Pass Protection Key for Bengals Against Chiefs
NFL Conference Championship - The Bengals were not supposed to make it this far. No. 1 pick Joe Burrow offered the promise of a franchise savior, and uncharacteristic free-agent spending for an infamously tight-pursed organization aimed to fast-track a rebuild. But Burrow's ACL tear in late November of 2020 rendered 2021 a redshirt freshman season in expectation. And free-agent additions such as Trey Hendrickson, Mike Hilton, and Chidobe Awuzie seemed to target defensive competence rather than excellence. A perfectly average 0.0% team DVOA suggests the Bengals hit their mark. But even after the playoff expansion, a 17th-place ranking seemed unlikely to foreshadow a postseason berth and run to the AFC title game. The Bengals owe some credit for the former to the third-easiest schedule and the injuries the division-rival Ravens and Browns suffered to help make it that way—and they owe some credit for the latter to a playoff path that matched them with the Raiders and Titans, two of the three postseason teams with DVOA rates worse than the Bengals had.
The Chiefs were supposed to make it this far. They made it this far the three previous seasons and made the Super Bowl the previous two. And while their early-season defensive problems and midseason offensive slump spurred a thousand discussions of whether their dynasty had ended, the Chiefs overcame that scrutiny with the magnitude of their recent accomplishments. And for anyone with a little patience, they satisfied it with a rally to climb to seventh in DVOA (in the regular season) and second in weighted DVOA (including the playoffs). This was capped off by a divisional-round defeat of a Bills team that has become their biggest rival and pushed them to the brink with a three-point deficit and just 13 seconds to traverse the length of the field and force overtime.
With either a broader perspective or an eye on last week, the Bengals look like a longer shot than even their seven-point spread suggests. But the Bengals fans celebrating the team's first playoff wins in more than three decades have blinders on. All they see is Burrow's uncanny ability to hide his team's flaws and rise to the occasion of important games. And they see the moment between those broader and most recent perspectives when the Bengals beat the Chiefs in Week 17 for their only win over a top-15 team in DVOA in either the regular or postseason. And they may have a point. The Chiefs had no answer for rookie and preferred Burrow target Ja'Marr Chase, whose 128 DYAR that week were the most a receiver managed in one game this season and a top-10 game in the near-four-decade history of the metric. And if he can again outpace and sidestep his team's issues in pass protection, Burrow could match Patrick Mahomes point-for-point and co-author another AFC classic.
If you are unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
|DVOA||0.0% (17)||17.5% (7)|
|WEI DVOA||7.7% (12)||33.4% (2)|
|Bengals on Offense|
|CIN OFF||KC DEF|
|DVOA||1.2% (18)||4.5% (24)|
|WEI DVOA||5.7% (10)||-0.8% (20)|
|PASS||16.4% (15)||11.3% (23)|
|RUSH||-10.8% (20)||-5.6% (20)|
|Chiefs on Offense|
|CIN DEF||KC OFF|
|DVOA||2.9% (19)||18.1% (3)|
|WEI DVOA||3.0% (23)||27.1% (1)|
|PASS||11.6% (24)||34.7% (3)|
|RUSH||-9.8% (13)||0.7% (10)|
|DVOA||1.7% (8)||3.9% (3)|
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WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
The Bengals cannot regret their decision to select Ja'Marr Chase with their No. 5 pick in the 2021 draft, not after his PFWA Offensive Rookie of the Year honor and 266-yard, three-touchdown effort from early January that offers the team its greatest hope of another Chiefs upset this Sunday. But the rebuilding Bengals had more than one hole on their roster. And in selecting Chase, the team eschewed a standout offensive line prospect and risked another Burrow injury with poor pass protection. So far, that choice has worked out. Burrow survived a 49% pass block win rate that was third-worst per ESPN and a 9.1% adjusted sack rate that was second-worst. He even survived nine Titans sacks last Saturday, a total that tied an NFL postseason record.
That pressure has come from everywhere on the offensive line but is at its worst at tackle. Right tackle Riley Reiff fared the best among the Bengals' regular starters but injured his ankle in Week 12 and hasn't played since. Left tackle Jonah Williams and Reiff's replacements Isaiah Prince and Hakeem Adeniji blew 4.2%, 4.8%, and 4.9% of their pass blocks per Sports Info Solutions, rates that landed them in the bottom 35 among tackles with 200 or more snaps in pass protection. Rookie Jackson Carman showed potential with a 2.7% blown pass block rate, but he did that at guard, started just seven games, and won't start on Sunday. That's the difference between a second-round rookie lineman and a first-round player such as Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater.
