Stop me if you have heard this tale before.
The Cincinnati Bengals are advancing in the playoffs, but they face questions over just how far they can go, due to struggles on the offensive line and whether they can protect quarterback Joe Burrow.
Last year, those struggles were evident in the Bengals’ Divisional Round victory over the Tennessee Titans. Despite the win, Burrow was sacked nine times, a playoff record. Still, the Bengals found a way to advance to Super Bowl LVI. Cincinnati lost that game to the Los Angeles Rams, and Burrow was sacked seven times in the loss.
Those struggles spurred the Bengals to revamp their offensive line this off-season. Three new faces were added during free agency — right tackle La’el Collins, center Ted Karras, and guard Alex Cappa — and the Bengals drafted guard Cordell Volson, who slid into the left guard spot.
But as the Bengals face a trip to upstate New York to take on the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Round this year, protection Burrow is again at the top of their list of concerns.
Because some of those new faces are banged up Collins tore knee ligaments in the Bengals’ Christmas Eve win over the New England Patriots and is done for the season. Cappa suffered an ankle injury in Week 18 and did not play in the Wild Card win over the Baltimore Ravens. During that win, left tackle Jonah Williams suffered a dislocated kneecap, and he is also in doubt for the game against Buffalo.
So the Bengals face the prospect of taking on the Bills down three starting offensive linemen, with a trip to the AFC Championship Game on the line.
Still, they have a huge equalizer, even facing that prospect
The third-year quarterback’s pocket management is already the stuff of lore and has been covered by analysts much smarter than me. For example, Dan Orlovsky of ESPN highlighted after Week 18 how well Burrow handles pressure in the pocket, without suffering a breakdown of his mechanics. It is teaching tape for the position.
Burrow’s pocket management skills were originally going to be the focus of this piece. A dive into how well Burrow moves in the pocket and creates space with his feet, and how those abilities were the roadmap for Cincinnati to overcome offensive line struggles, as they were a season ago.
However, sometimes the evidence leads you down a different path.
While Burrow’s skills at handling pressure in the pocket are impressive, there is something else notable about him this season.
How effective he is at getting the ball out quickly before any pressure even has a chance to materialize.
Last season, according to Next Gen Stats, Burrow was tenth in the NFL in time to throw, averaging just 2.69 seconds from snap to release during the regular season. As the playoffs wore on and Burrow was under pressure, that number started to tick downwards. During that Divisional Round win over the Titans, for example, Burrow averaged just 2.54 seconds from snap to release, the second-fastest among the quarterbacks that weekend.
By the time Super Bowl LVI came around, Burrow’s time to throw was down to 2.41 seconds.
This trend continued into the 2022 season. Throughout the regular season, Burrow’s time to throw was among the fastest in the league, and by the time the season ended, Burrow ranked second, with a time to throw of just 2.55 seconds, behind only Tom Brady.
Last week against the Ravens, Burrow averaged just 2.38 seconds from snap to throw, the fastest of all the quarterbacks during Wild Card weekend.
Again, the approach to this piece was to highlight Burrow’s pocket movement, and how critical that was going to be to a playoff run for Cincinnati. It certainly will still matter, but the more I studied Burrow this season, the more his quick decisions, combined with his timing, rhythm, and anticipation as a passer, stood out. Explosive plays? Third-down conversions? More often than not, it was a combination of those traits that led to the big play for the Bengals.
Take this completion against the Pittsburgh Steelers from Week 11:
On this play, the Steelers show Burrow two-high coverage in the secondary, with three pass-rushing threats to the right side of the offense. In response, the quarterback shifts running back Samaje Perine over to the right side, to help in protection.
Right before the snap, however, the Steelers start to spin their defense, rotating into single-high, and as the play unfolds, they bring pressure. Pittsburgh blitzes a linebacker from the second level, along with slot cornerback Arthur Maulet.
Even in the face of this pressure, Burrow connects with Trenton Irwin on an out route along the sideline to move the chains. The ball is out of Burrow’s hands in a flash, as the QB uses a three-step drop from his shotgun alignment, and once he hits his third step, the football is on its way to the target.
Burrow’s ability to decipher a defense and get to the right read almost immediately is huge for the Cincinnati offense, both in terms of defeating pressure and breaking down coverages. In this next example, from Week 7 against the Atlanta Falcons, take note of the timing, rhythm, and anticipation from Burrow, and he hits the in-breaking route against Quarters coverage:
This is another three-step drop from the shotgun, and the timing is pristine on this completion to Tee Higgins. Burrow hits his drop depth, takes a hitch step, and gets the ball out as Higgins is clearing the underneath defender, and before the split safeties can react. Thanks to that timing, rhythm, and anticipation, the Bengals create another big play in the passing game.
This next example comes from Cincinnati’s Week 12 win over the Tennessee Titans. Before the play, Tennessee shows two-high coverage, but right at the snap, they send a blitz from the right slot and spin into single-high. Tennessee only rushes four, as they drop the edge defender away from the blitz, but the slot blitzer has a free run at Burrow.
Again, his quick decision, beats the pressure, and he throws a seam route to tight end Hayden Hurst to move the chains:
If the ball is out before the blitzer can get home, that is usually a good thing for the offense.
As noted above, Burrow’s snap decision-making continued during Cincinnati’s Wild Card victory over the Ravens. On this next example, the Bengals face a 3rd and 10 at the Baltimore 33-yard line. They put Burrow in the shotgun, and run three slant routes on the left side of the offense from a trips formation. On the right side of the field, Ja’Marr Chase is isolated, and he runs a simple hitch route.
Baltimore brings pressure, sending linebacker Patrick Queen, but once more you see a three-step drop, Burrow snapping off a quick throw with timing and anticipation, and the result being a big play for the offense:
Marcus Peters covers this route almost as well as you can, but because Burrow makes this throw on time and in rhythm, Chase has a chance to secure the catch and then make a move on Peters in the open field. So not only does the quick throw negate the blitz, but it gives Chase a chance to turn a six-yard throw into a 13-yard gain.
(Plays like this are why you sometimes hear the phrase that yardage after the catch is, at least in part, a quarterback stat).
The last example we can look at is again from Sunday night’s win over the Ravens. This is the completion to Hurst in the third quarter that set up a short touchdown plunge from the QB himself. Before the snap, the Ravens show Burrow single-high coverage, but they do a very good job at masking their intentions, as they spin to two-high right as the play unfolds.
No matter. Because watch how quickly Burrow reads the rotation and snaps off a throw to Hurst on an in-breaking route, just out of reach from the underneath defender, and well before the safeties can react:
When a quarterback is making these kinds of quick reads and throws, it is hard to get home.
And it is also hard to react in the secondary.
This is the task facing Leslie Frazier and the Bills defense this weekend. Finding a way to slow Burrow down a bit, make him pull the football down and reset, and give their pass rush time to get home against a banged-up offensive line.
But as we have seen this season, that is a tough task indeed.