The NFL is a copycat league. Always has been. If there’s one thing that works in opposition to a top-tier offense—like no longer 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 thru the AFC playoffs with one in every of the league’s maximum impressive passing assaults, it figured that the following season would function a concerted effort from defensive coordinators throughout the league to take the wind out in their sails. Such has been the case for the Bengals offense over the first two weeks of a nonetheless winless season. Cincinnati’s offense ranks twenty fourth in the league in EPA in keeping with play, and twenty first in issues in keeping with power. Burrow specifically has struggled—he’s ultimate in DYAR and third-worst in DVOA. And there’s one magic sprinkle of fairy mud accountable for all of those struggles: just right ol’ shaped Cover 2.
Last season, Cincinnati was once a feast-or-famine staff when going through Cover 2. Burrow’s 9.15 yards in keeping with try in opposition to such protection ranked 1/3 in the league, whilst his sack charge (14.1 %) in truth led the league. It would possibly appear like the Bengals had been a downfield passing staff in opposition to Cover 2, with Burrow ceaselessly discovering a deep goal or taking a sack on his Cover 2 dropbacks—however that wasn’t the case in any respect. Burrow’s air yards in keeping with try in opposition to Cover 2 (4.79) was once amongst the league’s lowest.
This turns out unexpected for such an explosive downfield passing assault, however the ones stunning sideline balls to Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins aren’t the most effective 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 beneath Burrow has observed a steady spreading out towards the sidelines, culminating in 2021’s super-spread offense. The Bengals had been 2nd in the league of their utilization of empty formations and their utilization of eleven body of workers (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), in the back of most effective the Rams. But whilst Taylor’s outdated mentor, Sean McVay, was once maintaining his staff in condensed formations, the Bengals had been spreading out, averaging the sixth-widest formations amongst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 important. It lets in Burrow to look the complete box and establish no longer simply matchups, but in addition attainable blitzers, which was once crucial for Burrow given the deficient state of the Bengals’ offensive line in 2021. He bore the leader accountability of figuring out force and eliminating the ball temporarily or escaping the hit and lengthening the play. With the receivers unfold out and the zones stretched, Burrow may use his short free up and toughness to seek out area in the short sport, whilst rushers gained early and ceaselessly in opposition to his leaky offensive line.
But this was once by no means going to paintings ceaselessly. The deficient play of the offensive line in 2021 torpedoed the Bengals’ probabilities in the greatest sport of the season. Burrow took 70 sacks throughout the 2021 season, the third-highest mark in league historical past, together with seven in the Super Bowl. Cincinnati had to strengthen the offensive line—they usually did. Alex Cappa, Ted Karras, and La’el Collins had been all got in loose company.
Bengals offensive line ranks on 58 true cross set reps this season:
True Pass Set cross blocking off grade: 4th
EPA in keeping with play on True Pass Sets: twenty fifth
I’ve information for the one’s who imagine the overwhelming majority of the blame falls on the OL on this state of affairs.
— Andrew Russell (@Andrew_Russell7) September 19, 2022
And but, Burrow’s sack numbers aren’t happening—they’re going up.
This is a counterintuitive phenomenon. Shouldn’t higher cross coverage result in fewer sacks?
It relies on the quarterback. While sacks are ceaselessly “given up” via an offensive lineman, a quarterback’s sack charge has a tendency to practice him from staff to staff, and stays quite strong whilst his offensive line adjustments. A quarterback takes sacks no longer as a result of his offensive line is just right or unhealthy, however on account of how he chooses to act when he’s in the pocket. If he eliminates the ball at lightning speeds, like Tom Brady does, he’ll ceaselessly have a low sack charge. If he holds onto the ball in search of deep pictures, like Russell Wilson does, he’ll ceaselessly have a excessive sack charge. It’s early in Burrow’s profession, however he recently looks as if he falls cleanly into the 2nd bucket. He himself would agree—he mentioned being prepared to take further sacks simply this offseason.