The Bengals have been unlucky with their offensive line, and not just with Reiff's injury. Williams tore his labrum and missed his entire rookie season in 2019. That injury and disrupted development may explain his inability to live up to the Sewell and Slater standard for a first-round left tackle so far.
Still, the Bengals don't do everything they could to make life easier on their offensive linemen. Despite his exposure to many modern offensive principles as a receivers and quarterback coach with the Rams under Sean McVay, head coach Zac Taylor leans on a spread offense that operates from shotgun. The Bengals used play-action on just 20.1% of their dropbacks, the fourth-lowest rate in football per Sports Info Solutions. And while that system has eased Burrow's transition from a similar and historically successful offense at LSU to the NFL and highlights his ability to read defenses quickly and deliver accurate passes, it asks the team's undertalented offensive linemen to routinely win in transparent pass-rush situations.
Watchers of the Bengals-Titans game might question whether Burrow deserves some blame for his frequent duress as well. Several of his sacks on Saturday followed missed chances to throw the ball away, and Burrow has enjoyed close to league-average pressure and sack rates when he has held the ball for less than 3.0 seconds.
|Joe Burrow's Pressure and Sack Rates by Pocket Time, 2021|
|Pressure Rate||Sack Rate|
|Pocket Time||Burrow||All QBs||Diff||Burrow||All QBs||Diff|
But more broadly, Burrow has done a tremendous job beating pressure with a quick, on-target throw on 57.1% of his dropbacks this season, tied for the second-highest rate at his position.
|Highest Unpressured Quick Accurate Pass Rate, 2021|
|Minimum 200 pass attempts
Quick = Less than 3.0 seconds per Sportradar charting
And like every announcer's favorite comparison, Tom Brady, Burrow has unloaded balls quickly while still attacking downfield. Burrow's 8.1-yard average depth of target was 10th-highest of the 33 quarterbacks with 200 or more pass attempts this season.
Defenses have rightly determined they cannot beat Burrow with blitzes. He led regular quarterbacks with 10.8 yards per attempt on blitzes this season. He processes too quickly, and Chase and Tee Higgins are too talented to leave on islands in coverage. Defenses blitzed Burrow on just 20.0% of his dropbacks, the third-lowest rate at his position. And even Chiefs defensive coordinator and blitz enthusiast Steve Spagnuolo limited his blitzing to 21.3% of Burrow's pass plays in Week 17.
In short, defenses are left with two ways to beat Burrow. They can pressure him quickly with a standard four pass-rushers, or they can force him to hold the ball.
On paper, the Chiefs should be well-equipped to do the former. The team's addition of edge rushers Melvin Ingram (after an early-November trade with the Steelers) and Frank Clark (after he recovered from a preseason hamstring injury) allowed star defender Chris Jones to return to his natural defensive tackle position. That coincided with the team's dramatic improvement from 31st in pass defense DVOA in the first seven weeks to eighth from Week 8 to the end of the season. But Jones' two sacks and three hurries in Week 17 bent but didn't break the Bengals' passing offense. And Chase provided a reliable early outlet; he out-jumped cornerback Charvarius Ward for an 18-yard touchdown and out-raced myriad Chiefs defenders for 72- and 69-yard touchdowns, with the bulk of those yards coming after the catch. Chase averaged 3.0 YAC+ (over expectation) per catch this season, second-highest among wide receivers with 50 or more targets.
To fare better on Sunday, the Chiefs should try to confuse Burrow to make him hold the ball. The Bengals' two previous playoff opponents may reveal a blueprint. In the regular season, the Raiders had a higher pass rush win rate than the Titans, 44% to 39%. But the latter team enjoyed dramatically better pass-rush success with nine playoff sacks of Burrow versus two, and they empowered that pass rush with a diversity of coverages.
Likely informed by his success with the Seahawks' Legion of Boom, Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has developed an infamous reliance on Cover-3, a zone coverage that uses a safety and two cornerbacks to protect the deep thirds of the field. The Raiders used Cover-3 on 46.8% of their opponents' pass plays in the regular season and 40.3% of the Bengals' pass plays in their wild-card game per research from Stephen Polacheck of Sports Info Solutions. And with the easy reads allowed by consistent coverage looks, Burrow took just two sacks on his 36 dropbacks (5.6%).
