Burrow's Bungles Could Doom Bengals in Super Bowl

Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow
Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Super Bowl - Each year at this time, we like to devote our Quick Reads columns to the two teams headed to the Super Bowl, looking not at when they played at their best, but when they played at their worst. The Bengals and Rams are good teams, yes, but they are not perfect. What weaknesses were opponents able to exploit and make these championship clubs look beatable—and in some cases, beaten? Since Cincinnati was the first team to officially clinch a berth in the Super Bowl, we'll start with them today, and cover Los Angeles next week.

According to DVOA, these were the Bengals' worst four games this season, in chronological order:

  • Week 2: Cincinnati Bengals 17 at Chicago Bears 20. Andy Dalton revenge game! Well, sorta. The Bengals' old quarterback threw a touchdown to Allen Robinson on the Bears' opening drive, but left the game due to injury in the first quarter. With Justin Fields under center, Chicago stretched the lead to 10-3 early in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati's offense melted down late in the game with turnovers on four straight drives, including interceptions on three consecutive Joe Burrow passes. The Chicago lead grew to 20-3 before the Bengals added a pair of late scores.
  • Week 8: Cincinnati Bengals 31 at New York Jets 34. All tricks, no treats on Halloween for Cincinnati as the Bengals fell to the Jets, who had somebody named Mike White filling in for an injured Zach Wilson at quarterback. A 26-year-old with no regular-season experience before this season, White struggled out of the gate with a pair of interceptions in the first quarter before rallying his team to victory, finishing with 405 yards and three touchdowns. The Bengals went up 31-20 midway through the fourth quarter but then let the Jets score two touchdowns in less than a minute, the latter set up by a Burrow interception. Cincinnati got the ball back with time to score again, but soon punted after Burrow was sacked on third-and-long, and the Jets ran out the clock from there.
  • Week 9: Cleveland Browns 41 at Cincinnati Bengals 16. Denzel Ward opened the scoring for Cleveland with a 99-yard pick-six in the first quarter as the Browns quickly went up 24-7 before halftime and never really looked back. The Cincinnati defense was repeatedly shredded for explosive plays as Baker Mayfield averaged 10.4 yards per throw while Nick Chubb ran for 137 yards on only 14 carries. The Bengals suffered from a severe case of butterfingers, fumbling four times (losing one) and throwing a pair of interceptions.
  • Week 13: Los Angeles Chargers 41 at Cincinnati Bengals 22. The Chargers roared out to a 24-0 lead early in the second quarter, but the Bengals were far from dead. Cincinnati had the ball in L.A. territory trailing 24-22 with a chance to take the lead early in the fourth quarter, but a Joe Mixon fumble was recovered by L.A.'s Tevaughn Campbell and returned 61 yards for a Chargers touchdown. Los Angeles added 10 more insurance points after that. Justin Herbert finished with 317 yards and three touchdowns while the L.A. defense sacked Burrow six times and intercepted him twice.

(Technically, Cincinnati's 21-16 loss to Cleveland in Week 18 should also qualify for this list, but we're ignoring it because Burrow and many other starters took the day off.)

When the Bengals had the Ball

As we have covered in previous columns, Joe Burrow made tons of mistakes this year, and a lot of them came in these four bad games. That includes eight of his 14 interceptions and 19 of his league-high 51 sacks. And he only fumbled five times all year (impressive considering all those sacks), but three of them came in these games. It probably goes without saying, but beating Cincinnati starts with pressuring Burrow into blunders and taking the ball away.

It's not just about possession of the ball, though. Cincinnati had a tendency to give up defensive scores in their worst games. The Browns and Bears both recorded pick-sixes, while the Chargers returned a fumble for a touchdown. The Jets defense didn't score directly, but they did set up their offense's 14-yard game-winning touchdown drive with an interception deep in Bengals territory.

If Step 1 in stopping the Bengals offense is forcing and exploiting mistakes, Step 2 is taking away Ja'Marr Chase. The rookie shined this year with 85.6 yards per game, 18.0 yards per catch, and a 63.3% catch rate. His numbers in Cincinnati's four bad games: 46.8 yards per game, 11.7 yards per catch, and a catch rate of just 47.1%. His yardage plummeted even as Burrow threw more passes than usual, 36.0 per game compared to his full-season rate of 23.5, trying to rally Cincinnati from big deficits. That's reflected in the numbers of Tee Higgins (93.3 yards per game in our four-game sample, up from 77.9 yards per game for the whole year) and Tyler Boyd (59.5, up from 51.8). The Rams would be best served letting Higgins and Boyd get theirs and dealing with the consequences, but they need to keep an extra safety focused on Chase at all times.

