Sources say: Buy
The Cincinnati Bengals spent the 2022 offseason attempting to fix the fatal flaw that kept them from winning Super Bowl LVI last season over the Los Angeles Rams by signing center Ted Karras, right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La’el Collins to protect quarterback Joe Burrow.
Well, the offensive line is as big of an issue as ever, and Cincinnati is in an 0-2 hole to start the season with losses to the Mitchell Trubisky-led Pittsburgh Steelers and Cooper Rush-led Dallas Cowboys. Burrow has been pressured 34 times, and taken seven quarterback hits and 13 sacks in two games. He was sacked a league-high 51 times last regular season on 8.9% of dropbacks. His current pace would put him at over 110 sacks this season on 12.7% of dropbacks.
And this graph from PFF’s Kevin Cole shows that it’s not all his offensive line’s fault.
Bengals OL bad at protecting Burrow: Yes
Burrow very bad at protecting himself: Yes pic.twitter.com/ipqZMplVwe
— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) September 19, 2022
“Burrow has to be at fault for some of the sack issues,” an NFC analytics executive told PFF. “Their success late last season reinforced some bad tendencies of theirs, and I think they were due for some serious regression. That being said, they still have great weapons and I wouldn't be surprised at a bounce-back.”
It certainly does not help that Burrow and the Bengals have opened up the season against T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons, but after the walloping that Pittsburgh provided in Week 1, the team should have been prepared for the Cowboys' pass rush. It wasn’t.
One NFC scout we spoke to believed the Cowboys were able to exploit some of the Bengals' “personnel weaknesses.”
One of those was Collins, who was released by Dallas before the Bengals signed him as a free agent. Collins earned a 27.3 pass-blocking grade and let up a sack, two QB hits and two hurries while simultaneously posting a 95.1 run-block grade.
“The Rams put together a great blueprint in the Super Bowl that's been transposed now to this season by other teams,” a pro scout said. “It’s very much reminiscent of the Rams after the Patriots shut them down in the Super Bowl in 2018. They went 9-7 that next year, the 2019 season, while figuring out how to evolve.”
The Rams prevented Burrow from throwing deep in Super Bowl LVI, and the Steelers and Cowboys did a good job of limiting his vaunted deep balls this season, as well.
Burrow attempted just three deep passes on 33 total attempts in the Super Bowl and hit on two for 121 yards with a touchdown. He otherwise threw deep on 12.2% of passing attempts last season.
Burrow’s deep passing attempt percentage has dropped down to 7.9% this season. He’s just 1-of-7 for 22 yards with an interception.
A common thread between the Rams in Super Bowl LVI, the Steelers in Week 1 and the Cowboys in Week 2 has been an avoidance of Cover 1 against Burrow and the Bengals. The Rams were in man coverage for just six of 61 snaps in the Super Bowl. The Steelers spent just 31 of 100 snaps in man coverage in Week 1, and the Cowboys spent just 17 of 69 snaps in man coverage in Week 2. While the Rams primarily ran Cover 3 or Cover 6 against the Bengals in the Super Bowl, Cincinnati has faced a heavy dose of Cover 2 so far this season.
That’s limited the Bengals’ big plays and forced Burrow to throw more to the short and intermediate parts of the field. It also shows opposing teams don’t feel threatened by the Bengals’ rushing attack, which ranks 23rd this season in expected points added (EPA) per play. Running back Joe Mixon has earned just a 55.9 rushing grade this season with 46 carries for 139 yards, 91 yards after contact and five missed tackles. His elusive rating ranks 42nd out of 48 qualified running backs.
Burrow has been under pressure on 30.9% of dropbacks this season — down from 34.3% in 2021 — and earned a 33.9 PFF grade on those snaps. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick recorded a 63.9 PFF grade while facing pressure last season. What’s perhaps most concerning is that Burrow’s clean pocket grade has fallen from 95.9 to 72.1 this year. In total, he’s made zero big-time throws and five turnover-worthy plays. His accuracy percentage has dropped slightly from 64.8% in 2021 to 62.5% in 2022. His uncatchable inaccurate percentage has risen from 15.9% in 2021 to 18.8% this season.
The Bengals’ defense has been mostly fine, ranking eighth in EPA per play against. They have collectively struggled to get after the quarterback, however, ranking 29th in pass-rush win rate and 27th in pass-rush productivity.
So, the Bengals will snap out of this, right?
“Yeah, I mean, they're too talented not to,” the AFC pro scout said. “But I can see them falling short of the playoffs in a tough division and crowded AFC.”
An AFC analytics executive is less concerned and cautioned not to take too much away from early-season games.
The Bengals are currently +3000 to win the Super Bowl, giving them the seventh-shortest odds in the AFC and implying they’re a fringe playoff team. Cincinnati’s schedule doesn’t get any easier after this week’s matchup against the New York Jets. They’ll face the Dolphins, Ravens twice, Saints, Browns twice, Titans, Chiefs, Buccaneers, Patriots and Bills, plus the Falcons, Panthers and Steelers.
Without an effective rushing attack, the Bengals will likely face more and more Cover 2 this season, meaning Burrow and head coach Zac Taylor are going to need to figure out how to scheme against two-high coverage shells and thrive on short and intermediate passes.
Burrow was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL last season, grading out as PFF’s top passer. If anyone can figure this out, it’s him, and the Bengals didn’t lose considerable talent this offseason and beefed up their offensive line. But they’ll need to dig themselves out of an 0-2 hole fairly quickly against a daunting schedule.