Analysis

Pre-Snap Read: Joe Burrow Has Bengals Getting Back to Form

Playing his best game of the season in Sunday’s win at New Orleans, Joe Burrow’s steady decision-making and occasional playmaking allowed the Bengals to erase a double-digit deficit and get back to .500 for the first time this season.

In the process, he completed 28 of 37 passes for 300 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. It was a 300-yard game with his best completion percentage (76%) and gaudiest QB rating (126.0) of the 2022 campaign.

The numbers say a lot, but in this case, they don’t come close to saying it all, because the real story is how Burrow’s tangible production was layered with intangible meaning.

The Bengals’ game plan had intrigue, and their execution reflected how much they’ve learned – and been forced to evolve – just six games into the season.

Let’s start with Burrow’s numerical production and why it didn’t live in a bubble, or in this case, the Superdome. Remember the Bengals’ first loss of the season to Pittsburgh? He threw four interceptions. Cincinnati also lost its next game. So, when you add Burrow INTs to the Bengals’ losses through two games, the number is six.

If you apply the same math (team losses + QB INTs) to the Bengals’ last four games, the number is only two.

In simpler terms, since their turnover prone 0-2 start, the Bengals have won three of their last four games. In that time, Burrow has thrown nine TDs and only one pick. That’s why his Sunday stat line resonates beyond a much-needed win on the road.

His play was the strongest signifier yet the Bengals’ offense has grown from their September mistakes, and they’re comfortable adjusting to the aggressive mindset that worked so well for them in 2021.

The Bengals were at their best last year when they leaned on explosive passing plays. It’s what fueled their three-game winning streak to close the regular season and start their Super Bowl run. Case in point, Burrow led the NFL last season in yards per attempt (8.9) and was second in completions of 40-plus yards (15).

The Bengals attacked early in games and took shots over the top. Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins made the bold philosophy look good, and Cincinnati rode it to an AFC Championship.

Similarly to how teams have taken a conservative, deep-zone approach against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in recent seasons, defensive coordinators have done the same against Burrow. They limit man coverages that leave their corners vulnerable and often have at least one safety in position to help.

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The Bengals have been forced to evolve and rethink their philosophy, which on Sunday showed a willingness to win in a different way. It was as impressive as it was obvious.

Burrow’s first two completions were quick outs to his tight end, Hayden Hurst. His first connections with his wideouts were quick slants. Joe Mixon was catching passes just behind or just in front of the line of scrimmage. The pattern wasn’t hard to detect, as all 10 of his first-quarter completions were caught fewer than 10 yards downfield. I wondered how long it could continue.

Second quarter: A short crosser to Hurst. A swing pass to Mixon. Another quick slant to Boyd. Burrow jogged to the halftime locker room down six, having completed all 17 of his passes at 10 or fewer yards down the field.

Whatever halftime adjusting took place didn’t include occasionally pushing the ball downfield. Burrow’s first 20 completions included six different receivers, but none went beyond 10 yards! Amazing patience and stick-to-itiveness.

Their first diversion wasn’t drastic, but it was precise, and it was the play of the game.

From the Saints’ 15-yard line on the right hash, with Chase split wide to his right, Burrow recognized the Saints were taking a rare chance, daring him to take one of his own. Cornerback Paulson Adebo set up 1 yard in front of Chase in a clear man-to-man alignment, with safety Marcus Maye in the middle of the field, on the goal line, as the only defender in position to provide help.

If Burrow could manipulate Maye with his eyes, and count on Chase to beat Adebo, he was in business.

There’s an in-cutting staple of the intermediate passing game that’s deeper than a quick slant, but not the over-the-top shot that is the deep post. In the industry, it’s known as a “Bang 8.” The receiver sprints downfield, and at 15 yards, he breaks toward the goal posts. The ball needs to be thrown on a line and needs to be on its way the moment the receiver comes out of his break.

In my few months with the Vikings, as a free agent in ’95, I remember coach Brian Billick teaching this concept in April and May. He stressed the details needed from the quarterback and receiver. The pass would only work if it was a fastball completed between 18 and 22 yards downfield. A yard less or a yard more, and the intended window would be missed.

Back to our situation at the Superdome, with 3:36 left in the third quarter and with the Bengals trailing 23-14, Burrow takes the shotgun snap, glances at Maye just long enough to keep him in the middle of the field and fires into the end zone. Dime. Chase, with a half step on Adebo, catches the pass in stride, 4 yards deep in the end zone.

For the record, it was 19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Burrow’s first pass completed downfield was correctly tucked into the 18-22 yard window Billick preached 27 years ago.

Later in the fourth quarter, the game-winning touchdown pass to Chase had two levels of intrigue for me. One, it was another example of Burrow recognizing the Saints were in a rare man-to-man look. There was just one safety in the middle of the field to provide help and Burrow respond accordingly.

He threw a back-shoulder fade to Chase, who caught it 1 yard in front of Bradley Roby, then outmaneuvered him and Tyrann Mathieu down the sideline for the 60-yard catch-and-run game-winning touchdown.

Two, and this is where interpretation comes in: Was the game-winner a “downfield” throw or yet another completion of 10 yards or less? Chase caught the ball at exactly 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Considering the patient game plan the Bengals executed, should their final connection count as Burrow’s second pass beyond 10 yards? Or was it the 27th of his 28 total completions at 10 yards or less? You can decide where it fits.

The Bengals’ offensive continuity stood out to me heading into the season. They were the rare unit coming off a successful season — both in terms of passing yards and team wins — that stood together for one more season. Head coach, offensive coordinator, quarterback, top-three wide receivers and No. 1 running back. All back!  I was excited to watch more of the same. Yet, opposing defenses were not.

Teams lining up against Burrow and familiar play-callers and playmakers have altered the game. They know the Bengals can beat them with an aggressive, deep passing plan; they want to know if they can do so with a patient and underneath one.

The way Cincinnati won on Sunday, and the hints they’ve dropped in winning three of their last four, says they’re not only willing to try but quite capable of doing so.

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