, you’ve got to have the ability to run the soccer properly. So properly that they’re pressured to carry that extra participant again into the field.
Cincinnati shouldn’t be working the ball properly this season. By way of two weeks, their working recreation is seventh-worst by EPA per play and completely lifeless final by success price by a considerable margin.
The Bengals’ struggles within the working recreation have just a few roots. Joe Mixon is struggling to start out the season—he’s averaging negative-.73 yards over expectation per rush, which suggests he’s getting lower than what’s blocked for him—and Bengals ball carriers altogether are averaging a mere 2.15 yards after contact per rush, which is tied with Atlanta for the league’s worst determine. The poor play from the backfield however—Mixon is an effective again whose manufacturing will probably enhance with a bigger pattern measurement—the Bengals have a a lot larger downside.
They preserve working in opposition to single-high defenses.
It’s the very same situation they’ve within the passing recreation, solely inverted. Each time the Bengals throw the soccer, they appear to be throwing into Cowl 2—and each time they need to run the soccer, they’re working into single-high seems and loaded containers. Right here’s a group of pre-snap run seems the Bengals noticed in opposition to the Cowboys in Week 2.
As a result of these are single-high seems with loaded containers, the answer feels straightforward: Throw the soccer! That is the type of protection that Burrow dominates, proper?
However the Bengals can’t do this. Right here’s a group of pre-snap move seems from the identical recreation.
The Cowboys’ defensive formations look totally different, however that’s as a result of the Bengals’ formations look so distinct themselves. Bear in mind, the Bengals have more and more turn out to be a diffusion passing offense underneath Taylor and Burrow. Just like the Rams offense underneath which Taylor discovered his craft, they led the league in empty units; they led the league in 11 personnel—however whereas the Rams had been eternally tightening their formations and pulling gamers into the middle of the sphere, the Bengals have been widening. Have a look at how unfold out the Bengals’ large receivers are within the passing recreation, in comparison with the tight splits of the large receivers within the working recreation. Have a look at Burrow underneath middle on the working performs, and Burrow within the shotgun on the passing performs.
There’s a chasm within the Bengals offense between the working and passing video games. Cincinnati nonetheless majors in under-center zone working schemes, similar to the Rams do. However whereas the Rams’ passing recreation has at all times prolonged off of these zone runs with play-action fakes, lengthy rollouts and boots, deep crossers with quarterbacks on the transfer, the Bengals have turn out to be a shotgun, spread-out, quick-game passing assault. The passing recreation in Cincinnati has misplaced its connection to the working recreation.
This cut up creates predictability. The Bengals run on 80 p.c of their under-center snaps, which is the sixth-highest price within the league. When working from underneath middle, greater than 80 p.c of their performs are zone runs, which is the third-highest price within the league. And once they attempt to run anything, they don’t execute properly. Right here’s an try at a entice run from shotgun, by which rookie left guard Cordell Volson is uncertain of his task.
Right here’s a snap of duo, a commonRams changeup to zone working, by which the sixth offensive lineman D’Ante Smith (heavy personnel!) is late off his double group, permitting penetration from the attacking security who (seeing Burrow underneath middle) expects a run.
Right here’s a pin-pull run, by which unblocked edge rusher Parsons is so unafraid of the Bengals’ play-action passing recreation (as a result of they don’t actually have one!) that he chases Mixon down from behind and ignores Burrow on the boot solely.
And right here’s a snap of zone windback, one other widespread Rams counter to groups anticipating the zone run, by which the timing of the toss and angle from Mixon make it such that the deliberately unblocked defender all too simply tackles Mixon within the backfield. That is only a poorly designed and coached play.
The Bengals have a siloed offense proper now. When Burrow will get underneath middle, he’s going handy off the soccer, and the Bengals are going to run zone. They’re going so as to add additional gamers to the middle of the sphere and condense the formation in an effort to do it. When the Bengals must throw, Burrow goes to get in shotgun, and the Bengals are going to unfold the sphere. They might throw the occasional changeup, however for those who’re going to be that predictable on offense, defenses will gladly take a peek at your playing cards, and play their hand accordingly.
Burrow isn’t combating Cowl 2 as a result of that specific protection confounds him. Taylor isn’t missing for designs that open receivers up in opposition to Cowl 2. It’s simply, plainly, tougher to throw the soccer in opposition to Cowl 2 than it’s in opposition to single-high coverages—and the Bengals can’t discover a approach to get single-high on passing downs. The Bengals’ working recreation isn’t even all that dangerous! They simply can’t discover a approach to get a run known as in opposition to a light-weight field with two deep safeties.
There are a myriad of options to this downside. All of them contain one way or the other connecting the 2 silos of the Bengals offense. You may name RPOs from unfold formations to run in opposition to gentle containers—that’s what LSU did with Burrow when he dominated faculty soccer. You may run extra play-action and boot Burrow out of the pocket—he doesn’t appear to love that model of play a lot, however he can’t like getting sacked on over 10 p.c of his dropbacks that a lot, both. You can begin working extra hole schemes to make it tougher for defenses to anticipate your zone runs, and in doing so, hopefully discover sufficient success on the bottom to get defenses out of two-deep coverages altogether.
The problem for Cincinnati over the following few weeks is to select a method, get it put in, and see if it really works. If it doesn’t, they’ll want to select a brand new one and take a look at that. The regression of the Bengals’ magical 2021 season was at all times inevitable, however the continued stagnation of the 2 silos of Taylor’s offense in Cincinnati shouldn’t be. It’s fixable. It requires change, and alter is painful, however for the Bengals to show that 2021 was not a flash within the pan, they need to heal the disconnect that exists inside their offense. In any other case, opposing defenses will proceed to play with an ace up their sleeves.