The NFL is a copycat league. Has always been. If there is something that works against top level violation like No Blitzing Patrick Mahomes or playing 6-1 against a Sean McVeigh offense, it spreads like wildfire. So when the Cincinnati Bengals stormed out of the AFC playoffs with one of the most spectacular passes in the league, they counted on a concerted effort by defensive coordinators across the league next season to kick the wind out. This was the case with the Bengals’ offense during the first two weeks of a still-winless season. The Cincinnati offense is ranked 24th in the league by the EPA per game and 21st in points per disc. Burrow especially struggled…he is last in DYAR and third worst in DVOA. And one magic drop of fairy dust is to blame for all these problems: the good old cover 2.
The Cincinnati were a feast or famine team last season when they faced Cover 2. Burrow finished third in the league with 9.15 yards per try against such coverage, while his sack percentage (14.1%) was virtually the league leader. It may seem for example, the Bengals were an outfield passing team against Shelter 2, and Burrow would often find a deep target or take the sack on his Shelter 2 dropbacks—but that was not the case at all. Burrow’s air yards per try against Cover 2 (4.79) were among the lowest in the league.
It seems surprising for such an explosive attack in the bottom of the field, but these beautiful side balls to J’Marr Chase and Ty Higgins are not the only feathers in Burrow’s hat. Going back to his LSU days, Burrow was a dominant fast forward quarterback. Zach Taylor’s offensive evolution at Barrow gradually spread towards the sidelines, culminating in the 2021 super-common offense. The Bengals were second in the league in empty formations and 11 man use (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), behind only the Rams. But while Taylor’s old mentor, Sean McVeigh, kept his team in tight formation, the Bengals have spread out, averaging sixth in offense in 2021.
This discrepancy with McVeigh’s crime is crucial. This allows Burrow to see the entire field and spot not only matches but also potential blitzers, which was essential for Burrow given the poor state of the Bengals’ offensive line in 2021. ball quickly or get away from the hit and extend the game. With the receivers set and extended, Barrow could use his quick release and stamina to find space in the fast game, even when the rushers beat his holey offensive line early and often.
#RightJungle QB team leader Joe Burrow will start 2022 against #ChiefsKingdom Sunday. Here, @MattBowen41 shows Burrow vs. Cover 2 using accuracy and timing for the target @teehiggins5 in the void of the intermediate coating. #NFL@Ben_Baby | @gregcosell | @__bbell pic.twitter.com/d4mrHchBDs
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) January 1, 2022
But it will never work forever. Poor line play in 2021 has crippled the Bengals’ chances in the main game of the season. Nora took 70 sacks in 2021 season, third most in league history., including seven in the Super Bowl. Cincinnati needed to improve their offensive line, and they did. Alex Kappa, Ted Karras and Lael Collins were acquired through free agency.
The Bengals’ offensive line this season has 58 accurate passes:
True Pass Set Lock Level: 4th
EPA for Playing True Pass Packs: 25th
I have news for those who feel that the vast majority of the blame for this scenario lies with OL.
— Andrew Russell (@Andrew_Russell7) September 19, 2022
And yet Burrow’s layoffs are not decreasing, but growing.
This is a counterintuitive phenomenon. Shouldn’t better pass defense lead to fewer sacks?
It depends on the quarterback. While the sacks are often “surrendered” by the offensive lineman, Quarterback firing rate tends to follow him from team to team, and remains relatively stable even when changing the line of attack. The quarterback takes the sacks not because his offensive line is good or bad, but because of how he behaves when he is in the pocket. If he gets rid of the ball at lightning speed, like Tom Brady does, he will always have a low sack percentage. If he holds the ball looking for deep shots like Russell Wilson does, he will always have a high sack percentage. Barrow’s career is just getting started, but currently he looks like he’s hit the second bucket. He himself would agree – he said that he was ready to take additional bags in this particular off-season.
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 don’t overtake Burrow – he’s beaten 20 percent of throwbacks, the fifth-highest percentage in the league. The teams don’t beat the Bengals’ offensive line, though of course meeting T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons for weeks on end to open the season has set its sights. Simply put, when pressure is applied to Barrow (31% of the time he retires, which is the league average), he is fired from that pressure at a league-record rate (38%).
It’s the same as the Bengals did last season: Burrow had a league-average number of forced retreats, but he also had a lot of sacks. Burrow’s large number of sacks wouldn’t disappear if the 2016 Cowboys’ offensive line played in front of him. This is his style of play. He’s a gamer, a risk taker, I can make you bored. That’s who he is.
But last season, the Bengals were able to thread that needle thanks to the exceptional performance of Barrow and his receivers. We all remember this story. Chase led the league in higher-than-expected receiving yards. Higgins was fourth. The Bengals always seemed to have an explosive game in their pocket. There are no more explosive games this season. Burrow is the fifth-worst in the league in yards per pullback, and he has only completed one pass of more than 20 yards down the field in seven tries.
This is a regression. This is the inevitable trend of any exceptional performance – exceptionally good. as well as exceptionally bad – revert to the mean. And since it was inevitable, the Bengals must have foreseen it. But they only saw a little his arrival. The Bengals have made no secret of their expectation that they will see more than two high-times this season, with a focus on defense, to steal the outfield shot from Burrow. Here is Burrow’s speech on the subject in June:
— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) September 22, 2022
If they foresaw it, why don’t they have a solution? Why are all the teams sitting on cover 2 while the Cincinnati offense is bursting at the seams, and how do the Bengals stop them?
This goes back to the Cincinnati formations. Remember when Burrows and Bengals exploded in 2021, Burrow hit Cover 2 with their short, shallow, quick throws. He still does it…but still takes tons of bags when pressured on him. Last season, when the team finally showed only one high safety record, Burrow made them pay. Burrow was ranked by Next Gen Stats as the best passer against singles across a range of metrics last year.
Joe Burrow excelled when he was presented with single height defensive tackle before the snap this season.
— Next Generation Statistics (@NextGenStats) January 14, 2022
In order to turn a defense into a single high view, you have to make double high covers no longer worth it. Double coverage is only possible when this extra safety is taken from the box and added to the defensive backfield. This reduces the number of players in the tackle box for protection, making the run more difficult to stop.
If you want to get protection from the deuce, you must be able to manage football well. So good that they have to put that extra player back in the box.
Cincinnati is not playing well this season. For two weeks, their running game is the seventh-worst EPA per game and absolutely last in terms of success by a significant margin.
Bengals wrestling in the running game has several roots. Joe Mixon is struggling to start the season – he’s averaging 0.73 over-expected yards per rush, which means he’s getting less than what’s blocked for him – and Bengals players are averaging just 2.15 overall. yards after contact per shot, tied with Atlanta for the worst record in the league. Despite poor play by defensemen (Mixon is a good defenseman whose performance is likely to improve as sample size increases), the Bengals have a much bigger problem.
They keep running against a lone defense.
This is the same problem as in the walkthrough, only reversed. Every time the Bengals throw the ball, it looks like they are throwing into Cover 2, and every time they want to throw the ball, they are faced with single stares and loaded…