Zac Taylor and Joe Burrow Must Fix the Bengals Offense Together

The Cincinnati Bengals' offense isn't as good as it should be, and both Zac Taylor and Joe Burrow deserve blame for its shortcomings.

Zac Taylor the head coach might need to fire Zac Taylor the offensive coordinator, for the sake of the Cincinnati Bengals‘ offense. It probably won’t happen during the season, and it probably shouldn’t. However, when the offseason hits, if things don’t improve offensively for Cincinnati, Taylor should look to dip into the play-caller well.

Zac Taylor Is Adapting, But Is It Enough?

The Bengals’ offense wasn’t particularly productive last season either, but Cincinnati’s Super Bowl run (in which the offense still wasn’t very good) took some of the heat off Taylor. They finished 15th in the NFL in passing DVOA in 2021, and many assumed they’d be a new offense with an improved offensive line this season.

While the offensive line struggled in Weeks 1 and 2 against Pittsburgh and Dallas, respectively, it’s been far from the offense’s most significant issue the last three weeks. So what is the problem?

Through five weeks, the Bengals are 13th in points per drive, 15th in drive success rate, 25th in weighted DVOA, 22nd in passing DVOA, and 28th in rushing DVOA.

Their EPA-per-play numbers are more favorable but are still not up to the expectation given their quarterback, receiving corps, running back, and improved offensive line. Cincinnati ranks 11th in EPA and dropback success rate, ninth in passing EPA, and 22nd in rushing EPA and rushing success rate.

The Bengals struggle to run the football. There’s no denying that. Additionally, Ja’Marr Chase only has one 100-yard game and averages 17 fewer yards per game despite catching nearly two more passes per game.

Over the last few weeks, Taylor has called more RPOs and shotgun runs, which has helped Joe Burrow and the passing attack a bit. They’ve run the ball better as well.

But not all is well. Burrow’s aDOT was 8.1 yards a year ago, which is down to 6.6 in 2022. His yards per attempt has dropped two whole yards through five games. The downfield shots simply aren’t there as often, and the shots Cincinnati takes are low-percentage sideline throws, often to the back shoulder.

The Bengals’ offensive line was horrific in the season’s first two weeks, but they have played far better since then. In the past three weeks, they’ve allowed 25 pressures compared to the 30 allowed in the first two games.

They can no longer be used as a scapegoat for Cincinnati’s passing issues.

Cincinnati’s Offense Is a Letterkenny Skit

If you haven’t watched Letterkenny, you need to re-evaluate your life. The Canadian comedy often shows the overly Canadian hicks telling folks to “figure it out.”

Taylor is effectively telling Burrow and his weapons to do exactly that. “You’re the athletes; go make a play.”

Patrick Mahomes is arguably the most talented quarterback we’ve ever seen, but his prolific production is also a product of Andy Reid’s schematic and play-calling genius.

Play-calling on the offensive side is proactive. Understanding how defenses like to attack different looks is essential during the creation of the game plan. Another part of it is reacting to defensive looks depending on the situation during the game.

The above video is a fine example of players going out and making a play in spite of the play call. The Jets had been running a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3 to this point. Teams are even more likely to run said coverages against heavier personnel groupings.

So sending both receivers straight downfield along the sideline isn’t quite what I’d call setting your guys up for success. It’s especially egregious against Cover 3 off of heavy play-action such as this because it’s often an opportunity to hit that intermediate area in the middle of the field underneath the safety and behind the linebackers.

There is such a low margin for error in the Bengals’ dropback passing game. There are so many back-shoulder throws against draping man coverage. Teams are disguising coverages pre and post-snap, and Taylor is struggling to find solutions that make things simple for Burrow.

Finding Solutions

Unfortunately, crafting solutions isn’t as easy as simply looking at some Kansas City tape and saying, “we’re going to run this offense.” Different quarterbacks are comfortable running different concepts.

And no matter what we think of Burrow or how advanced we believed he was coming from LSU, it seems clear by the Bengals’ passing attack that he prefers to work closer to the sidelines than he is over the middle.

There is less visual noise as the sideline nears. Trouble doesn’t necessarily follow that far out. Cincinnati’s passing concepts largely give Burrow vertical reads. That means the offense looks to stretch coverages vertically. Three or more routes in any single vertical stretch outnumber traditional zone coverage looks.

It’s also a more straightforward progression for quarterbacks. Football is fast. Vertical half-field progressions are easier because full-field progressions require quarterbacks to be comfortable re-establishing their sequencing and effectively trusting flashes of color for information. Meanwhile, vertical progressions allow quarterbacks to see much of the route concept and the coverage at once and make minor footwork adjustments to deliver the ball.

The Bengals didn’t often attack the middle of the field against Baltimore, and when they did, it was mostly on vertical stretch concepts, like on this Patrick Queen interception.

The Ravens are in Quarters coverage here, and the No. 2 does his job running off the safety. Marlon Humphrey’s outside leverage does not allow him to mirror Chase, who is Burrow’s initial read here (the seam is effectively a decoy).

