The NFL is a copycat league. Always has been. If there’s something that works against a top-tier offense—like not blitzing Patrick Mahomes, or running 6-1 fronts against Sean McVay’s offense—it spreads like wildfire. So when the Cincinnati Bengals ran hog wild through the AFC playoffs with one of the league’s most spectacular passing attacks, it figured that the following season would feature a concerted effort from defensive coordinators across the league to take the wind out of their sails. Such has been the case for the Bengals offense over the first two weeks of a still winless season. Cincinnati’s offense ranks 24th in the league in EPA per play, and 21st in points per drive. Burrow particularly has struggled—he’s last in DYAR and third-worst in DVOA. And there’s one magic sprinkle of fairy dust to blame for all of these struggles: good ol’ fashioned Cover 2.
Last season, Cincinnati was a feast-or-famine team when facing Cover 2. Burrow’s 9.15 yards per attempt against such coverage ranked third in the league, while his sack rate (14.1 percent) actually led the league. It may seem like the Bengals were a downfield passing team against Cover 2, with Burrow often finding a deep target or taking a sack on his Cover 2 dropbacks—but that wasn’t the case at all. Burrow’s air yards per attempt against Cover 2 (4.79) was among the league’s lowest.
This seems surprising for such an explosive downfield passing attack, but those beautiful sideline balls to Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins aren’t the only feathers in Burrow’s cap. Going back to his LSU days, Burrow has been a dominant quarterback in spread, quick-game offenses. The evolution of Zac Taylor’s offense under Burrow has seen a gradual spreading out toward the sidelines, culminating in 2021’s super-spread offense. The Bengals were second in the league in their usage of empty formations and their usage of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), behind only the Rams. But while Taylor’s old mentor, Sean McVay, was keeping his team in condensed formations, the Bengals were spreading out, averaging the sixth-widest formations among offenses in 2021.
This divergence from the McVay offense is critical. It allows Burrow to see the entire field and identify not just matchups, but also potential blitzers, which was imperative for Burrow given the poor state of the Bengals’ offensive line in 2021. He bore the chief responsibility of identifying pressure and getting rid of the ball quickly or escaping the hit and extending the play. With the receivers spread out and the zones stretched, Burrow could use his quick release and toughness to find space in the quick game, even as rushers won early and often against his leaky offensive line.
But this was never going to work forever. The poor play of the offensive line in 2021 torpedoed the Bengals’ chances in the biggest game of the season. Burrow took 70 sacks across the 2021 season, the third-highest mark in league history, including seven in the Super Bowl. Cincinnati needed to improve the offensive line—and they did. Alex Cappa, Ted Karras, and La’el Collins were all acquired in free agency.
Bengals offensive line ranks on 58 true pass set reps this season:
True Pass Set pass blocking grade: 4th
EPA per play on True Pass Sets: 25th
I have news for the one’s who believe the vast majority of the blame falls on the OL in this scenario.
— Andrew Russell (@Andrew_Russell7) September 19, 2022
And yet, Burrow’s sack numbers aren’t going down—they’re going up.
This is a counterintuitive phenomenon. Shouldn’t better pass protection lead to fewer sacks?
It depends on the quarterback. While sacks are often “given up” by an offensive lineman, a quarterback’s sack rate tends to follow him from team to team, and remains relatively stable even as his offensive line changes. A quarterback takes sacks not because his offensive line is good or bad, but because of how he chooses to behave when he’s in the pocket. If he gets rid of the ball at lightning speeds, like Tom Brady does, he’ll forever have a low sack rate. If he holds onto the ball looking for deep shots, like Russell Wilson does, he’ll forever have a high sack rate. It’s early in Burrow’s career, but he currently looks like he falls cleanly into the second bucket. He himself would agree—he talked about being willing to take extra sacks just this offseason.
Here’s Bengals QB Joe Burrow talking about the concept of taking sacks and why he thinks sacks against can be misleading (via YouTube/Full Send Podcast) pic.twitter.com/2IV6cw02BW
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) May 18, 2022
Teams are not blitzing Burrow—he’s been blitzed on 20 percent of his dropbacks, the fifth-lowest number in the league. Teams are not soundly beating the Bengals’ offensive line—though certainly, facing T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons in consecutive weeks to open the season has presented its challenges. Simply, when Burrow is pressured (on 31 percent of his dropbacks, a league-average number), he is getting sacked off of that pressure at a league-leading rate (38 percent).
This is the same sensation the Bengals experienced last season—Burrow had a league-average number of pressured dropbacks, but a league-high number of sacks. Burrow’s high sack numbers wouldn’t go away if the 2016 Cowboys’ offensive line was playing in front of him. This is his play style. He’s a gamer, a risk taker, an I-can-make-you-miss-er. This is who he is.
But last season, the Bengals were able to thread this needle with the exceptional performance of Burrow and his receivers. We all remember the story. Chase led the league in receiving yards over expectation. Higgins was fourth. The Bengals always seemed to have an explosive play in their pocket. This season, those explosive plays are no longer there. Burrow’s yards per dropback is fifth worst in the league, and he’s completed only one pass of more than 20 air yards downfield on seven attempts.
This is regression. It’s the inevitable trend of all exceptional performance—exceptionally good and exceptionally bad—back down to the mean. And because it was inevitable, the Bengals should have seen it coming. But they only saw some of it coming. The Bengals made no bones about their expectation that they’d see more two-high coverages this season, with a defensive focus on taking the downfield shot away from Burrow. Here’s Burrow speaking on the topic in June:
If they saw it coming, why don’t they have a solution for it? Why is every team sitting in Cover 2 while Cincinnati’s offense sputters, and how do the Bengals get them to stop?