The Titans could not match the Raiders for pass-rusher star power. The latter's Maxx Crosby led all defenders with 51 pressures this season per Sports Info Solutions. But the former team varied their zone coverage looks, playing each of Cover-2, Cover-3, and Cover-4 between 10.9% and 26.2% of their opponents' pass plays this season. And they aided their pass rush with stunts and linemen drops into coverage that brought non-blitz pressure from unexpected places.
The Chiefs have the defensive personnel to do the same. Tyrann Mathieu is one of the most versatile safeties in football. He excelled as a run defender with a 9.5% broken tackle rate per Pro Football Reference. He excelled as a blitzer with nine pressures, second-most among defensive backs per Sports Info Solutions. And he excelled in coverage with 6.7 yards allowed per target. His return to practice on Thursday bodes well for his clearing of concussion protocols. And like the Titans, the Chiefs did not rely on any type of zone coverage more than about a quarter of their opponents' pass plays.
To take advantage of the sacks they do get, the Chiefs will need to cut down on the penalties that marred their regular-season Bengals matchup. For the season, the Chiefs were neutral, committing five more penalties than their opponents and gaining 14 fewer yards, per NFLPenalties.com. But they committed 10 penalties and lost 83 yards from them against the Bengals in Week 17, both the second-highest totals of their season. And the Bengals consistently won the penalty battle with their opponents, easily pacing teams with 44 fewer penalties for 326 fewer lost yards than their opponents.
If the Chiefs can confuse and sack Burrow and avoid allowing free first downs with penalties, the Bengals will have few recourses. With their midseason personnel changes, the Chiefs made a similar jump from 30th to 15th in run defense DVOA that they made in pass defense. And the Bengals had a 51% power success rate, second-worst in football. The team could call more screens. Joe Mixon is a versatile back, and the Bengals averaged 6.1 yards per running back screen this season. But as it has all season, the Bengals offense will live or die with Burrow on Sunday.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
As tends to be the case in their losses, the Chiefs suffered some likely unsustainable poor luck in their regular season Bengals defeat. An 89-yard kickoff return touchdown would have expanded the Chiefs lead to 35-17 with less than a minute left in the first half, but a holding penalty negated that score, and another one erased a first down and forced a punt on one of the team's three second-half possessions. The Chiefs defense couldn't get off the field. The Bengals converted on defensive penalties. They converted on a fourth down in their own territory. They converted on a third-and-27 on an ill-advised Spagnuolo blitz that left Chase in man coverage. And they exhausted the final 3:14 of clock in a red zone deadlock that saw the Bengals try and fail to score on seven straight plays from the 1-yard line—aided by a pair of fourth down penalties—before kicking the winning field goal as time expired.
Patrick Mahomes may have thrown for just 259 passing yards that week, but he was efficient with a 74.3% completion rate, 7.4 yards per attempt, and a 30.7% passing DVOA. And the Bengals have since lost defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to a foot injury that landed him on injured reserve and seen defensive end Trey Hendrickson leave the Titans game with an apparent arm injury. That pair accounted for seven of the team's 10 pass pressures in Week 17. And even if Hendrickson is fine to play this Sunday as Zac Taylor told reporters, the Bengals will likely struggle to bother Mahomes as he plays behind an offensive line that—after adding Orlando Brown, Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, and Trey Smith this offseason—finished second with a 68% pass block win rate. Even with a healthy front in Week 17, the Bengals failed to sack Mahomes.
The Chiefs are a bad matchup for most defenses, but they seem like a particularly bad one for the Bengals. The Bengals were better against the run (13th in DVOA) than the pass (24th) in the regular season and even without Ogunjobi looked that part on Saturday, limiting Derrick Henry and the Titans to 140 rushing yards and a 48% rushing success rate. But D.J. Reader's manhandling of double teams may mean less against an offense that prefers to pass and can stretch the field horizontally and bait rushers with screens with a speedy Jerick McKinnon at running back.
The Bengals allowed 2.5 more yards on play-action than on traditional pass attempts, the second-biggest differential in the league. And while teams failed to take advantage of that split with a 22.0% play-action rate that was the fourth-lowest in football in the regular season, the Chiefs seem more likely to lean on play-fakes. They were a top-12 user of play-action, faking a handoff on 26.7% of their pass attempts.
