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2020 Opponent Scouting Report: Bengals Offense. They’re going to Luck, Burrow.

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Overview

On October 18th, 2020 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Cincinnati Bengals. In this Week 6 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

Two weeks in a row Colts fans will get to see an opponent from the AFC North. Unlike last week, this opponent comes into the game with a losing record. The Bengals have an exciting rookie quarterback who stands to improve his play and possibly elevate those around him as the season progresses. The big question this Sunday will be is Joe Burrow ready to take on one of the NFL’s best defenses?

Let’s see what we can expect in week six.


Offensive System:

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor was a surprising choice when the Bengals made him their 10th head coach in team history before the 2019 season. Taylor was 36 years old and only called plays at the NFL level as an interim offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins during their 6-10, 2015 campaign. Taylor then spent a year at the University of Cincinnati as their offensive coordinator before landing a job as an assistant wide receivers coach in 2017 with the Los Angeles Rams. In 2018 he was promoted to quarterbacks coach before the aforementioned 2019 hiring by the Bengals.

His resume is uncommon compared to most head coaches around the league in that it’s just so... unimpressive. At the time it felt like the Bengals were simply hiring him because he had coached under Sean McVay and they hoped whatever magic the Rams had found would follow Taylor to Cincinnati.

I won’t trash Taylor here but it wouldn’t be hard to do given his record since taking over but he did take over one of the most talent-poor rosters in the league and despite having the number one overall pick in last years draft, this team still lacks some talent, so I’m going to refrain from railing the guy and instead we’ll talk about his offense and what it looks like.

Taylor’s offensive influences include the likes of Mike Sherman, Bill Lazor and of course Sean McVay. If you didn’t know (and why would you) all three of those men base their offense off of West Coast offense principals. I’ll spare you the history lesson, though I really want to tell you all about Sherman’s time coaching under Mike Holmgren, who learned about the West Coast offense from Bill Walsh, the man who invented the system during his time as the quarterbacks coach of... the Cincinnati Bengals.

So it turns out I couldn’t help myself, I had to give you a little history, it was just too perfect to pass up. In a weird and not that impressive way it’s all come full circle.

After watching the tape Taylor’s system doesn’t look anything like those offenses of the early 1970’s, it more closely resembles McVay’s modern West Coast/spread hybrid. You’re still going to see some quick hitters, they especially like to use screen passes to anyone eligible on the play. If you clicked that link up there about Bill Walsh creating the West Coast offense (which you should, it’s a really good read) then you would know they created it out of desperation. It was put in place to mask a talent deficient quarterback and offensive line. The Bengals may have solved their quarterback issue but the offensive line suffers from the same ailment they did in 1970; it stinks.

Overcoming a lack of talent

Zac Taylor, at times, seems to be aware of the lack of talent up front. I say “at times” due to some issues I’ll talk about later but at some point there are only so many ways you can create extra time for your quarterback to throw before you just have to hope the whole defensive line has a bad rep.

Here Taylor gets the entire offense on the move to the offenses left. Ultimately this means that the defensive linemen have to move laterally before moving vertically to get to Joe Burrow. This lateral movement, in theory, gives the receivers enough time to run their routes and Burrow should be able to get a pass off without getting blasted.

This pass fell incomplete but it’s a good strategy given their situation and considering the quality of those Ravens cornerbacks, it’s tough to fault the play design here.

What about the run?

You always hear the term “get him in space” I assume you know what that means, you’re reading this article and that means you can’t be stupid (small joke, I’ve been in the comment section, I know some people who read my articles at least type stupid stuff sometimes. If you feel attacked, yes, I’m probably talking about you). For a lot of running backs “getting him in space” is reliant on getting him to the second or third level of a defense with good blocking.

The Bengals will occasionally have a good rep, that gets Joe Mixon three to four yards beyond the line of scrimmage, untouched. More often than not Mixon makes the first defender miss within the first couple yards and often he’s dodging guys behind the line. So how do you overcome this?

You can throw him the ball, and the Bengals will, but there are only so many ways you can draw up a screen to the running back that are effective. Your other option is to do the same thing the Bengals did in the pass play above. You get everyone moving left and you pitch Mixon the ball, instantly getting him into space. I noticed this play, or some form of it, multiple times during the games I watched.

I realize I’m spoiling the entire offensive line section of this article, but it’s important because the offensive system is trying so hard to compensate for this deficiency, it would be irresponsible if I didn’t mention it.

