Say hello to Joe Burrow 3.0
The Bengals' quarterback continues to take mini-leaps
It’s the time of year for giving thanks. And if we, as a football-watching collective, have anyone to thank for holding up the principles of nifty offensive play in a year of down offensive production, it’s Joe Burrow.
Right now, Burrow is the best show going – non-Justin Fields division. His game continues to evolve. He has trimmed all of the fat. He continues to take mini-leaps, to hit the checkpoints that turn an excellent quarterback into something approaching a supernova.
One of the joys of the season is watching every team go through its own jagged, unpredictable process of self-discovery. After struggling early in the season – for all the usual Bengals reasons – the Cincy offense has taken lift-off. Since Week Four, the Bengals rank second in the league in offensive EPA per play. The running game is rolling, a concern early in the year. The offensive line has coalesced. The passing game has clicked, even with Ja’Marr Chase missing time. Burrow has hit on an every-possession consistency that puts the Bengals in the frame to puncture the top-three spots in the AFC – those currently occupied by the Chiefs, Dolphins and Bills.
There has been little evolution of the Bengals’ offense stylistically. Burrow continues to spin magic out of the mundane. There is no genius, against-the-grain coaching. Conceptual frugality is built into Cincy’s DNA. But the Bengals are doing things that just work. They’ve put their superstar in a position to succeed, and they’ve provided him options whenever he hits the top of his drop – and that, really, is what coaching is all about.
Burrow’s improvement is the sort you miss if you glance at starts or watch a few Cincinnati games. It happens on the margins. Last season, he cracked the blitz. Burrow struggled vs. extra pressure early in his career. Defenses preyed on weak offensive lines and leveraged the fear that Burrow might take 10-to-20 hits a game, bouncing in and out of pressure looks, to spook the quarterback into bad decisions vs the blitz. His numbers vs. the blitz were poor – and just as important was the difficulties he had when teams showed blitz pre-snap before bailing out to swamp the field with coverage. In 2021, he conquered the thing.
Burrow vs. the blitz:
That has persisted this season. Burrow hasn’t quite been a one-man Death Star this year, but he remains a stud vs. extra pressure. A quarterback joining the vaunted Do Not Blitz club changes the calculus for opposing DCs. Their menu is limited. Go-to tactics vs. set looks (perimeter blitzes vs. tight formations, for instance) are off the table. Everything can start to feel a little predictable. It has a multiplying effect: A defense cannot effectively blitz the quarterback, so they become more static and predictable, so the quarterback is seeing the same looks, and so he can more easily pick the base defense apart.
As the 2021 season progressed, defenses reacted to the growth in Burrow’s game. They backed off, hoping to stick in deeper defensive shells that could both cut off the supply line to Ja’Marr Chase and force Burrow to hold the ball for longer behind a woeful offensive line, rather than forcing him to quicken up his game by allowing him to get the ball out hot.
That’s persisted this season, too. Teams have sunken into deepening shells vs. Burrow. He’s facing less heat this season than in any year that he’s thrown a football, with teams sending added pressure on just 20 percent of Burrow’s dropbacks.
As defenses have shape-shifted in order to make it a fair fight against the new-ish Burrow, the quarterback himself has continued to adapt. Burrow has ascended up to the upper-tier of the upper-tier of field conductors. He is getting rid of the ball quicker than ever before. Only the Bucs and the please-don’t-hit-me, I’m-46-years-old-god-dammit stylings of Tom Brady have registered more quick-game (0/1 step and 3-step) dropbacks than Burrow this season. But whereas Brady is getting rid of the ball quickly (at a higher rate, even for him) to avoid pressure and being hit, Burrow is releasing the ball with giddy anticipation. You can just feel it through the screen. Holy shit. I’m so good. I know exactly what the coverage is. I know exactly what the rotation is. Bleep that disguise. I know where I need to go with the ball. Let’s do it now. Today. Go. GO. GOOO!!!
There is a (positive) tetchiness to his time in the pocket, as though he’s seeing the game in the matrix and he can’t wait for everyone else to play catchup to what he knows is about to unfold. It is beautiful, calculated quarterback play. Burrow is still bombing away, only he’s getting rid of the ball super, duper early in the rep:
Burrow has the fourth-quickest time to throw of all eligible quarterbacks on intermediate targets. But it’s not as though he’s choking the offense by getting the ball out in double-time; he’s elevating the thing.
(A quick, albeit important sidebar: It is no exaggeration to say the Bengals have the most delicious route spacing of any offense in the NFL. They give Burrow all of the options at all of the levels against all of the coverages. That sounds easy, but check in with the Patriots, Broncos, Colts, and Ravens to see how often the spacing can get congested or fractured in the dropback game.)
Decisiveness is a meta-skill that amplifies other skills. Teams can no longer blitz Burrow because he’s out-maneuvering the more creative designs and getting rid of the ball so quickly against quick-hitting stuff that it’s rendered irrelevant. And when they sink into deep shells, he’s piercing the coverage so quickly that any kind of slower-developing rotation or disguise is often rendered moot.
In a league full of one-percenters, you’re looking for whatever fraction of a percentage can give you an advantage. Burrow climbing another rung on the ladder feels flat-out unfair.
That decisiveness has helped in a specific area. A lingering narrative around Burrow’s development has been his struggles vs. two-deep safety structures. More specifically: Issues throwing vs. Tampa-2 (when teams send an extra body to pinch the post). As defenses sagged off last season, Burrow’s plan was to out-gun the coverage. A huge portion of the Bengals’ offense devolved into rudimentary go-balls – with Burrow and Chase connecting on an unprecedented amount of downfield, straight-line shots. Move off the shot, though, and Burrow could get himself in trouble trying to slide the ball to the post between the two safeties or looking to squeeze the ball alongside the sideline between the corner-safety ‘turkey hole’.
It was kind of, sort of an issue – though not a back-breaking one.
Now, like many narratives, it’s a myth. The idea that Burrow struggles vs. split-safety coverages has seeped into football discourse to the point that he is on the verge of being criminally underrated for what he’s doing this year. Through eleven weeks, Burrow has a 74.2 percent completion percentage vs. split-safety looks, the second-highest mark in the NFL. He’s averaging 8 yards per attempt against such coverages – 9th among eligible QBs. And he leads the league in touchdown percentage when facing split-safety coverages.
And yet it remains the one area of his game where he can run into trouble. There are times when Burrow’s too aggressive against two-deep looks. He wants to take shots, to take on the challenge and rip and fastball right through it. Burrow has the third-highest sack percentage when facing split-safety coverages; he has tossed eight interceptions this season, all vs. two-deep looks.
But there’s noise in those headline-grabbing figures. First: Six of his eight interceptions have come in two games against the Steelers. Remove the Pittsburgh games (I know, I know, you can’t), and we’re looking at two interceptions across eight games.
Chart the turnovers themselves and there’s no serious through-line:
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