The Cincinnati Bengals offense does not look like most offenses with rookie quarterbacks. More often than not, when a team brings in a rookie quarterback, the offense leans on the run game, play-action, and a slower pace of play, all of which is supposed to lighten the burden for the quarterback. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor does not seem familiar with any of that.
And for good reason. First-overall pick Joe Burrow is no normal rookie quarterback. All of the hand-holding that tends to follow rookie quarterbacks does not apply to him.
Burrow's best strength in college, and now in the pros, is how well he operates pre-snap. He is sharp as a tack and almost always knows where the ball needs to go as soon as the ball is in his hands. Rarely does Burrow make a major blunder pre-snap, and rarely does he miss on the throws he has decided on. As such, Burrow is a particularly wonderful passer out of empty formations, which are usually a lot for rookies to take in.
Empty formations require the quarterback to take in a lot of information and act on it as soon as the ball is snapped. They are playing with just five blockers, after all, so there is no time to waste. Quarterbacks playing out of empty need to not only fully understand how the called blocking scheme works against the defense's front, but how to spot blitzes, how to beat certain leverages in coverage, and how to make quick adjustments at the line based on what the defense is showing. Burrow has already shown he can do it all.
Playing from empty can be as simple as spreading out five skill players right out of the huddle. Spreading out from the jump forces the defense has to show their hand. There is only so much schematic ambiguity a defense can get away with when the offense has five immediate pass threats spread across the entire 53-yard width of the field.
Cleveland's defense is man-to-man across the board with a deep safety and a lone linebacker over the middle. Now, notice the linebacker's positioning. He is walked over between the left tackle and the No. 3 (innermost) receiver to the trips side. Either the Browns are playing four-over-three to the trips side with the linebacker, or the linebacker or slot defender is blitzing. On this particular play, whichever of those two events occurs does not matter all that much. Burrow already knows he has one-on-ones to the boundary now.
The slot cornerback to the top of the screen is about 7 yards off. The linebacker, as mentioned, is nowhere near in position to make a play towards the boundary given his alignment. Burrow takes the snap and checks the linebacker's movement for good measure. As soon as the linebacker does anything other than dead sprint to the boundary, Burrow knows he can fire to the slant without having to read it post-snap. Burrow simply trusts his guy will be open because the area is open, which is why you can see Burrow drawing his arm back in unison with moving his eyes over.
The beauty in simple concepts such as this is that they can have simple answers for different defensive structures. Cincinnati ran a very similar concept from the same look later in the game, but because the Browns lined up over the slot receiver differently, the play slightly changed. Burrow, of course, still connected with his guy.
This concept is not identical to the other, but it's the same formation and idea. At the bottom of the screen, the trips side is still running stick; they are just using the No. 2 (middle) as the vertical instead of the No. 1. The No. 1 on the weak side at the top of the screen is still a vertical threat, too. The key difference is in the weak No. 2 (slot). Take a look at the slot cornerback to the top of the screen. Though a few yards off, the slot cornerback is playing with about a yard of inside leverage. That man does not want to get beat on a slant. Cincinnati's simple built-in answer is to allow the slot receiver to run a pivot route back outside to abuse the inside leverage. Easy pitch and catch.
Empty sets can be great for beating the blitz too. Not only do empty formations force defenses to show their hand, especially up front, but passing concepts from empty always have a "hot" to go to. More often than not, it is a quick in-breaker over the middle to give the quarterback something easy. Burrow, more than most young quarterbacks in recent memory, already does exceptionally well at making use of those quick throws to beat the blitz.
The Eagles did about as well as they could to hide this blitz look. Linebacker Nate Gerry (47) was walked up on the line as if he was a blitzer, while the slot cornerback on the opposite end of the field did not look to have any help pre-snap. Just as Burrow was calling for the snap, though, Philadelphia's deep safety started rolling down, which had to mean he was covering the slot receiver, which in turn meant the slot defender was blitzing. There was no other defender who could have rotated into the deep safety's spot, so Philly's only other move had to be the blitz. Burrow caught it last-second and fired to the slot receiver who was able to beat the safety trying to cover from a tough angle.
Empty sets are not always so static, though. In plenty of other instances, empty sets are motioned in or out of in order to draw out particular information from a defense. Looking for man coverage hints vs zone coverage hints is usually the main idea. Through three games, the Bengals have given Burrow plenty of those situations, just like he had at LSU.
Burrow motions the running back from the backfield to a wideout position on the left. One of the Chargers' linebackers follows the running back all the way to the sideline. Ninety-nine times out of 100, that is a man coverage indicator. Burrow then takes that information to assume the standup outside linebacker to the right (Melvin Ingram, 54) will not be dropping, as that is usually something that player would be doing in a zone concept.
Even with the bad snap potentially throwing off the timing, Burrow rips this one in. Assuming the outside linebacker is not going to drop, Burrow only really has to beat the linebacker over the left hash. Beating that linebacker, in most cases, just comes down to throwing right off the top of the dropback. And that is exactly what Burrow did. The rookie did not hesitate at all to get this ball out.
This time, Burrow motions the No. 3 (innermost) receiver from one side to the other. Cleveland's defense pushed their coverage to the field, or the new trips side, and left the weak side of the formation two-on-two. In his final pre-snap sweep of the defense, Burrow notices the slot defender is right up to the line in press coverage. His response is to make some sort of call to his two receivers to the left, changing their routes based on the coverage the Browns are showing. Press coverage is notoriously exploitable by pick/rub concepts, and that is exactly what Burrow checked to.
Following Burrow's pre-snap signal, the two receivers run a simple snag/wheel combination. The snag from the outside receiver is designed to create traffic for the slot receiver to get open on the outside. As intended, the slot defender gets a bit held up and the slot receiver is able to run free enough to move the sticks. As Chris Brown of Smart Football pointed out on Twitter, because the slot defender runs over the top of the traffic, Burrow and the slot receiver play this as more of a back-shoulder route, not a true vertical. Had the defender tried to go under the traffic or ran into it, this would have been thrown further down the field.
Plays like that one in particular, in which Burrow gets full control and can already make route audibles at the line of scrimmage, are proof he does not need his hand held like many rookies do. That is not to say Burrow will not struggle or that he will not make some rookie mistakes. However, it does mean the Bengals already feel like Burrow is a legitimate NFL quarterback and can treat him as such.
As the offense evolves, both through this season and in the future, we probably will not see as many empty sets as the Bengals are showing right now. Empty sets are tough to base an offense out of because there is not much you can tie it into, whereas most other looks can present run/pass conflicts.
That being said, it is encouraging for Burrow's status as a pro that the team's early "crutch" for him was to play out of a lot of empty formations. That is not easy for any quarterback no matter how comfortable they are with it. Early as it may be, it is tough not to be impressed with Burrow's maturity at the position for a rookie.