How to Solve the Cincinnati Bengals' Sack Problem
NFL Week 3 - The Cincinnati Bengals offense is a heap of hot garbage right now, and it threatens to ruin Joe Burrow.
The Bengals have allowed 13 sacks through two games. They are on a 110.5-sack pace, which would break the record of 104 sacks allowed set by the 1986 Philadelphia Eagles. The Bengals are on that record pace after allowing Burrow to get sacked a league-high 51 times in 2021 and after losing Burrow to an ACL tear after 32 sacks in just 10 games in 2020.
Burrow is under siege despite the fact that the Bengals added veterans La'el Collins, Alex Cappa, and Ted Karras to their offensive line this season. And of course, the defending AFC champions are 0-2 after losses to a pair of beatable opponents: the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dak Prescott-less Dallas Cowboys. The Bengals currently rank dead last in the NFL in offensive DVOA.
There are multiple culprits for the Bengals' September sack-tastrophe: Collins, rookie left guard Cordell Volson, left tackle Jonah Williams, head coach Zac Taylor, and Burrow himself, plus all credit where due to edge rushers such as T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons.
Isolating the Bengals pass protection problem isn't going to be easy. Finding potential solutions will be even trickier. But it must be done, because more than the 2022 season is on the line if Burrow starts flirting with all-time sack records.
The La'el Collins/Jonah Williams Problem
When it comes to La'el Collins' issues so far this season, one image is worth a thousand words.
Micah Parsons continues holding teams to field goals pic.twitter.com/lI9Fs9JKRk
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 18, 2022
Granted, Micah Parsons caused video game glitches against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive line too. But he actually did this to Collins twice, silly spin cycle and all: Burrow just got rid of the ball at the last moment on the second occasion.
Here's another ugly rep for both Collins and the whole Bengals line, as well as more support for Parsons' early Defensive Player of the Year case:
— Pro Football Culture (@proftblculture) September 18, 2022
The Cowboys rush three defenders on that play, and the Bengals block with six, yet Burrow still takes a clean-up sack from Leighton Vander Esch, largely because Parsons spins inside of Collins and forces Burrow to move.
Collins has allowed at least two sacks and multiple pressures this season. He has also committed a pair of false starts. Jonah Williams was responsible for multiple sacks in the Steelers loss. If the Bengals' issue were just a Parsons or T.J. Watt problem, it could be easily solved. But it's also an Alex Highsmith and Dorance Armstrong problem. It has been open season on Burrow off both the right and left edges for two straight games.
Collins, who was released for cap reasons by the Cowboys in the offseason, has been a dependable right tackle for several years. Williams was the Bengals' best offensive lineman in 2020 and 2021, for whatever that's worth. Zac Taylor and the Bengals may have mistaken the pair for prime Anthony Muñoz and Willie Anderson. Both Collins and Williams are fine, given support by tight ends or (in Collins' case) a mobile quarterback and a scheme full of drive-blocking opportunities and quick-passing concepts. Neither Williams nor Collins is suited to block on an island for 40-plus dropbacks per game. And Collins may still be hampered by an offseason back injury; at times, he moves like a man who is afraid to turn his head.
Volson has also had some bad reps as a run-blocker and a pass-protector, but it's unfair to pin too much of the blame on him when the bookend tackles keep falling off the shelf.
Joe Burrow is Developing Bad Habits
Here's Burrow forgetting that he is not Lamar Jackson late in the second quarter against the Cowboys. He has already taken several wallops at this point:
This one’s on Joe pic.twitter.com/BJAq9iixRJ
— Jake Sirkus (@JakeSirkus) September 18, 2022
Burrow never really sets at the end of his drop on this sack. Instead, he steps straight up into pressure before busting out the spin moves and ersatz superheroics. That sack led to a punt which gave the Cowboys favorable field position, setting up a long field goal before halftime.
While the sack above got lots of Twitter attention, the play that preceded it was just as illuminating. Tank Lawrence blew past a tumbling Collins, Dante Fowler beat Kappa with an inside move, and Burrow tried to shotput a short pass underneath while eluding them. The ball squirted free when Fowler struck Burrow's arm; fortunately, Joe Mixon pounced on the fumble.
