Through the first two games of the 2022 season, the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals rank dead last in Offensive DVOA. Joe Burrow is the worst quarterback by DYAR, Football Outsiders’ cumulative opponent-adjusted efficiency metric, and only pre-injury Dak Prescott, and Chicago’s Justin Fields, are worse among quarterbacks in DVOA, which is FO’s per-play metric.
This is not what we expected. But it appears to be what defensive coaches playing the Bengals have expected, and are eager to exploit. Against the Steelers and the Cowboys, the now 0-2 Bengals have been a disaster on offense, and while it’s common to blame the offensive line for Burrow’s troubles — and that’s legitimate to a point as it was last season — there’s one particular defense that’s got head coach Zac Taylor’s offense on a spit.
So far this season, Cover-2 — zone defense with two deep safeties — has been Burrow’s bete noire, and opposing teams are well aware of it. No quarterback has more dropbacks against Cover-2 than Burrow’s 35, and he’s completed 16 of 25 passes against Cover-2 for 182 yards, 117 air yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions, seven sacks, nine pressures, and a passer rating of 46.2. For the more metrically minded among us, Burrow’s EPA against Cover-2 is -14.79, by far the NFL’s worst. Daniel Jones of the Giants ranks second-worst at -11.66.
We do not talk about Justin Fields and Daniel Jones as top-five quarterbacks. We do talk about Burrow in that realm, but in 2022, he hasn’t looked like it at all. There are many reasons for this, but I want to focus on the one defensive scheme that has this offense — and its quarterback — in all kinds of trouble.
The past is prologue.
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It wasn’t as if a mysterious cabal of defensive coaches woke up one day this offseason and decided to see how Burrow would look against one specific coverage. Those defensive coaches, cabal or not, had Burrow’s 2021 tape to scour. And in 2021, from Week 1 all the way through Super Bowl LVI, Burrow had 118 dropbacks against Cover-2. Only Ben Roethlisberger and Patrick Mahomes faced Cover-2 more often. While Burrow did complete 77 of 101 passes for 1,026 yards, 514 air yards, four touchdowns, and one interception against iterations of Cover-2, he also took a league-high 13 sacks, and had a league-high 42 pressures, against it.
What does that tell you? Last season, Burrow was waiting for things to open up against two-deep, and if those things didn’t open up, he was going down.
In Week 14, the San Francisco 49ers gave Burrow all kinds of hell with Cover-2 — they sacked him four times, pressured him 10 more times, and through the 49ers did allow a touchdown pass out of Cover-2, they also showed Burrow all sorts of things he didn’t expect or appreciate.
With 2:40 left in the fourth quarter, Burrow took a look downfield, and decided to run out of bounds for what was in effect a sack. The busted play came down to two things: The offensive line failing to pick up Nick Bosa stunting inside out of an overload look (might be a good idea to watch out for No. 97), and the 49ers plastering Burrow’s receivers underneath. Like a lot of Cincinnati’s plays, this is a three-step drop in which Burrow is supposed to have an easy open read when he hits his back foot. Keep that idea in mind, because it’s going to come up again and again.
The 49ers rush four, they drop seven, they force Burrow to hurry up in an already harried offense, and nothing downfield is easy. We’ve all talked about the drop-eight stuff defenses were throwing at Patrick Mahomes last season, especially the Bengals in the AFC Championship game, but it’s good to note that defenses were starting to do the same to Burrow as the 2021 season went along.
The Bengals are running Cover-2 beaters, but Burrow isn't using them.
(Sam Greene-USA TODAY Sports)
Burrow completed 33 of 53 passes for 338 yards, two touchdowns, and four interceptions against the Steelers in the season opener, which the Bengals lost, 23-20, in overtime. Three of Burrow’s four picks came against Cover-2, including his first pass attempt of the 2022 season.
Not that it was Burrow’s first play of the season. That was the play before, when Burrow also took his first sack of the season. And this play brings up another overall issue with this offense — if you want to play as much quick game as they seem to, you have to have at least some of your receivers running quick routes.
Joe Burrow's first play of the 2022 season. He hits his back foot, facing front side, and all three of his receivers to that side are still running their routes.
