Bengals Offense Surging as Postseason Approaches

Cincinnati Bengals WR Tee Higgins
Cincinnati Bengals WR Tee Higgins
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 12 - No Ja'Marr Chase, no problem. The Bengals went to Pittsburgh on Sunday and threw all over the Steelers defense, filling up the box score with everyone from obvious stars such as Tee Higgins to emergency activations such as Trenton Irwin. A couple of nice pressures and a pair of fluky interceptions were the only things that got in the way of the Bengals dropping a 50-burger as revenge for their Week 1 loss to the Steelers. Joe Burrow and the Bengals looked as good as they have all season versus a solid Pittsburgh defense.

Even sweeter, the Bengals did it a little differently than they usually do. At their best, the Bengals are a perimeter passing team. They want to throw go balls, quick shots on the outside, and screens to their wide receivers. With a ball-winner such as Higgins and a YAC star such as Chase (when he's healthy), it's no wonder Zac Taylor defaults to basing the passing offense around them. They have had unquestionable success being that kind of offense, both last year and this , but great offenses need drives and games where they lean on the changeup. Taylor and Burrow did just that against the Steelers with a flurry of throws over the intermediate middle part of the field, largely from empty formations.

 

 

Taylor sprinkled some spice into the game plan early. In the clip above, the Bengals are in empty with Joe Mixon as the outside receiver to the weak side (bottom). Nine times out of 10, a running back aligned outside will run a hitch or go route, usually just as a means to free up the other receiver in the route combination. Sometimes the good ones will run a slant, but that's about it. That applies to almost every team and running back. The Bengals broke that tendency on this play, running Mixon on a 12-yard in-breaker on a high-low concept. Safety Terrell Edmunds (34) never had a shot at driving on the ball because he sprinted through his backpedal, probably expecting Mixon to stay vertical, while linebacker Devin Bush (55) kept his eyes on the slot receiver without even a brief thought that Mixon would be running behind him until Burrow's hand came forward.

Beyond some nice one-off plays such as that one, a healthy portion of the Bengals' success over the middle came by picking on the Steelers' man coverage tendencies on clear passing downs. On third downs and long second downs, where a team such as the Bengals is even more inclined to throw than most, the Steelers regularly rolled out man coverage and dared the Chase-less Bengals receiving corps to beat them. Which they did. Many times.

 

 

For this third-and-medium, the Bengals come out in an empty 4x1 nub formation, an uncommon look for any team. Rather than try to be in zone and sort out a four-strong formation, which is always a pain, the Steelers opt to send five and play Cover-1 behind it. There's beauty in simplicity at times, but when that simplicity pits Edmunds over Higgins in the No. 3 (third from the outside) spot with zero help underneath or inside, things turn in the offense's favor. Higgins gets a step on Edmunds with ease and the Bengals move the sticks without breaking much of a sweat.

 

 

On the following drive, the Steelers tried to adjust. The Bengals came out on this second-and-10 with a 3x1 formation, again putting the majority of their receivers into the wide side of the field. Instead of being in nickel personnel like in the last clip, the Steelers are now in dime personnel (six defensive backs) with two high safeties, both opting for more coverage bodies and swapping out a fifth rusher for another safety in zone coverage. Coverage-wise, Pittsburgh opts for what looks like 1-Cross, a Cover-1 variant designed for the weak safety to creep down towards the sticks and take away any crossing routes coming his way. Halfway through the clip, it looks like a great call for the Steelers as Minkah Fitzpatrick (39) drives down to take away Tyler Boyd's crossing route. That's the exact route they wanted to take away with this personnel and coverage. Unfortunately for them, the Bengals sent Higgins trailing right behind Boyd to work into the voided area, a route Fitzpatrick had no shot of getting to from his starting point.

Running an in-breaker behind a crosser isn't a new or innovative call at all, but it's a nice call given how the Steelers like to play. Their favorite brand of Cover-1 is that 1-Cross call where Fitzpatrick can come down from an angle and look to steal things away. It's their best way to get an impact player in a position to make a play, as opposed to making a linebacker the middle hole player or rolling down the safety before the snap to play the middle. Credit to Taylor for picking apart one of the Steelers' favorite calls.

 

 

The Bengals also continued to build on the idea of running in-breakers one behind the other. In empty again, the Bengals have a slot fade call to the bottom of the screen and a levels concept to the top. All three receivers to the top of the screen run in-breakers at various depths, the deepest being the inside receiver and the shortest being the outside receiver. Not only is it an easy answer versus man coverage since it's as easy as running away from your man, but it's a simple concept to time up and progress through. It's easy for Burrow to cycle from one in-breaker to another because they are all working into his vision to begin with, a process made even easier with the Steelers sending a fifth rusher instead of having a low hole player.

Don't get me wrong, the Bengals still worked the heck out of the perimeter in this game as well. Higgins made a number of acrobatic catches on the sideline and Burrow was more than willing enough to feed Irwin on out-breakers to make the Steelers respect him. When paired with Burrow's speedy quick-game operation and a couple of well-timed screens, such as Samaje Perine's first touchdown, the Bengals were able to have their way all over the field.

This Sunday will be a completely different challenge. The Titans defensive line crushes the pocket like no other while their secondary carefully toes the line between sound coverage and creative calls to keep offenses guessing. It's hard to imagine they will be as susceptible to getting thrashed over the middle the way the Steelers did. Still, the fact the Bengals have proven this part of their game is a good sign as they cruise into the postseason, especially once they get Chase back into the fold.

Comments

9 comments, Last at 28 Nov 2022, 12:42am

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Nov 23, 2022 - 10:11am

The Bengals problem is on the other end. They are the only team Pittsburgh has gone over 20 against, and they did it in both games. They also forced no TOs on an offense that hemorrhages the ball.

Points: 0

#8 by Theo // Nov 25, 2022 - 12:13pm

The Steelers scored a FG after halftime adjustments.

And a garbage time td.

Then again, the Bengals outcoached a potted plant. 

 

Points: 0

#2 by Aaron Brooks G… // Nov 23, 2022 - 11:32am

What the hell is this points nonsense?

You may also want to turn the shadow off on the bold user names -- it just makes it look blurry, as-is.

Points: 0

#4 by Theo // Nov 23, 2022 - 2:07pm

Probably there's going to be a thumb up system so when you get points you can feel good about yourself...

 

Points: 0

#7 by mathesond // Nov 24, 2022 - 11:11am

-2?

Points: 0

#3 by reddwarf // Nov 23, 2022 - 1:51pm

Watching those clips, I think you also have to credit really good OL play in all of them.  They could run 5 routes because 5 OL were holding up against 4 or 5 rushers and giving Burrow a clean pocket and time.  Muth would be pleased :)

Points: 0

#9 by occams_pointed… // Nov 28, 2022 - 12:42am

It's an old cliche that it takes time for OL to "gel", and the Bengals have four new starters in 2022 compared to 2021.

On plays when Burrow is well-protected he's putting up insane numbers.

Points: 0

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