The Cincinnati Bengals Prove a Tiger Can Change Its Stripes

The Cincinnati Bengals are trending upward in a league rife with inconsistent play. They could help prove the AFC's dominance if they stay on pace.

A few short weeks ago, the Cincinnati Bengals‘ offense was in great trouble. Fast-forward a few weeks, and the Bengals’ offense has been the most efficient attack in the NFL over the past two weeks.

While the Falcons were always going to be a good matchup for Cincinnati, the Bengals performance against the New Orleans Saints alone was an outstanding showing of a changing attack. Head Coach Zac Taylor deserves credit for the Bengals’ offense in the past two weeks.

The Cincinnati Bengals Changed Their Ways

The Bengals offense is back, and it’s been self-reflection that got them there. They were an offense predicated on hitting long 2’s, like Kevin Garnett in his Timberwolves days.

The Bengals needed to find some layups on offense, and they have. While Burrow’s average air yards have increased over the two weeks, that’s mostly due to a few very deep shots he’s hit on and the near elimination of throws behind the line of scrimmage that can tank an aDOT.

In short, the Bengals are using more of the field and using more concepts to keep the defense on their toes. Taylor and Burrow have figured things out.

Spreading Defenses Thin

One of the most significant issues with Cincinnati’s passing attack was their unwillingness to attack teams horizontally. Most of their passing attack was predicated on vertical reads, attacking zones high-to-low instead of side-to-side.

It’s not the most exciting way to attack defenses, but with receivers like Ja’Marr Chase, it can also lead to big YAC opportunities, especially when Burrow is on time and on target.

I questioned Burrow’s comfort processing horizontal spacing concepts because Cincinnati so rarely tried attacking in that manner. However, he’s shown he’s just as advanced a passer as we believed him to be, and it’s helped against the two-high, five-low coverages they’ve been facing more frequently in 2022.

Whether it be multiple slants to a side or a spacing concept with each receiver attacking space against zone coverage, Burrow is keying things correctly and getting rid of the ball quickly.

Abandoning Under Center Play

The Bengals’ offensive line has played markedly better over the past few weeks, especially compared to their performance in the first two weeks of the season. And while the play of the offensive line has improved, Taylor has completely abandoned under-center play, keeping Burrow in shotgun formations almost exclusively.

Cincinnati couldn’t run from under center and their play-action game was practically non-existent. It made them incredibly predictable when Burrow was bent over behind his center.

MORE: OL Power Rankings 2022

Cincinnati has gone from 29th in rushing EPA-per-play in Weeks 1-5 to sixth in Weeks 6-7. It’s admittedly a small sample size, but the Saints are famously good at defending the run, and they had their struggles against Cincinnati.

Operating strictly out of shotgun gives defenses similar looks between run and pass, which takes away some of the predictability in the offense.

Throwing More, Running Less

The Bengals pass-heavy attack made sense against the Saints. The game remained close throughout, and although the Bengals found production on the ground against a good Saints run defense, they chose to pass the pass.

But even against the Falcons, the Bengals decided to throw 42 times compared to their 21 rushes, and Joe Burrow had three of those 21 attempts. Their struggles on the ground forced a philosophical change.

The quick game has replaced the run game. Getting the ball out quickly, attacking space underneath has replaced bashing their heads into a brick wall. They’ve also ramped up their RPO use, and they’ve shown they can attack all three levels off those RPO looks while avoiding the trap of running slants to death in those situations as well.

What Does This Mean in the AFC?

Cincinnati’s offense looks to be on the track we thought it could be before the season started. The Bengals ranked inside the top five in our NFL Power Rankings when the season began. Many thought their Super Bowl run was a bit lucky but that their offseason improvements made them a true contender in 2022.

They’re beginning to look that way. Lou Anarumo has the defense playing at a high level. He’s one of the best defensive coordinators in a league filled with intuitive minds at the position.

The Bengals are sixth in defensive DVOA and seventh in EPA-per-play. If their offense continues to show up, they could be one of the few teams in the league with the potential to post top-10 offensive and defensive efficiency numbers. That balance could go a long way in a league looking more and more inconsistent by the week.

The Bills still loom large over the rest of the league, but even the best defensive efforts can fall short against a hot passing attack. The Bengals are trending upward, and Zac Taylor’s ability and willingness to adapt is a huge reason why.

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