The AFC North has the most wins of any division in the conference and maybe not so surprisingly the Cincinnati Bengals are in first place. At 5-2, the Bengals are currently the top seed in the AFC and are coming off a 41-17 Week 7 victory against the Baltimore Ravens. When I turned on the tape for this game, there was a significant amount that stood out to me as I first watched every play of the Bengals offense against the Ravens defense, and then vice versa. From a tactical and schematic perspective, this game was one of the most fascinating games of the season to watch.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow threw for 416 yards and three touchdowns as he led an explosive Cincinnati passing game that saw his ex-college teammate Ja’Marr Chase register eight catches for 201 yards and a touchdown. Coming off of his 2019 championship winning season at LSU, Burrow was a strong prospect who was comfortable and confident from the pocket as a timing and rhythm thrower. He was consistently precise with his ball placement in the short to intermediate areas while also showing the touch, trajectory and accuracy on vertical throws.
Burrow exhibited a multitude of traits needed to play consistently in the NFL: poise, vision, clarity, timing, pocket efficiency, precise ball placement, and second-reaction ability. These attributes have carried over to the NFL and continued to develop as he has improved his play. They have been on display throughout the first seven weeks of this season, and in particular in Week 7 against Baltimore.
One of Cincinnati’s primary focuses on offense against the Ravens was protecting Burrow. The Ravens give you so many pressure front looks out of nickel and especially dime on 3rd down. If you cannot protect, you don’t have a passing game. Through the first 6 games of the season, the Bengals had featured empty sets as a foundational formation; against the Ravens, they lined up in empty only twice. They were not going to allow free rushers at Burrow.
It was evident on the first 3rd down of the game what the Bengals tactic would be. They lined up running back Semaje Perine and tight end C.J. Uzomah in the backfield making pass protection the priority. They did that throughout the game on 3rd down. Perine in particular did an excellent job in blitz pickup, recognizing where pressure was coming from and executing his blocks well. As the game progressed, Baltimore’s blitz pressure was not a big factor as Cincinnati’s protection-first approach allowed Burrow to play with a refined sense of timing and rhythm, leading the Bengals to four touchdowns in the second half.
Cincinnati’s first touchdown of the second half came on 1st-and-10 as Burrow found Uzomah for a 55-yard scoring strike. It was a designed shot as the Bengals lined up in 13 personnel for the first time in the game. Auden Tate was the only wide receiver on the field for the Bengals. Tate ran jet motion from the boundary to the field with outside zone run action to the boundary, and that showcased another tactic the Bengals featured throughout the game: shifts and motions. They did that to help Burrow with his pre-snap information, and to regulate the defense putting more pressure on their calls and checks. The shot to Uzomah called for a play-action boot by Burrow, who had to pull up due to pressure. Uzomah beat cornerback Marlon Humphrey on a corner-post route and Burrow put the ball right on him as he slid to his left away from pressure.
Later in the third quarter, facing a third-and-two, Burrow found Chase for an 82-yard touchdown. In 11 personnel and lined up in a 3×1 set with Chase as the boundary X receiver, the Bengals ran mirrored slant-flat combinations with the #3 to trips with Uzomah, running the sit route right over the ball. The Ravens were in dime Cover 1 with Humphrey in press coverage on Chase. Chase ran a great route to widen Humphrey and then got inside of him on his slant route; his run after the catch was outstanding as he broke multiple tackles on his way to the end zone. While the Ravens did not specifically game plan the Humphrey-Chase matchup, it happened throughout the game and more often in the second half in the Raven sub dime defense.
Defensively, the Bengals were able to utilize multiple front looks and effective dime coverage to limit a Baltimore offense that had scored at least 31 points in four of their first six games. Their multiple pressure concepts out of dime included three and five man pressures, along with various stunt concepts. Cincinnati played a significant amount of dime coverage on third-down and employed both man and zone looks.
In their man concepts out of dime, they disguised the matchups at times, but one constant was corner Tre Flowers matched on Baltimore tight end Mark Andrews. That was the game plan approach. On 3rd-and-15 in the first quarter, the Bengals played Cover 3 behind a three man rush with Flowers man-to-man on Andrews. Jackson unnecessarily climbed the pocket and created his own pressure that he could not escape from, resulting in a sack by defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. Matching up Flowers on Andrews was a strong concept and part of the reason he was limited to just three catches for 48 yards, and none on 3rd down when Flowers was matched on him.
Cincinnati also played a dime package featuring safety Ricardo Allen as the dime back, instead of Flowers. On a Baltimore 3rd-and-11 from just outside the red zone, they played Cover 0 out of dime, with safety Vonn Bell rushing through the back-side B gap and forced Jackson into a hurried throw to Andrews that fell incomplete. The Bengals played a high percentage of zone coverage in Week 7, featuring both single high and split safety looks. They continually made life difficult for Jackson and refused to let him get comfortable in the pocket. In the second half, Cincinnati at times featured six man pressure fronts with an off coverage Cover 0 look that had no middle of the field safety.
Defensive ends Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson found ways to affect the game and registered a combined 3.5 sacks. With the Ravens in a 2nd-and-8, the Bengals showed a Cover 0 look and off coverage out of their base defense against an empty set. Linebacker Markus Bailey found himself as a free rusher against Jackson, who made a hurried throw to #3 to trips, Rashod Bateman, only to have the pass was knocked down by Hubbard.
On the next play, the Bengals lined up in another six man pressure front in a different alignment with Jessie Bates III the post safety. Cincinnati was in dime this time with Allen as the dime back and three cornerbacks in man coverage. The Ravens had max pass protection with seven blockers and Allen green dogged (blitzed once his man, the running back, stayed into block). Jackson had a throw to Andrews on the out to the boundary but did not pull the trigger; as he started to move, Hendrickson beat fullback Patrick Ricard off the edge for the sack.
Jackson continued to show a tendency to climb the pocket unnecessarily, sometimes manufacturing his own pressure. He was particularly ineffective on third down, completing just two of six passes for 26 yards and taking two sacks while scrambling five times for 48 yards. The Bengals blitzed on seven of his 12 third down drop backs. This was not one of his better games with many snaps where he was either tentative or unsettled in the pocket with too much unnecessary movement. He left opportunities on the field, did not turn it loose to open receivers, and had multiple throws with poor ball placement.
The combination of efficient play and execution from Burrow, a solid pass protection scheme on 3rd down, and a defense that covered and rushed well led to a dominant win for the Bengals. Burrow was particularly lethal on first down, completing 10 of 14 attempts for 192 yards and two touchdowns, with 13 of those 14 attempts coming out of 11 personnel (his touchdown to Uzomah was the only drop back not in 11 personnel). On both sides of the ball, the Bengals game planned specific schemes and tactics that proved to be very effective. It was fun to work through with my remote.
Aadit Mehta contributed to this story