Wild-card playoff preview: What the Bengals must do to beat the Raiders

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Wild-card weekend kicks off Saturday, as the NFL playoffs get underway. The first game of the slate is one of five rematches from the regular season, as the Cincinnati Bengals host the Las Vegas Raiders, who reached the playoffs with their overtime victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.

The only game this weekend that is not a rematch from the regular season? The Sunday afternoon game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers.

When the Bengals and Raiders kick things off on Saturday, it will be a rematch of a Week meeting, won by Cincinnati by a final score of 32-13. The Bengals, coming off their bye week, built a four-point halftime lead and then pulled away with 19 points in the fourth quarter.

Looking back at that game, and looking at where the Bengals are now, provides some lessons for Cincinnati. Here is what the Bengals must do to beat the Raiders.

1. Protect Joe Burrow

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

The first task for the Bengals offense is a straight-forward ask:

Protect quarterback Joe Burrow.

Back in Week 11, Burrow did not put up huge numbers against the Raiders, completing 20 of 29 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown. Part of that might have been due to the pressure he faced in the pocket. Burrow was sacked three times that game, and pressured on nine dropbacks, or a pressure percentage of 25.7%.

Now, looking at his entire season, those were relatively average numbers for Burrow to face during 2021. That pressure percentage was the tenth-most he faced in a single game this year, while the nine pressures were ninth-most.

What is concerning, however, is this: Burrow was blitzed just twice in that game, the fewest amount of blitzes he faced that season. This play, one of three times the Raiders got to Burrow, is an example of how Las Vegas was able to get pressure with just four on that day:

On this play the Raiders have six down in the box, and with the Bengals in an empty formation Cincinnati has just five to block. If all six defenders indeed come, Burrow will have to throw early, as he is now responsible for the sixth rusher.

With one defensive tackle aligned in the A-gap to the left, the line uses a half-slide, with the center opening to that side. That leaves just two blockers, the right guard and right tackle, available on the right side. Of course, that is where the blitz comes from, and Burrow is forced immediately into survival mode.

Plays like this are why the first order of business for Burrow and the Bengals offense is simple: Sort out the protections and protect the quarterback.

2. Win the one-on-ones in single-high

Ja'Marr Chase
Ja'Marr Chase

(Kareem Elgazzar / The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is not exactly a man of mystery.

Bradley and his defenses live in the single-high coverage world. According to charting data, the Raiders have played the most Cover 1/Cover 3 in the league this year, facing 347 passing attempts in those coverages.

The reason for this? Beyond Bradley’s background and coaching philosophy, the Raiders are built to run these schemes given their personnel. Their two starting safeties are rookie Trevon Moehrig and Johnathan Abram. Moehrig has played 1,152 defensive snaps this year according to Pro Football Focus charting data, and of those he played as a deep safety on 1,058 of those plays. Abram, more of your traditional box safety, played almost half of his 955 snaps down in the box. With Abram’s skill-set suited to such a role, you can see why Bradley uses more single-high schemes. That puts Abram down in the box or near the line of scrimmage, and leaves Moehrig — who was viewed as a solid free safety prospect coming out of TCU — deep to patrol the middle of the field.

Studying the Week 11 meeting between these teams, you see that on 18 of Burrow’s passing attempts, the Raiders were in one of those single-high coverages. So the task for Burrow is to find the one-on-one matchups he likes in those situations, and trust that his receivers are goin to win their individual battles. Back in Week 11, that meant a lot of Ja’Marr Chase against Brandon Facyson. On this completion, Burrow targets Chase on a slant route, and the rookie wins off the line and creates enough space for the completion:

The first example finds the Raiders in man coverage, with Facyson in a press alignment, while the second play is an example of the Raiders running a Cover 3 shell. But on both plays, Burrow picks his matchup, and comes to it quickly in the down.

Also of note, the first play is a five-man protection scheme, as both the back and the tight end have free releases and no protection responsibilities. That quick throw is an example of how the Bengals can neutralize the Raiders pass rush even when empty or in five-man schemes, provided Burrow can get the ball out quickly to a favorable matchup.

If the Raiders are going to be in these single-high coverages, either playing man coverage with Moehrig as a free safety or in more zone-based schemes with the outside cornerbacks lacking help over the top, Burrow will need to get to his favorite one-on-one early in the play and take advantage.

3. Neutralize Darren Waller

(Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

By his high standards, 2021 has been a subpar season for tight end Darren Waller. He has dealt with injuries this season, including knee and back injuries, and has just two 100+ yard receiving games on the year. The first came back in Week 1, as he caught ten passes (on a whopping 19 targets) for 105 yards and a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens.

The only other such game? Week 11 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

In the loss that week, Waller caught seven passes for 116 yards against Cincinnati. He got going early with this 25-yard gain working against safety Jesse Bates III:

In terms of how the Bengals might look to slow him down, they could draw inspiration from what the New England Patriots did against Waller a season ago. Bill Belichick used a variety of methods against him, often relying on single-high coverages with a defender lurking underneath to take away crossing routes. Belichick also had the talented Devin McCourty at his disposal, often using the former college cornerback in man coverage situations against the tight end.

But whatever the means, the Bengals have to find a way to take Waller away, and force the Raiders to target other receivers in the passing game.

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