The Bengals are a top-seven zone team, and that shouldn't hurt them. Mahomes threw for 7.0 yards per attempt and with a 48.0% success rate against zone coverage, slightly worse than his 7.2 and 51.0% numbers against man, per Sports Info Solutions. But the coverage skill disparity between Chidobe Awuzie and the other Bengals corners could bite them against a Chiefs offense with two standout receivers in Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Awuzie was top-10 among regular corners with 5.3 yards allowed per target, but Eli Apple and Mike Hilton were outside the top 50 with 7.5 and 8.0 yards allowed per target.
Hill and Kelce didn't expose the Bengals in the regular season. But that was part of the poor Chiefs luck that week. Both receivers had landed on the COVID list the week prior and seemed less than their peak physical condition a week removed.
To disrupt the Chiefs offense at full strength, the Bengals may opt to devote extra players to coverage. They had one of their worst games in run defense in Week 17, allowing 2.35 yards after contact per attempt to a Chiefs team that finished last with 1.42 yards after contact per attempt over the full regular season. Ironically, that poor situational play may have benefited the Bengals overall by limiting Mahomes to 35 pass attempts. But that conservative approach would risk a different kind of explosive play. The Chiefs broke a tackle on 10.0% of their offensive plays, seventh-most in football per Sports Info Solutions. The Bengals missed a tackle on 11.6% of their defensive plays, second-most. And the Chiefs seemed to solve their increasing looks at defenses with two high safeties in the second half of the season with shorter throws and more yards after the catch.
With so many scales tipped against them, the Bengals may need a turnover to keep pace. And perhaps they are due for one. After dropping just one of 10 interceptable passes the first seven weeks per Sports Info Solutions, Cincinnati defenders dropped nine of 14 interceptable passes from Weeks 8 to 18. And the Bengals lost two potential picks in Week 17. Eli Apple dropped an interception he undercut coming off a shallower route, and Chiefs receiver Byron Pringle dislodged another would-be pick with a pass defense worthy of a cornerback.
Short of a decisive win in turnover margin, the Bengals are unlikely to slow Mahomes and the explosive Chiefs offense. And while that may not mean 16 points in six minutes like the Chiefs scored to seal their Bills victory, Joe Burrow will need to play his best to keep pace.
Evan McPherson became a cult hero when Joe Burrow told reporters that the rookie kicker announced to holder Brandon Allen that "it looks like we're going to the AFC Championship" just before he drained the game-winning kick last Saturday. On one hand, McPherson deserves that acclaim because he spurred his team's finish in the top five in both field goal and kickoff value, and that success carries the Bengals' top-eight ranking in special teams DVOA. But McPherson's reputation as a clutch kicker will likely also be a bit inflated by that story. McPherson made five of his seven field goal attempts in three-point games in the fourth quarter and overtime this regular and postseason so far. He missed two in an overtime loss against the Packers. And while one of those had long odds at 57 yards, McPherson's game-winner against the Titans was the first of his clutch makes over 41 yards.
Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker saw his star fade after a missed field goal and extra point nearly cost the team their win against the Bills on Sunday. But Butker made all five of his fourth-quarter and overtime attempts with the score within three points this season. And he's 17-of-19 on them in his career. On the whole, Butker has contributed similar kicking value to McPherson this season. And the Chiefs own a slight special teams advantage with the third-best DVOA thanks in large part to Mecole Hardman's exceptional return work. His 12.1 yards per punt return were 2.8 yards better than in his Pro Bowl season in 2019, although he has ceded the bulk of his kickoff return duties to teammate Byron Pringle.
Burrow, Chase, and the rest of the Bengals' offensive talent is too good to fairly call the team "ahead of schedule." They can beat any team in any week, and they proved they can beat the Chiefs less than a month ago. But the Bengals have a major deficiency in their offensive line, and the Chiefs have the improved defensive personnel and a scheme-forward defensive coordinator to take advantage. And while the Bengals may not have a glaring defensive weakness, they do not measure up to one of the league's best-ever collections of offensive talent. I expect the Chiefs to score 40 for the third straight week. Whether the Bengals lose by a little or lose by a lot will depend on Burrow.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets two charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive and defensive DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that the defensive chart is reversed so upwards is a more negative defensive DVOA (which is better).