The Rams offense can also help their defense by getting on the scoreboard early and making the Bengals play from behind. The Jets loss was a pretty back-and-forth affair, but the Bears, Browns, and Chargers made the Bengals uncomfortable by making them play from behind … and this may sound strange considering how the Bengals rallied to beat Kansas City on Sunday, but they were not a particularly good comeback team this year. Instead, they excelled in preserving an advantage. They were fourth in offensive DVOA when playing with a big lead of two scores or more, but 17th when facing a big deficit, and in the 20s whenever games were closer than that.

A corollary of those early leads is that it made the Bengals one-dimensional. Including scrambles, Cincinnati ran the ball on 41.7% of all plays this season, a hair below the league-average rate of 42.1%. But in their four bad losses, they called 166 pass plays (including sacks) with only 84 runs, nearly a perfect 2-to-1 split. It certainly didn't help Cincinnati that they only averaged 3.5 yards on those 84 runs, but the bigger issue is that they were passing all the time, and defenses knew it.

When the Other Team had the Ball

Cincy's pass defense also struggled in these games, allowing opponents to complete 72.9% of their passes for 8.3 yards per throw, both of which would have been worst for any defense this year over the full season. And while they're not the only team to get burned by Justin Herbert and the Chargers, they had little answer for Baker Mayfield, the Dalton/Fields tag team in Chicago, or—this is still hard to believe—Mike freakin' White.

But it wasn't all bad news for the Bengals. They only allowed 11.4 yards per completion in these, a much higher mark than their full-season rate of 10.7, but still better than what several other defenses did in 2021. (The Ravens, for example, ranked last in the NFL, allowing 12.6 yards per completion). And Cincinnati's sack rate actually went up in their worst games, from 6.3% to 7.9%.

Things get even weirder when we look at individual receiving numbers. The Chargers' Mike Williams gained 110 yards on five catches, the only 100-yard receiver the Bengals allowed in these games. The next most productive receiver was actually a running back, New York's Michael Carter, who caught nine passes (in 14 targets!) for 95 yards. He's followed by L.A.'s Jalen Guyton (4-90, plus a touchdown), Cleveland's Donovan Peoples-Jones (2-86), and New York's Jamison Crowder (8-84). The Bears' best receiver against the Bengals was Darnell Mooney, who caught six passes for 66 yards. Meanwhile, Allen Robinson was limited to two catches for 24 yards; Jarvis Landry had three for 11; Keenan Allen had five for 34. That's a bizarre mix of results among No. 1 wideouts, complementary receivers, and running backs. Tight ends, meanwhile, were not a factor—none gained even 30 yards.

It's hard to make sense of all this, but it looks like these opponents were patiently throwing short passes underneath Cincinnati's zones, then making the most out of limited shots downfield. They threw more passes to receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage than they did to receivers more than 10 yards downfield, but most of their best plays came on those deeper throws, where they went 18-of-31 for 463 yards and four touchdowns, with a pair of DPIs for 43 more yards and two interceptions. The Bengals will force a lot of checkdowns and failed completions (25 in these four games), but they will allow limited opportunities for big plays to quarterbacks who know how to find them.

The running game against Cincinnati was somewhat hit-and-miss. These four Bengals opponents ran 106 times for 452 yards, but those numbers are skewed by one Nick Chubb 70-yard touchdown run. Take out that play and the yards-per-carry average drops from 4.3 to 3.6, while yards per game drop from 113.0 to 95.5. Cincinnati gave up 23 first downs runs and 11 gains of 10 yards or more, but they also managed 20 stuffs. The Rams haven't been running very well lately, but the Bears, Jets, or Chargers couldn't run on Cincinnati, and in the end it didn't matter.

How the Rams Match Up

Cooper Kupp was L.A.'s leader in targets at or behind the line of scrimmage and 11 or more yards downfield, so he should be a big part of the Rams attack no matter the play call. However, the Bengals have at times been vulnerable to second and third wideouts, which suggests that Van Jefferson (49 of those deeper targets in 17 games) and Odell Beckham (22 in eight with the Rams) will get their chances to make plays too. Tyler Higbee may miss the Super Bowl after spraining his MCL in the NFC championship win, but the teams that fared best against Cincinnati didn't use their tight ends very much anyway.

Getting an early lead has been the best way to beat the Bengals this year, but that hasn't necessarily been the Rams' forte. Their defense is up to the task, ranking second in first-half DVOA before dropping to 17th in the second half. But their offense has moved in the other direction, going from 12th in the first half to fourth in the second. That's the profile of a team that tends to pull away in the third and fourth quarters, but the Bengals haven't let many opponents do that to them this year.

In the end, this could be decided by the Rams' ability to force Burrow into mistakes … and they have excelled at making quarterbacks look silly all year, the only defense this season to rank in the top three in both interceptions (19) and sacks (50). They were one of seven teams that failed to score a defensive touchdown during the regular season, but if they can force a couple of turnovers in the Super Bowl, their offense should be capable of finishing things off from there.