Burrow's pocket presence has never been great. I felt it was improving throughout last year. But Burrow is now starting to do Carson Wentz stuff. He's trying to make impossible plays, and it's costing the Bengals turnovers and field position.
It may also start costing Burrow his health. Two of the three longest Bengals plays from scrimmage last Sunday were Burrow scrambles capped by unnecessary roughness fouls. So even when he's not getting sacked, Burrow is taking hits. This is how quarterbacks get broken while still on their rookie contracts.
Zac Taylor and Miscommunication
Go back and look at that last Burrow sack. Notice Samaje Perine in an "up-back" position? Taylor loves that formation: empty backfield except for a blocking back aligned in front of Burrow in shotgun. Perine replaced tight end Drew Sample, who lined up as a blocking up-back several times before suffering an injury.
That formation, designed to allow Sample or Perine to pick up interior blitzes, did more harm than good against the Cowboys. Early in the second quarter, Sample aligned 2 yards behind the left guard to pick up the double A-gap blitz the Cowboys were threatening. But the blitz was a feint, as it so often is, and the Bengals' protection scheme was so fouled up that Parsons got a free rush on Burrow while Collins blocked a different defender. Here's Brian Baldinger's breakdown of that play:
.@Bengals you have to get your Communication Breakdowns Fixed. If you think it can’t get worse; it can get a whole lot worse! Fix the issues starting today #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/YvBYjauSdU
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) September 19, 2022
There's some chatter in Bengals country about whether empty backfield formations are to blame for some of the Bengals' pass protection woes. Burrow himself appeared to yell "no empty set" to the sideline during one timeout, though he just as easily could be saying "go empty, Zac" or "Yo! MTV Raps!"
Empty backfields themselves don't appear to be the problem, as Burrow is often getting sacked despite six-man protection. The problem is that the protection assignments don't appear to match the Bengals' needs or the opposing defense's threat. There's little effort to support Collins or specifically address Watt/Parsons types. And as Baldinger notes, communication among the linemen appears to be an issue. Someone—Collins, Burrow, Karras, Taylor, or his assistants—should have examined the situation before the snap on the play shown above and realized that they needed to get a hat on Parsons.
Oh, and none of the Bengals tight ends appear capable of blocking.
Solving the Bengals' Sack Problem
The good news for the Bengals is that they face the Jets and Dolphins over the next two weeks, two teams without a Parsons-/Watt-caliber marquee edge rusher. The bad news is that the Jets are feisty and the Dolphins have replaced the Bengals as Team Bombs Away who can score from anywhere. Also, the Dolphins defense finished fourth in adjusted sack rate in 2021 and proved in Week 1 that they are capable of shutting down a dysfunctional offense. The Bengals don't just need to prevent sacks. They also need to start scoring some points if they don't want to sink to the bottom of the AFC playoff picture.
Here are some things the Bengals can do to make their offense functional again:
Protect or bench La'el Collins. Zac Taylor needs to plant a tight end next to Collins on every deep-dropback passing concept in the short term. If Collins is still suffering the effects of his back injury or doesn't fit the Bengals system, it may be—oh no oh no oh no—Hakeem Adeniji or D'Ante Smith time.
Emphasize the quick game. Taylor wants to engage the Burrow-to-Ja'Marr Chase turbochargers that got the Bengals to the Super Bowl last year, but it just ain't happening right now. Burrow has been able to connect with Chase and other receivers on slants and shorter routes, however, and the Bengals can be an effective YAC team if they choose to be. It's time to shorten Burrow's drops and time to throw, and reduce his air yards until the sack emergency subsides.
Diversify the running game. Joe Mixon is averaging just 3.0 yards per carry, though he is running hard and the Bengals line looks better when moving straight forward. Let Mixon plow off right tackle behind double teams more often so Collins can do what he does best. Or mix in more counters or misdirection. Taylor appears to treat the running game as an afterthought or "waste pitch," a common problem among some of the Mini-McVays. Right now, the Bengals running game is doing nothing to dissuade pass rushers, and when it creates manageable down-and-distance situations, that just leads to another problem.