Burrow probably thought Queen was scooting out to the flat when he cleared the hashes, but the linebacker’s eyes went straight to Chase. Burrow could have had an easy completion to the back in the flats here but instead forced a pass into a non-existent window.

This interior vertical stretch is similar to what we see closer to the numbers in the Bengals’ offense most often. Cincinnati shows some horizontal-stretch concepts, usually to the trips side in a three-receiver set.

But the ball almost exclusively ends up going to the other side of the field, either to an isolation route ran by the lone receiver or a slant-flat look like the above video.

We’re not in the room with Taylor and Burrow. Becoming proficient at various concepts takes time and repetition, and there could be looks Burrow is not comfortable with.

If that is the case, then for as talented as Burrow is, he too is limiting how versatile the passing attack can be.

Learning To Beat Middle-of-Field-Open Looks

The Bengals’ offense benefits from explosive plays. A season ago, they ranked fifth in explosive passing play rate and had the fourth-most explosive passing plays overall. Not all of them were on downfield throws, but pushing the ball vertically is something Burrow excels in with his talented receiving corps.

A season ago, the media was in a tizzy about Kansas City’s offense being unable to compete against two-high safety looks. Teams aren’t exclusively running MOFO looks against Cincinnati, but they are mixing looks up pre- and post-snap, making play calls that should conceivably work against the coverage shown obsolete once the ball is snapped.

Taylor did what good play-callers do for young quarterbacks, pulling the 989 passing concept from LSU and running it with great success with Burrow in Year 2. However, teams are choosing to run Tampa 2 against the Bengals a lot more than we’re used to seeing in 2022, and it’s working against this look in particular.

Burrow has more than enough arm to be an excellent NFL QB. However, he doesn’t possess the same fastball that Josh Allen or Justin Herbert possess. That makes it difficult to slide passes into the honey hole before the safety arrives to erase the sideline option.

Cincinnati needs to start beating teams over the head with efficiency in the quick game if they’re going to get them out of Tampa 2 and Quarters looks. The one nice thing the Bengals’ offense does is take “Now” routes when outside cornerbacks are playing at depth. They allow their receivers to make plays after the catch and pick up positive yards.

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But you must be able to run Stick, Spacing, Smash, and other quick-game looks that either put the cornerback in conflict vertically or look to find space horizontally in zone coverage. Their quick-game issues have been two-fold. Burrow oftentimes looks uncomfortable with horizontal-stretch looks, and other times receivers simply haven’t been precise enough in their timing.

Issues arise when offenses completely abandon vertical looks to stretch the coverage. Dallas is an example of a team that leans heavily on the quick game and horizontal-stretch concepts. Dak Prescott is excellent at navigating full-field reads in an instant, but the offense can get stale and lack explosiveness.

The Bengals must also continue running Flood and Levels concepts while toying with their backside looks to overload Cover 2. But to take shots, the protection must hold up, which is never a guarantee in Cincinnati.

The Bengals’ offense has never seen the production that the Chiefs’ offense has seen. Therefore, “fixing” Cincinnati’s offense against MOFO looks won’t yield best-in-the-league results. The Bengals have to run the ball far better than they are now, and they must find concepts that Burrow is comfortable navigating that attack the lower areas of Cover 2.

The one area they’ve failed to exploit thus far against Tampa 2 is underneath the middle third linebacker. Oftentimes the two other curl defenders tend to be wide, opening the intermediate area between the hashes.

The above video isn’t an example of Tampa 2, but that is the area of the field often abandoned by the coverage. The protection is perfect for Burrow here, and he delivers a strike. That won’t happen all the time, but over the past three weeks, the offensive line has shown marked improvement.

Using Play-Action To Create Windows

If defenses are going to take away deep shots, Cincinnati must live in the short and intermediate areas. Play-action can help exploit those areas by keeping linebackers flat to fit the run. There’s a problem with that theory, though.

The Bengals don’t have a play-action passing attack. At least, not a consistent one.

Cincinnati practically lives out of 11 personnel shotgun formations. Their play-action passing game is already limited by not running under-center play-action outside of maybe a shot play or two a game. Under-center play-action is more effective because the quarterback turns his back to the defense. However, some QBs aren’t comfortable turning their backs to the defense for that long.

But again, without being in the building, we cannot know if the QB is uncomfortable or if Taylor doesn’t like under-center looks.

The Bengals go under center at times, but their offense is largely resigned to running plays or screens from under-center looks while very infrequently rolling Burrow out on play-action looks.

The Bengals’ offense needs more variety. They’ll never be able to consistently run from under center if they never consistently show play-action from under center to keep the defense guessing. When they do run play-action, they must look to attack the vacated intermediate zones.

There are many issues with the Bengals’ offense. It will probably take an offseason to really revolutionize it. But they can take steps in-season to improve individual areas of the offense, and in that case, the offense could improve enough to complement a good defense.

But it won’t be easy. And while giving up play-calling duties is probably still the right choice eventually, Taylor is far from the only offensive issue. In fact, Burrow could be as much a factor in architectural decisions as Taylor. But without being in the building, we’ll never know.

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