With over 12 minutes left in regulation, Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals offense faced another third down situation.
The crowd at AT&T Stadium was in full voice, and just across the line of scrimmage, the talented Micah Parsons was lurking, hoping yet again to put pressure on Burrow and force yet one more throw under duress.
As the play began, Parsons blitzed Burrow, racing through one of the interior gaps to try and get home for another Dallas sack. But Burrow had different ideas, sliding in the pocket to his left to buy more time, before finding Tee Higgins along the left sideline for a 12-yard gain, moving the chains.
Cincinnati would go on to tie the game at 17 with a touchdown on the drive, and this third down conversion was a huge part of that possession.
But it helps to illustrate the issues the Bengals offense faces after their 0-2 start:
The Bengals line up in an empty formation, with Burrow in the shotgun, using 11 offensive personnel. Given the situation — 3rd and 10 — they anticipate Burrow needing a little more time in the pocket, so they put tight end Hayden Hurst in a wing to the left, and running back Samaje Perine in a wing to the right. Both players chip on the defensive ends before releasing into their respective flats.
As for the three wide receivers, they all run deep curl routes, right at the first-down marker. This is basically the NFL’s version of the third down play call you’ll make on Thanksgiving afternoon: “Just go to the first down and turn around.” We’ve all run it, and here it is on a pivotal third down on an NFL Sunday.
While Dallas shows a bit of pressure before the play, the Cowboys rush just four, blitzing Parsons on the interior and dropping into Cover 2. Still, they manage to collapse the pocket at Burrow’s feet, so by the time he hits his drop depth, he is forced off the spot. He slides to his left and creates with his arm and legs, finding Higgins, who has snapped off his curl route and broken towards the sideline.
The result is good for the Bengals, as they move the chains and keep the drive alive. But the issues we see on this play — an empty formation, a quarterback facing pressure in the pocket, relatively static route concepts, and a need for the quarterback to fix everything outside structure — are the issues facing this Bengals offense right now.
Of course, some of these are not new.
After Cincinnati’s run to Super Bowl LVI, the organization had a clear need at the top of their offseason to-do list: Protect Burrow better. We all saw the Bengals passer take nine sacks in a Divisional Round win over the Tennessee Titans, and take another seven sacks in the loss to the Los Angeles Rams, which set a Super Bowl record. Revamping their offensive line was a huge need during the spring, and the Bengals did address the unit, adding right tackle La’el Collins, right guard Alex Cappa, and center Ted Karras during free agency. They also drafted Cordell Volson in the fourth round, and slid him into the left guard spot.
Giving them four new faces along their offensive line.
The faces my be new, the but results, at least yet, are not. Through two games, Burrow has been sacked 13 times, and if that pace were continue, it would more than double the 51 sacks he endured a season ago. While not all sacks are created equally, and Burrow himself conceded that some of the sacks are on him, the protection in front of him has not been consistent to start the season.
Take this play from Cincinnati’s Week 2 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers:
Facing another third-and-long situation, the Bengals empty the backfield and put Burrow in the shotgun. They look to attack vertically with a three-level route concept to the left, with Burrow hoping to target Tyler Boyd on the deep out route.
Pittsburgh drops into Cover 2 and rushes just four, but both Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt get pressure off the edges. That forces Burrow into survival mode early in the play, and Highsmith eventually gets home for the sack.
On this play from the loss to Dallas, Burrow again faces pressure early in the down, as Parsons beats Jonah Williams to the outside, and gets home for the sack:
Earlier in the game, Parson got home working from the opposite side of the field, against Collins, his former teammate:
Parsons fires off the snap and stress Collins to the outside, before dipping back inside to get pressure on Burrow. The quarterback does a good job at avoiding the initial threat from Parsons, stepping up in the pocket, but then the interior of the line starts to give way. Burrow avoids that second point of pressure well, but cannot avoid Parsons when the defender doubles back, and Parsons gets home for the sack.
As Burrow himself conceded recently, some of the pressures and sacks this season have been on him. Quarterbacks play a role in pressures and sacks, and that can be magnified when the quarterback is feeling the effects of breakdowns upfront, a need to extend plays and create off-structure or a combination thereof.
