NFL News & Analysis

AFC North Champions: How Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase are spearheading the Cincinnati Bengals' playoff push

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) throws an incomplete pass on 4th down but due to Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Sneed being called for illegal use of hands giving the Cincinnati Bengals a first down and goal in the fourth quarter of the NFL game on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. Cincinnati Bengals defeated Kansas City Chiefs 34-31. Cincinnati Bengals And The Kansas City Chiefs 482

The times in Cincinnati, they are a-changin.

Once the AFC North's resident doormat, the Cincinnati Bengals just went on the kind of rampage that we’ve never seen in the Queen City. After sweeping victories over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, the AFC North powerhouses of old, the Bengals took down the AFC top dog Kansas City Chiefs in a firework show Sunday afternoon.

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Now, the Bengals don't just have the highest-graded quarterback in the NFL in Joe Burrow, but they also have two of the league's 10 highest-graded receivers in Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase.

None of those players were on the roster at this time two years ago, but they have come together to overhaul expectations for an entire fan base. And, more importantly, they are even changing the ways of their head coach. 

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Burrow’s incredible week-to-week consistency has finally convinced head coach Zac Taylor to give him the keys to the castle, a concept that was seemingly unimaginable during the Marvin Lewis era and not all that fathomable with Taylor early on in the season.

Joe Burrow: Passing statistics and rank among quarterbacks (2021)
Metric Rank
PFF overall grade 91.7 1st
PFF passing grade 91.2 1st
Yards per attempt 8.9 1st
Passer rating from a clean pocket 113.7 3rd
Passer rating under pressure 92.4 3rd

From Week 1-15, the Bengals' early-down pass rate of 52.2% ranked 24th league-wide. Indianapolis was the only team that ran more frequently on early downs yet also averaged more points per game than the Bengals, who ranked ninth at 26.4 points per game at the time.

The Colts, if you haven’t heard, also fielded the league’s best ground game, with Jonathan Taylor accruing over 500 more rushing yards than second-ranked Joe Mixon and averaging almost a full yard-and-a-half more per attempt.

This has likely been something that Burrow has been pining against internally because, at times, he even pined against it externally

After the ugly Week 2 loss to the Chicago Bears when the Bengals scored just three points over the first three quarters, Burrow took a not-so-subtle shot at the playcalling, telling reporters, “You got to throw the ball over their head. At least make them feel like you are going to be able to do that, and call some plays that go over their head.”

Chase backed him up, saying, “We waited to the last minute to take shots. We knew they were sitting the whole game. I was telling Joe. Tee knew. We’ve got to capitalize on the stuff we see early in the game.”

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While neither pointed fingers directly, the sentiment was obvious. There was far more explosiveness to this offense being left on the table by the coaching staff than it seemed.

It is no coincidence that the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams are No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 in early-down pass-frequency in neutral-game situations. This isn’t to say running can’t be worthwhile, but when you have a juggernaut passing attack, two things are true:

  1. Passing on early downs presents the most advantageous looks from opposing defenses.
  2. Even a competent run game can’t compete with the efficiency of your quarterback.
Cincinnati Bengals: Offensive tendencies and production (2021)
Week 1 –
Week 15
Week 16 –
Week 17
EPA per play -0.039 (20th) 0.311 (1st)
Yards per play 5.7 (14th) 7.9 (1st)
Early-down run rate 47.8% (9th) 30.8% (32nd)
Early-down pass rate 52.2% (24th) 69.2% (1st)
% of passes traveling 20-plus yards downfield 12.7% (11th) 14.0% (6th)

That has decidedly shifted over the past two weeks. In all, Cincinnati has dropped back to pass 81 times on first down (65.2%), the second-most in the NFL over that span, and has only run the ball 24 times.

The results speak for themselves, as Joe Burrow has put together arguably the greatest two-game stretch in NFL history from a statistical standpoint. On first down alone, he's gone 30-for-35 for 283 yards with two scores. Those are the kind of efficiency numbers teams will never come close to touching on hand-offs. 

Taylor’s trust has been rewarded with a Bengals offense that feels distinctly different from the Andy Dalton and Carson Palmer offenses of first-round exit fame.

This isn't the late 2000s and 2010s Bengals, and they’ll be a serious contender in the AFC for the foreseeable future because of it.


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