This play ended in a sack. Go figure. pic.twitter.com/zbDq3xeGLg
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) September 21, 2022
On the next play, with 12:52 left in the first quarter, it’s a pretty obvious Cover-2 look. Safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds are dropping back to deep halves, linebackers Devin Bush and Myles Jack are dropping to their spots, as is nickel defender Cam Sutton, and cornerbacks Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon are squatting underneath. This isn’t a particularly sophisticated coverage, but Burrow is late on the throw even though he’s got a decent pocket, and Fitzpatrick jumps the ball intended for slot receiver Tyler Boyd.
“They just did a lot of two-high and really, we just tried to move everybody around,” Ja’Marr Chase said after the Steelers game. “Use short routes and get everybody underneath, and we didn’t hit too many hole shots today. We tried to go in the middle of the field to attack the safeties.”
The Cowboys ate Burrow's lunch with Cover-2.
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The 49ers game in Week 14 was not Burrow’s worst game regarding sacks against Cover-2. That would last Sunday’s game against the Cowboys, when Burrow took six sacks, and every single one of them were against Cover-2. Burrow didn’t throw a single interception against the Cowboys in 36 passing attempts, but the negative effect was the same in the end — when you throw Cover-2 at the Bengals’ offense, the Bengals’ offense doesn’t work.
Now, Burrow was back to trying to time things out against base rush numbers (four on the floor), and drop-seven coverage looks that gave him very little oxygen downfield. This was the root cause of Dorance Armstrong’s 11-yard sack of Burrow with 1:13 left in the first half. It wasn’t the offensive line.
This was a six-man pressure look pre-snap, and then, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and safety Israel Mukuamu dropped into hook coverage. Edge-rushers Micah Parsona and Dante Fowler Jr. each ran inside stunts on this play, but the Bengals’ offensive line picked them both up. Burrow bailed out of the pocket because he didn’t see what he wanted to see, and Armstrong got the sack because he chased Burrow most successfully after the play broke down.
Teams aren’t blitzing Burrow. Why? Because they don’t have to. Burrow has faced four pass-rushers on 85 of his dropbacks this season — only Joe Flacco of the Jets has more. Three of Burrow’s interceptions, seven of his sacks, and 19 of his pressures have come against four-man fronts.
The Bengals know this is coming. How do they stop it?
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Dorance Armstrong said after the Cowboys game that Dallas’ defense knew Burrow was going to hold onto the ball; the whole point was that. And the best way to make a quarterback hold onto the ball is to present him with the coverages he hates the most. Spin different versions of that most-hated coverage into a larger plan, and you have… well, I always hesitate to use the word “blueprint” in cases like this, but Burrow is going to see a metric bleepton of this stuff until he and Zac Taylor and everybody else can figure out how to counter it.
“We called some of them,” Taylor said after the Cowboys game regarding the shot plays that weren’t there. “Had to check out of them, rightfully so. And they did a good job trying to stay on top. That was one thing – tried to double Ja’Marr, tried to play a lot of Tampa 2. When your first down efficiency isn’t very good, it’s easy for them to try to take that away, particularly early.”
“It’s give-and-take,” Burrow concluded when asked about the balance between creating explosive plays and avoiding your quarterback getting… well, blown up. “We think if we start running the ball a little better than that will open it up and teams will have to get out of ‘2 Tampa’ shell. The second half run game is how it should look. The first half we were in first-and-fifteen in every series so we’re just going to get third down defenses when we’re in first and fifteen. So, we’ve got to eliminate those early penalties, stay on track for the chains, and we’ll be able to take more shorts.”
Running the ball in a more consistent way would help — you have a top-five back in Joe Mixon; getting him more involved would be a good thing. The Chiefs and the Dolphins have been great at creating explosive passing plays out of heavier personnel, which obviously forces defenses to at least be somewhat aware of the run threat.
The Bengals live and die as an 11 personnel team — one running back, one tight end, three receivers. No other team has more 11 personnel snaps in the passing game this season than Cincinnati’s 85, and teams are running one coverage against it, throwing Taylor’s playbook in the dirt, and stomping all over it.
It’s now up to Taylor to decide the best ways to force defenses away from this Cover-2 splurge, before his offense and his season go up in smoke.