Fix the third-and-medium play calling. The Bengals rank 24th in third-and-medium DVOA, with Burrow getting sacked on one third-and-4 and walloped on an incomplete pass on another against the Cowboys. This is a situation where a more robust quick game would help. Even running on third-and-4 should be an occasional option for a team that should also have no fear of fourth-down aggressiveness.
The Bengals offense also ranks 32nd in first down DVOA, but there are so many problems baked into that ranking—sacks, stuffs, incomplete passes, penalties that set up first-and-15—that's it's more of a symptom than a cause of their ills.
Blast that "up-back" formation out of the solar system. All it's providing right now is a false sense of security.
Unfortunately, the only real solution to the Bengals' sack problems is a non-solution. Everyone just has to be better: the whole line, Burrow, Taylor. Better execution, better communication, better schemes. And they need to hurry before Burrow's pocket clock—or his body—gets shattered.
The Fourth-Down Shotgun Sneak Conundrum
When the Green Bay Packers stopped Justin Fields on fourth-and-goal on a "QB Power" run from a shotgun formation on Sunday, it sparked a lively conversation on the Football Outsiders Discord Channel (something you should totally be a part of). Some readers wondered whether lining up in the shotgun in short-yardage situations is a terrible idea.
Our readers are by no means alone. Short-yardage shotgun formations have been a point of contention for Eagles fans since the Chip Kelly era. And CBS Sports Analyst/Pro Football Hall of Fame Semifinalist/Friend of Walkthrough Amy Trask waxed poetic about her concerns after the Fields stop:
When the ball's on the one,
Don't use shotgun;
Don't be dumb, don't be a nut,
Line up under the center's butt;
It doesn't have to be this hard,
Although Elway lined up under a guard.
— Amy Trask (@AmyTrask) September 19, 2022
Clearly, it was time for Walkthrough to do something we're loath to do: actual research.
From 2020 through Week 1 of the 2022 season, NFL teams ran from shotgun formations on fourth down with 2 yards or less to go 152 times, converting 101 first downs or touchdowns for a 66.4% conversion rate. All of the data clumps cited in this segment include handoffs, designed quarterback runs, and scrambles.
In that same span, NFL teams ran from under-center formations on fourth downs with 2 yards or less to go 360 times, converting 252 first downs or touchdowns for a 70.0% conversion rate. The difference in rates is too small to be meaningful.
But what about the exact Fields/Bears situation: fourth-and-goal from the 1? Teams are 7-of-15 converting touchdowns in that situation from the shotgun and 13-of-16 from under center. That looks more significant, though the sample is small and likely full of other distortions.
A team that lines up in the shotgun on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line is, superficially at least, in better position to pass than a team that lines up under center. Teams attempted 25 passes from the shotgun in this situation from 2020 through Week 1, resulting in nine touchdowns, as well as one interception and one sack. Teams attempted 12 fourth-and-goal-from-the-1 passes from under center, converting 10 touchdowns.
All of the evidence leans toward the conclusion that shotgun formations are a bad idea on fourth-and-short around the goal line. Of course, there are all sorts of variables in play.
Lets take a quick look at the design of the Fields play:
Pack defense holds strong at the goal line!
— NFL (@NFL) September 19, 2022
It's quarterback power with a pulling lineman, no option fake to the running back, no subterfuge. If a team wants to execute short-yardage plays from the shotgun to take advantage of their dual-threat quarterback, Walkthrough recommends using some wrinkles to keep the defense from just crashing the line of scrimmage: motion, spreading the field, a 300-pound defensive tackle at tight end on the far side, a read-option fake, anything that might freeze a linebacker.
It's also worth noting that Lamar Jackson got stuffed and fumbled on a goal line sneak against the Miami Dolphins while under center on Sunday. Sometimes, the defense just makes a play.