With Burrow feeling both of those right now, it is leading to plays like this:
On this third down from Sunday, Burrow has a chance to hit Hurst on his crossing route right as he hits his drop depth. Instead, he drops his eyes and the ball and starts to move in the pocket, not trusting the concept downfield and/or not trusting the protection in front of him. The result? A missed opportunity in the passing game, and another sack.
So we have inconsistency up front, trickling down and creating some inconsistencies from the quarterback himself. There is one area of the offense that is consistent right now.
But perhaps not in the best way.
Cincinnati, at least from a run/pass perspective, is pretty easy to figure out. If Burrow is in the shotgun, odds are they are going to throw. Against Pittsburgh in Week 1, Cincinnati attempted just two passing plays with Burrow aligned under center. Of their 70 passing plays, 68 of those occurred with Burrow in the shotgun.
That trend largely continued into Week 2. Of their 46 passing plays, Burrow was in the shotgun for 39 of them.
For those wondering how he has faired in the under center passing game, Burrow hit on both attempts against Pittsburgh for 23 yards, including this explosive play to Chase on a dig route:
Against Dallas on Sunday, Burrow hit on 5 of his 6 throws when aligned under center, for 40 yards. He did take one sack while aligned under center.
Now, there are benefits for a quarterback to being aligned in the shotgun, and here is where I use my own failed career to illustrate a point. You can see things better before the play. Aligned under center, the sight angles are different. Being in the shotgun gives you a better vantage point at picking up important indicators before the play, regarding blitzes, coverage tells, and more.
So the fact that Burrow is almost exclusively a shotgun-based passer is okay, to a point. The problem becomes when a tendency becomes more of a tell. The Bengals use a fair number of empty formations, 15 against the Steelers and 12 against the Cowboys. Sure, when it is 3rd and 22 everyone knows you are going to put the ball in the air, but when it is 1st and 10 and you empty the formation, there is no element of surprise. Everyone up front can pin their ears back and aim for Burrow in the pocket.
Like on this 1st and 10 play from Week 1:
This might be one of those moments where Burrow is trying to do too much. The Bengals are running two different half-field concepts on this play, a Stick concept to the right (with two quick out routes and a vertical along the sideline) and Dragon to the left, which pairs a slant route with a flat route. Burrow opens to the right side of the play to read out the Stick, and the outside out-breaking route is open. But…he does not pull the trigger, and spins into a sack instead.
Now, this is not to say that the Bengals need to suddenly become a heavy under center, play-action based passing game. There are not only benefits to aligning in the shotgun as noted, but also Burrow is very good when the formation is spread out, and he can identify a favorable matchup or route before the snap. The Bengals also turned to these formations last season as a means of protecting him, by spreading the defense out and letting him make quick decisions before the pressure can get home.
But now, it seems like these formations are becoming more of a crutch for the offense.
With the Bengals off to an 0-2 start, Cincinnati fans are looking for solace early in the season. Which leads us to our final point.
Perhaps the schedule makers did the Bengals no favors this season.
In both of their games this season, the Bengals faced defenses that have the tried-and-true magic elixir for stopping modern offenses:
Pressure with four.
It is the easiest pre-game story to write. “How can defense X stop offense Y? Pressure with four.” But it is often easier said than done.
Both Pittsburgh (with a healthy Watt, Highsmith and Cameron Heyward) and Dallas (with Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence and an emerging playmaker in Dorance Armstrong) have the ability to get pressure with four. Allowing those teams to drop seven at times into coverage. Look back through these examples, and you’ll find that on many plays, the defense was bringing just four, and creating a numbers advantage in the secondary.
Now, that might not offer a great deal of solace for Bengals fans, given some of the upcoming games on their schedule. They’ll face other teams that can get pressure with four. But these first two games look like they were created in a lab to cause the Bengals problems. Figuring out how to counter those problems, perhaps by breaking some of their own schematic tendencies, might tell the story of Cincinnati’s season.