Here’s Bengals QB Joe Burrow speaking about the idea of taking sacks and why he thinks sacks in opposition to will also be deceptive (by way of YouTube/Full Send Podcast) %.twitter.com/2IV6cw02BW
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) May 18, 2022
Teams don’t seem to be blitzing Burrow—he’s been blitzed on 20 % of his dropbacks, the fifth-lowest quantity in the league. Teams don’t seem to be soundly beating the Bengals’ offensive line—despite the fact that definitely, going through T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons in consecutive weeks to open the season has offered its demanding situations. Simply, when Burrow is burdened (on 31 % of his dropbacks, a league-average quantity), he’s getting sacked off of that force at a league-leading charge (38 %).
This is the similar sensation the Bengals skilled ultimate season—Burrow had a league-average collection of burdened dropbacks, however a league-high collection of sacks. Burrow’s excessive sack numbers wouldn’t cross away if the 2016 Cowboys’ offensive line was once enjoying in entrance of him. This is his play taste. He’s a gamer, a possibility taker, an I-can-make-you-miss-er. This is who he’s.
But ultimate season, the Bengals had been in a position to string this needle with the outstanding efficiency of Burrow and his receivers. We all consider the tale. Chase led the league in receiving yards over expectation. Higgins was once fourth. The Bengals at all times looked as if it would have an explosive play of their pocket. This season, the ones explosive performs are now not there. Burrow’s yards in keeping with dropback is 5th worst in the league, and he’s finished just one cross of greater than 20 air yards downfield on seven makes an attempt.
This is regression. It’s the inevitable pattern of all outstanding efficiency—exceptionally just right and exceptionally unhealthy—backpedal to the imply. And as it was once inevitable, the Bengals must have observed it coming. But they just 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 focal point on taking the downfield shot clear of Burrow. Here’s Burrow talking on the matter in June:
If they noticed it coming, why don’t they have got an answer for it? Why is each and every staff sitting in Cover 2 whilst Cincinnati’s offense sputters, and the way do the Bengals get them to prevent?
It is going again to Cincinnati’s formations. Remember, when Burrow and the Bengals had been exploding in 2021, Burrow was once dicing up Cover 2 with the ones quick, shallow, short throws. He’s nonetheless doing that … however nonetheless taking heaps of sacks when he will get burdened. Last season, when a staff would in any case display just a single-high protection, Burrow would cause them to pay. Next Gen Stats graded Burrow as the very best passer in opposition to single-high seems in various metrics ultimate yr.
Joe Burrow excelled when offered with single-high protection shells prior to the snap this season.
Burrow led the NFL in yards in keeping with try (9.9), CPOE (+8.5%), passer ranking (129.8) and cross EPA (+76.0) in opposition to single-high shells.#LVvsCIN | #RuleTheJungle %.twitter.com/52qe03tLTv
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 14, 2022
In order to get a protection right into a single-high glance, you must make two-high coverages now not price it. Two-high coverages are most effective conceivable when that further protection is taken from the field and added to the defensive backfield. This lowers the collection of gamers in the take on field for the protection, making it tougher to prevent the run.
If you wish to have to get a protection out of a two-high glance, you’ve as a way to run the soccer neatly. So neatly that they’re pressured to deliver that further participant again into the field.
Cincinnati isn’t working the ball neatly this season. Through two weeks, their working sport is seventh-worst via EPA in keeping with play and completely useless ultimate via good fortune charge via a considerable margin.
The Bengals’ struggles in the working sport have a couple of roots. Joe Mixon is suffering to begin the season—he’s averaging negative-.73 yards over expectation in keeping with rush, because of this he’s getting not up to what’s blocked for him—and Bengals ball carriers altogether are averaging an insignificant 2.15 yards after touch in keeping with rush, which is tied with Atlanta for the league’s worst determine. The deficient play from the backfield however—Mixon is a great again whose manufacturing will most likely strengthen with a bigger pattern dimension—the Bengals have a far larger drawback.
They stay working in opposition to single-high defenses.
It’s the very same factor they have got in the passing sport, most effective inverted. Every time the Bengals throw the soccer, they appear to be throwing into Cover 2—and each and every time they wish to run the soccer, they’re working into single-high seems and loaded packing containers. Here’s a choice of pre-snap run seems the Bengals noticed in opposition to the Cowboys in Week 2.
Because those are single-high seems with loaded packing containers, the resolution feels simple: Throw the soccer! This is the kind of protection that Burrow dominates, proper?