It goes back to Cincinnati’s formations. Remember, when Burrow and the Bengals were exploding in 2021, Burrow was dicing up Cover 2 with those short, shallow, quick throws. He’s still doing that … but still taking tons of sacks when he gets pressured. Last season, when a team would finally show only a single-high safety, Burrow would make them pay. Next Gen Stats graded Burrow as the best passer against single-high looks in a variety of metrics last year.
Joe Burrow excelled when presented with single-high safety shells before the snap this season.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 14, 2022
In order to get a defense into a single-high look, you have to make two-high coverages no longer worth it. Two-high coverages are only possible when that extra safety is taken from the box and added to the defensive backfield. This lowers the number of players in the tackle box for the defense, making it more difficult to stop the run.
If you want to get a defense out of a two-high look, you have to be able to run the football well. So well that they’re forced to bring that additional player back into the box.
Cincinnati is not running the ball well this season. Through two weeks, their running game is seventh-worst by EPA per play and absolutely dead last by success rate by a substantial margin.
The Bengals’ struggles in the running game have a few roots. Joe Mixon is struggling to start the season—he’s averaging negative-.73 yards over expectation per rush, which means he’s getting less than what is 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 figure. The poor play from the backfield notwithstanding—Mixon is a good back whose production will likely improve with a larger sample size—the Bengals have a much bigger problem.
They keep running against single-high defenses.
It’s the exact same issue they have in the passing game, only inverted. Every time the Bengals throw the football, they seem to be throwing into Cover 2—and every time they want to run the football, they’re running into single-high looks and loaded boxes. Here’s a collection of pre-snap run looks the Bengals saw against the Cowboys in Week 2.
Because these are single-high looks with loaded boxes, the solution feels easy: Throw the football! This is the sort of coverage that Burrow dominates, right?
But the Bengals can’t do that. Here’s a collection of pre-snap pass looks from the same game.
The Cowboys’ defensive formations look different, but that’s because the Bengals’ formations look so distinct themselves. Remember, the Bengals have increasingly become a spread passing offense under Taylor and Burrow. Like the Rams offense under which Taylor learned his craft, they led the league in empty sets; they led the league in 11 personnel—but while the Rams were forever tightening their formations and pulling players into the center of the field, the Bengals have been widening. Look at how spread out the Bengals’ wide receivers are in the passing game, compared to the tight splits of the wide receivers in the running game. Look at Burrow under center on the running plays, and Burrow in the shotgun on the passing plays.
There is a chasm in the Bengals offense between the running and passing games. Cincinnati still majors in under-center zone running schemes, just like the Rams do. But while the Rams’ passing game has always extended off of those zone runs with play-action fakes, long rollouts and boots, deep crossers with quarterbacks on the move, the Bengals have become a shotgun, spread-out, quick-game passing attack. The passing game in Cincinnati has lost its connection to the running game.
This split creates predictability. The Bengals run on 80 percent of their under-center snaps, which is the sixth-highest rate in the league. When running from under center, more than 80 percent of their plays are zone runs, which is the third-highest rate in the league. And when they try to run anything else, they don’t execute well. Here’s an attempt at a trap run from shotgun, in which rookie left guard Cordell Volson is unsure of his assignment.
Here’s a snap of duo, a commonRams changeup to zone running, in which the sixth offensive lineman D’Ante Smith (heavy personnel!) is late off his double team, allowing penetration from the attacking safety who (seeing Burrow under center) expects a run.
Here’s a pin-pull run, in which unblocked edge rusher Parsons is so unafraid of the Bengals’ play-action passing game (because they don’t really have one!) that he chases Mixon down from behind and ignores Burrow on the boot entirely.
And here’s a snap of zone windback, another common Rams counter to teams anticipating the zone run, in which the timing of the toss and angle from Mixon make it such that the intentionally unblocked defender all too easily tackles Mixon in the backfield. This is just a poorly designed and coached play.
The Bengals have a siloed offense right now. When Burrow gets under center, he is going to hand off the football, and the Bengals are going to run zone. They’re going to add extra players to the center of the field and condense the formation in order to do it. When the Bengals need to throw, Burrow is going to get in shotgun, and the Bengals are going to spread the field. They may throw the occasional changeup, but if you’re going to be that predictable on offense, defenses will gladly take a peek at your cards, and play their hand accordingly.
Burrow isn’t struggling with Cover 2 because that particular coverage confounds him. Taylor isn’t lacking for designs that open receivers up against Cover 2. It’s just, plainly, harder to throw the football against Cover 2 than it is against single-high coverages—and the Bengals can’t find a way to get single-high on passing downs. The Bengals’ running game isn’t even all that bad! They just can’t find a way to get a run called against a light box with two deep safeties.
There are a myriad of solutions to this problem. All of them involve somehow connecting the two silos of the Bengals offense. You can call RPOs from spread formations to run against light boxes—that’s what LSU did with Burrow when he dominated college football. You can run more play-action and boot Burrow out of the pocket—he doesn’t seem to like that style of play much, but he can’t like getting sacked on over 10 percent of his dropbacks that much, either. You can start running more gap schemes to make it harder for defenses to anticipate your zone runs, and in doing so, hopefully find enough success on the ground to get defenses out of two-deep coverages altogether.
The challenge for Cincinnati over the next few weeks is to pick a strategy, get it installed, and see if it works. If it doesn’t, they’ll need to pick a new one and try that. The regression of the Bengals’ magical 2021 season was always inevitable, but the continued stagnation of the two silos of Taylor’s offense in Cincinnati is not. It is fixable. It requires change, and change is painful, but for the Bengals to prove that 2021 was not a flash in the pan, they must heal the disconnect that exists within their offense. Otherwise, opposing defenses will continue to play with an ace up their sleeves.