Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ passing game look primed for another playoff run
What a difference a few weeks makes.
Back in early October, the Cincinnati Bengals were 2-3. They had losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys to start their season, and were coming off another loss in Week 5, to the Baltimore Ravens.
Things seemed bleak, and talk of a Super Bowl hangover was in the air. After all, we have seen teams that lost in the big game struggle the following season before, and perhaps the Bengals would be the latest example.
Since then, however, Cincinnati has righted the ship, and then some. The Bengals are now 8-4 and are coming off their biggest win of the season, Sunday’s 27-24 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
It marks the third time the Bengals have beaten the Chiefs this calendar year.
Flashing back to those days of woe, many pointed at one clear problem for the Bengals: The wave of two-deep coverages we are seeing around the NFL. Those coverages were causing Cincinnati a ton of problems. Consider these numbers. During the first five weeks of the season against two-deep coverages, according to charting data from Sports Info Solutions, Joe Burrow posted an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of just 3.6. Ranking him 30th among quarterbacks during that period of time.
His NFL Passer Rating of 78.1 against those coverages in the first few weeks ranked him 20th.
Those numbers against two-high coverages contributed to Burrow’s overall struggles during the first five weeks of the season. Looking at the big picture, here is where the Cincinnati quarterback found himself after the first five weeks:
Right in the middle of the pack.
But here is how things have changed, as here is where Burrow’s performance in Weeks 6 through 12 put him on the overall quarterback spectrum:
During that stretch, Burrow pulled himself out of the middle of the pack, separating himself from the bulk of the other QBs in the league. As you might expect, part of that separation was due to improved success against two-deep coverages.
From Weeks 6 through 12, Burrow’s ANY/A against two deep coverages, according to SIS, was 7.5, good enough for seventh in the league during that stretch. His NFL Passer Rating of 111.2 put him fourth in the league.
When we examined Burrow last, we highlighted his passing grid through the first five weeks of the season, illustrating how his numbers in the middle of the field were down from 2021. Here was that grid:
And here is his grid entering Sunday against the Chiefs:
In addition to the inconsistencies in attacking the middle of the field, there was another issue: Throws going elsewhere. Early in the season, one of the issues the Bengals had against these two-deep coverages was that even when there were opportunities to attack over the middle, one of the weak areas of these two-deep coverages, the ball was not going there.
For example, here is Burrows spray chart from Cincinnati’s Week 5 loss to the Baltimore Ravens:
Defenses could collapse on the throws to the outside, because there was a belief — warranted at the time — that throws might not attack the middle of the field.
Now we can talk about Sunday.
Burrow was almost perfect on Sunday, completing 25 of 313 passes for 286 yards and a pair of touchdowns. So as you might imagine, he was successful against both single-high, and two-high, coverages.
But against those two-deep coverages?
According to SIS charting data, Burrow had six passing attempts against those coverages.
He completed all six.
Cincinnati saw a good deal of those two-deep looks starting early in the game, but they were able to navigate those coverages well. On the Bengals’ opening possession, they faced a 1st and 10 on the Chiefs’ 34-yard line, and Kansas City showed single-high before spinning their safeties into two-deep at the snap. Burrow opened to his left, where Ja’Marr Chase was running a vertical route, but brought his eyes back to the middle of the field, where tight end Mitchell Wilcox was settling down on a curl route:
Easy throw, easy catch, and a fresh set of downs for Cincinnati.
Later in the drive, the Bengals again faced a two-deep look, and again Burrow attacked over the middle, connecting with Tyler Boyd on a dig route working from left-to-right:
Here is another example of Burrow attacking over the middle against a two-deep coverage look:
Why do these plays matter for Cincinnati? Because earlier in the season, Burrow was not taking chances like these to stress two-deep coverages over the middle. What we have seen over the past few weeks, however, and certainly on Sunday is more of a willingness to attack over the middle.
Kansas City also tried to disguise their rotations, as the did on this play from the third quarter. The Chiefs show pressure up front, and align without a deep safety:
However, they invert this into two deep after the snap:
Burrow reads this out perfectly, connecting with Chase along the right sideline for a 22-yard gain:
Of course, the Chiefs did not sit in two deep all afternoon. When they did roll to single-high coverages, Burrow and the Bengals were ready. On one of their biggest gains of the afternoon, Burrow and Chase connected along the right side of the field before halftime, against Cover 1:
This is part of the larger trend we have seen from offenses this season. As they continue to face two-deep coverages, the good offenses will remain patient, take what is available against two-high looks, and once the defense spins into single-high, that is when they are more aggressive in the downfield passing game.
And a weapon like Chase is ideal for those kinds of moments.
Returning to the spray charts for a moment, here is Burrow’s from Sunday:
Much, much more balanced.
Early in the season, we were worried that unless the Bengals figured out how to be effective against these two-deep coverages, they would continue to see them more and more. That would also limit their opportunities to attack vertically with Chase and Tee Higgins when they saw single-high coverages.
As I wrote back in October:
And so far, the Bengals have not found the right answer to this test. The inconsistencies in attacking the middle of the field in the passing game have allowed safeties to creep closer towards the sidelines, even letting receivers run free in the middle of the field, to take away those throws Burrow hit on last year to Chase, along the boundaries.
Until Burrow and the Bengals give those safeties something else to think about, what we have seen so far this year will continue.
But with what they have shown over the past few weeks, and certainly on Sunday, they now can execute against the very coverages that were giving them trouble early in the year, particularly over the middle of the field. Burrow’s success in attacking that area has opened up the entire passing game in Cincinnati over the past few weeks, and has been a big factor in their recent success.
Making them a much more complete passing game.
Just in time for another run to the playoffs.