But the Bengals can’t do this. Here’s a choice of pre-snap cross seems from the similar sport.
The Cowboys’ defensive formations glance other, however that’s as a result of the Bengals’ formations glance so distinct themselves. Remember, the Bengals have an increasing number of transform a range passing offense beneath Taylor and Burrow. Like the Rams offense beneath which Taylor realized his craft, they led the league in empty units; they led the league in 11 body of workers—however whilst the Rams had been ceaselessly tightening their formations and pulling gamers into the middle of the box, the Bengals had been widening. Look at how unfold out the Bengals’ vast receivers are in the passing sport, in comparison to the tight splits of the vast receivers in the working sport. Look at Burrow beneath middle on the working performs, and Burrow in the shotgun on the passing performs.
There is a chasm in the Bengals offense between the working and passing video games. Cincinnati nonetheless majors in under-center zone working schemes, similar to the Rams do. But whilst the Rams’ passing sport has at all times prolonged off of the ones zone runs with play-action fakes, lengthy rollouts and boots, deep crossers with quarterbacks on the transfer, the Bengals have transform a shotgun, spread-out, quick-game passing assault. The passing sport in Cincinnati has misplaced its connection to the working sport.
This cut up creates predictability. The Bengals run on 80 % in their under-center snaps, which is the sixth-highest charge in the league. When working from beneath middle, greater than 80 % in their performs are zone runs, which is the third-highest charge in the league. And when they are trying to run anything, they don’t execute neatly. Here’s an try at a lure run from shotgun, wherein rookie left guard Cordell Volson is not sure of his task.
Here’s a snap of duo, a commonplaceRams changeup to zone working, wherein the 6th offensive lineman D’Ante Smith (heavy body of workers!) is past due off his double staff, permitting penetration from the attacking protection who (seeing Burrow beneath middle) expects a run.
Here’s a pin-pull run, wherein unblocked edge rusher Parsons is so unafraid of the Bengals’ play-action passing sport (as a result of they don’t actually have one!) that he chases Mixon down from in the back of and ignores Burrow on the boot solely.
And right here’s a snap of zone windback, any other commonplace Rams counter to groups expecting the zone run, wherein the timing of the toss and perspective from Mixon make it such that the deliberately unblocked defender all too simply tackles Mixon in the backfield. This is only a poorly designed and coached play.
The Bengals have a siloed offense presently. When Burrow will get beneath middle, he’s going handy off the soccer, and the Bengals are going to run zone. They’re going so as to add further gamers to the middle of the box and condense the formation with a purpose to do it. When the Bengals want to throw, Burrow goes to get in shotgun, and the Bengals are going to unfold the box. They would possibly 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 suffering with Cover 2 as a result of that exact protection confounds him. Taylor isn’t missing for designs that open receivers up in opposition to Cover 2. It’s simply, evidently, tougher to throw the soccer in opposition to Cover 2 than it’s in opposition to single-high coverages—and the Bengals can’t give you the chance to get single-high on passing downs. The Bengals’ working sport isn’t even all that unhealthy! They simply can’t give you the chance to get a run referred to as in opposition to a gentle field with two deep safeties.
There are a myriad of answers to this drawback. All of them contain by some means connecting the two silos of the Bengals offense. You can name RPOs from unfold formations to run in opposition to gentle packing containers—that’s what LSU did with Burrow when he ruled school soccer. You can run extra play-action and boot Burrow out of the pocket—he doesn’t appear to love that taste of play a lot, however he can’t like getting sacked on over 10 % of his dropbacks that a lot, both. You can get started working extra hole schemes to make it tougher for defenses to watch for your zone runs, and in doing so, confidently to find sufficient good fortune on the floor to get defenses out of two-deep coverages altogether.
The problem for Cincinnati over the following couple of weeks is to pick out a technique, get it put in, and spot 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 once at all times inevitable, however the persisted stagnation of the two silos of Taylor’s offense in Cincinnati isn’t. It is fixable. It calls for alternate, and alter is painful, however for the Bengals to turn out that 2021 was once no longer a flash in the pan, they should heal the disconnect that exists inside of their offense. Otherwise, opposing defenses will proceed to play with an ace up their sleeves.