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Bengals Won't Go Far in AFC if Joe Burrow, Offense Doesn't Improve

Peyton Manning in the pistol for the 2013 Denver Broncos.

The Cincinnati Bengals survived Monday night, but only in the most superficial terms. They beat a middling Los Angeles Rams team in a 19-16 rock fight thanks to their defense and a quartet of field goals out of Evan McPherson

While the win is a godsend for avoiding an 0-3 start, it hardly felt that way with what the Bengals got from their $250 million man behind center. 

Burrow's MNF Struggles

Joe Burrow still isn't himself. He hasn't been all season, and there's no way around it. After suffering a calf injury in training camp, the playmaking ability outside the pocket and just-good-enough arm strength that glued his game together has vanished. 

Burrow hasn't been able to drive the ball or move around the way he did when he was stringing together potential MVP campaigns and deep playoff runs. 

Monday night's game put that under the microscope for everyone to see. Burrow was reduced to a short passing and checkdown merchant, not a particularly accurate one. 

Burrow's average depth of target on the night was just 7.0 yards. That falls in the 26th percentile in's database going back to 2010. Burrow couldn't muster more than that against a Rams secondary littered with inexperienced players and journeymen. 

Of course, that wouldn't be a problem if Burrow served up perfectly placed passes and allowed for easy YAC like he usually does. But that wasn't the case. 

According to NextGenStats, Burrow finished the night with a -7.1 completion percentage over expected. A few drops play into that, but Burrow also missed more than his fair share of throws. 

Every throw outside the numbers was a struggle, and Burrow could not drive the ball into tight windows. Curl and out routes to Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase that would have been completed last season arrived late or over someone's head on Monday night. 

Even Burrow's lone interception on the night resulted from CB Ahkello Witherspoon undercutting a pass because Burrow couldn't put enough MPHs on the throw. He didn't have the juice he usually does. For a quarterback whose arm was never impressive, that's a significant impediment. 

Current Offense Won't Hold Up

Thanks to the rest of the team, what little Burrow provided was enough. The run game revved up a little as the game went on; Chase made the most of all his schemed-up touches, and the defense held the opposing offense to 16 points. 

All's well that ends well, at least for the night. 

It's hard to talk yourself into this version of the Bengals as a serious team. Playing defense and grinding out 12-play field goal drives can put wins on the board against lesser opponents, but it doesn't reignite the championship hopes the Bengals had coming into the season. 

This version of the Burrow offense won't have enough in the tank against the league's other top teams. It already failed them in the first two weeks of the season. The Cleveland Browns blew them out in the opener, and the Baltimore Ravens took them down in Week 2, albeit in a close 27-24 game.

Now, the Bengals have the Seahawks, 49ers, Bills and Ravens again in the next two months. Good luck finding more than perhaps one win in that stretch if this is all the Bengals will get from their offense. 

Finding Answers From HOF QB

Naturally, that begs a question: How can the Bengals work around Burrow's current limitations? The answer may lie in some old Denver Broncos-era Peyton Manning film. 

Without the mobility and arm strength that made Manning a legend in Indianapolis, the Broncos turned to the pistol formation. Rather than line up under the center or in shotgun with the back next to the quarterback, the back would line up behind Manning, who was in a shotgun alignment. 

Peyton Manning in the pistol for the 2013 Broncos

The formation gave the Broncos the best of both worlds. Having the back deeper in the backfield allowed the run game to be more diverse, like with under-center formations, but allowed Manning to operate from the shotgun to be a quick-hitting point guard. 

Part of the magic is the pistol allowed the Broncos to tie their run game to their play-action passing game better than from the shotgun. With shotgun formations, the ball is facing the defense the entire time. 

It's tougher to get them to buy the fake. It's also harder for an offense to find variety in the run game from the shotgun without using the quarterback as a runner because the angles are all so much flatter. The pistol helped the Broncos deal with both problems by simulating under-center looks without actually putting Manning under center.

It's not a perfect solution for the Bengals, but it's worth trying. Getting the run game going out of the pistol and manufacturing a few schemed-up shots that even a 70 percent Burrow couldn't miss would be a better formula than what they have going right now. 

They won’t survive or keep Burrow upright if they keep throwing the ball 50 times a game from shotgun without much of a run game to grind out drives. The best defenses will tee off on them, and the best offenses will outpace them with relative ease. 

Good Time for Rest?

There's also the old R&R route for Burrow. The Bengals' next two games are the Tennessee Titans and the Arizona Cardinals. The Titans have a nasty defensive front, and the Cardinals have much more punch than anyone believed before the season. 

However, these are the two easiest games the Bengals will get until at least mid-November when they see the Houston Texans. Maybe giving Burrow two weeks to get healthy would serve him well in the long run. 

Either way, the Bengals are in a tough spot until Burrow returns to form. A major part of the calculus with this Bengals team required the accuracy, aggression and playmaking Burrow provided behind center. 

Burrow and his connection with Chase and Higgins masked many other issues the offense has, from the offensive line to tight end to the run game. All of those issues come to the forefront if Burrow isn't at full strength or if the Bengals can't find the right way to accommodate this hobbled version of him. 

None of this is meant to be an indictment of Burrow or the Bengals. Burrow is a top-five quarterback at his best. The Bengals will be title contenders for as long as Burrow can be that guy. 

Burrow just isn't that guy right now, and there's no guarantee he will look like himself again until the calf issue goes away.

Derrik Klassen is an NFL and NFL Draft film analyst with a particular interest in quarterbacks. Klassen’s work is also featured on Bleacher Report and Reception Perception. You can follow him on Twitter (X) at @QBKlass.