Comments

26 comments, Last at 03 Feb 2022, 9:13am

1 I'm starting to understand…

I'm starting to understand why SF beat them.

They hit that sweet-spot of short throws, a high-pressure D-line, and a quality backup QB.

[The Rams]were one of six teams that failed to score a defensive touchdown this season

In the regular season. They have one in the playoffs.

4 Uh

The 49ers hit the sweet spot of Darius Phillips muffing two punts. And that dude hasn't been seen much since 

2 Defensive TDs

They were one of six teams that failed to score a defensive touchdown this season,

NFL.com shows 7 such teams: Rams, Seahawks, Raiders, Steelers, Jags, Lions, Panthers

Rams are the only top-10 DVOA defense (#5) to not have a touchdown in the regular season. Next closest are Steelers (14) and Panthers (15). 

At first I wondered if this was owing to the Rams not having as many interceptions as other teams, but actually that's not the case: they had 19 team interceptions, tied with the Bills and Colts for 3rd highest in the league. It's pretty fascinating that the Rams had 19 interceptions but no pick-6s. They also forced 15 fumbles, 10th highest, but had miserable recovery luck: 6, 3rd fewest. 

This makes me wonder if the Rams defense, which is already good on its face, is actually even better than the numbers suggest. They've had a weird disconnect between turnovers and points. 

5 The Rams also gift points on…

The Rams also gift points on offense so the converse of zero  pick 6’s on defense during the regular season, is that Stafford threw four pick 6’s.  I do not think DVOA penalizes for INT return yards or TD’s.  Would love to see an FO writer comment on that point to make sure that is correct.

Regardless, it is a difficult argument to make that CIN should be less of an underdog due the probability of a Stafford pick 6.  

12    I do not think DVOA…

 

 I do not think DVOA penalizes for INT return yards or TD’s.  Would love to see an FO writer comment on that point to make sure that is correct.

They are not penalized based on the actual returns, which can vary wildly and have little predicted value. Instead they are penalized based on the average return from the yard line the pass was thrown from and the yard line where it was caught. For example, INTs caught behind the line of scrimmage often result in pick-sixes and so they are heavily punished, even if the defender is tackled right away.

21 It would be interesting

It would be interesting to see a descriptive version of DVOA that isn't trying to predict the future but just tells us how things have gone. Unrelated, it'd also be cool to see rushing and passing DVOA measured on the same scale to highlight the efficiency differences in the plays.

26 I think it would be

In reply to by Aaron Brooks G…

I think it would be something more akin to EPA/P * Success Rate, which is a term Josh Hermsmeyer coined "payoff," though that is more likely to reflect a coach's view of play success. I would be interested in a version of DVOA that defines success as a play with positive EPA rather than a percentage of yards to go.

23 Unrelated, it'd also be cool…

Unrelated, it'd also be cool to see rushing and passing DVOA measured on the same scale to highlight the efficiency differences in the plays.

At the team level, they are. That's why 23 teams have a positive pass offense DVOA but only 10 teams have a positive rush offense DVOA. 

7 PFR

In reply to by samueljames530

PFR lists the Jaguars with a fumble recovery TD, looks like that didn't happen. I'll fix above.

8 It's probably referring to…

In reply to by Aaron Schatz

It's probably referring to the field goal return at the end of the first half against ARI.

6 today

Today is the Chinese New Year. It is the year of the Tiger by the way. I wonder if it is the Year of the Bengal Tiger ??  Either way-Go Clemson.

10 Five yard penalty for using…

Five yard penalty for using Bungles in title.  That name is retired until the Bengals don't make the playoffs, which doesn't look likely for a while; only the Ravens have a working quarterback in the division.

11 Also, both of Mike Whites…

Also, both of Mike Whites picks against the Bengals came off passes tipped by the intended receiver, and happened after he had completed his first 9 passes (1 was deleted by penalty, another incompletion was negated by a penalty).  White was on to start the game.

13 No bad nicknames penalties shouldn't require making playoffs

It's interesting to me that the Cardinals and Lions, who are about the same level of sad-sack-ness as the Bengals are (or maybe even a little worse?), don't seem to have the same amount of name calling. Same with the Browns, Jaguars, Texans, Falcons. What's special about Cincy that they deserve a nickname for being bad?

19 Seems strange that Burrow's…

Seems strange that Burrow's 9 sacks by the Titans doesn't rate at least some mention. What did the Titans fail to do that the Rams might succeed at?

20 The Titans failed to protect…

The Titans failed to protect the ball, throwing three interceptions. They also went 1-for-8 on third downs, and 0-for-1 on fourth. Their defense held up their end of the bargain, but the offense totally collapsed. 

For the record, Matthew Stafford had one three-interception game this year, against Minnesota. The Rams won anyway, but I don't think that's a recipe for success.