Sometimes you’ve just got to push the ball

Eventually you’re going to have to run deeper routes to pick up first downs. I don’t have the stats and this article is already three days late so I’m not going on a wild-stat-hunt, which usually lead me down an hour long rabbit hole before I realize I’m not a stat guy and all of the “research” I just did is almost completely irrelevant, so I’ll just tell you that based on me watching these Bengals it felt like they had a lot of offensive penalties which put them in long down and distance situations. So these deep throws are needed more than Zac Taylor would probably like.

Either way the Bengals keep seven guys in to block initially. Both backs look for a defender to hit before releasing into the flats. Despite this increased layer of protection Burrow still ends the play on the ground.

Similar look

The Bengals go back to this seven man protection scheme. This time both backs find rushing defenders. The Ravens defense is wild and even though it looks like they’re sending the house at Burrow, they actually only rush four leaving seven defenders to cover three receivers.

I know you’re not stupid, we’ve already established that, but I do feel inclined to tell you that seven against three is almost always bad for the side with only three. Also we’ll talk about Burrow’s pocket presence and internal clock in a couple minutes.

This was a fantastic throw

I’m going to spoil another section of this breakdown but this isn’t breaking news; Joe Mixon is really good at NFL football. If you fake like you’re going to give him the ball, defenses have to respect that because even if the entire offensive line is garbage (it’s not, there’s hope for at least one of them) Mixon could still take any hand off and turn it into a massive gain.

The Bengals will use play action and it accomplishes two things; number one, it gives Burrow big throwing lanes by pulling the linebackers up toward the line of scrimmage at the snap, like in the play above. Number two, it has a chance of slowing down the pass rush. It didn’t really do much of that on this play because the line was so obviously in pass protection, but the point stands, it can be an effective tool to give the QB more time in the pocket to let routes develop.

A for effort

I didn’t pull this play because it was hugely successful. I pulled it because I like the design. The offensive line doesn’t sell the fake well (not surprising) but the play action to Mixon, results in the defenders coming up, realizing it was a play action and dropping into coverage in a hurry to get in position only to have to once again change direction to run back to the LOS to cover the screen. The key is your offensive line has to sell their initial blocks convincingly enough that the opposing linebackers don’t easily see that it’s going to be a screen.

This is a good play design and it shows again how the Bengals want to get the ball to Joe Mixon as much as they can. I don’t know if Zac Taylor is going to be a good head coach but I really like his system and I think he will be at worst a good play caller. Judging his record as a head coach at this point seems unfair given the lack of talent he’s had to work with.

A much better sell by the OL here

The Bengals do like to throw screens and that makes some sense. The West Coast offense is all about short high percentage throws that rely on yards after the catch. Here they give a run fake to the left before Burrow turns around and finds his tight end who looks like he just whiffed on a block. The tight end makes the catch and turns up field for a nice gain.

Levels

I’ve written about “levels” a lot. Mostly because according to Tom Moore it was Peyton Manning’s favorite play. It’s simplicity combined with it’s effectiveness is what makes the concept so appealing. For any Buffalo Bills fans reading this article, yes I know Jim Kelly loved this levels concept too but you’re on a Colts blog and our legendary quarterback never played in an inferior league, under contract on a Donald Trump owned team.

I digress, levels is a simple play that involves two or more receivers running in breaking routes at multiple levels. It works against zone because eventually there will be more receivers to cover than defenders in the zone. It works against man because in breaking crossing patterns have been known as “man beaters” for years, it’s just tough to cover a crossing route one on one. Someone is almost always going to be open, the quarterback just has to figure out which guy and then deliver a catchable ball.

On this play Burrow does a good job of seeing the inside linebacker come up to defend the underneath crosser while the deep in route fills the hole in the zone. Burrow places this ball very well, and his receiver is able to make the catch and get down before taking severe punishment. This is a great play for a young QB to be able to make.

I could have included this in the RB section but I didn’t want it to be too long.

This was what the Bengals called on third and one. Like I said I could have easily dropped this in the section of the article on running backs but there were already a ton of clips there but I realized it could help paint the picture of this Bengals offensive system.

If the Colts find themselves in a third and one situation it’s very common for them to come out in a heavy set featuring every healthy tight end and probably a sixth offensive lineman. Everybody in the stadium knows Frank Reich has called a run, the question isn’t “what are they going to do?”, the question is “can you stop it?”

If the Bengals came out in the same heavy set the answer to “can you stop it?” would be “most of the time.”

Instead the Bengals come out in a shotgun 11 personnel look. It could easily be one of their max(ish) protection packages. Instead, with the Jaguars DB’s spread out the Bengals hand it to Mixon who does some Mixon things and scores from more than 20 yards out.

On another note the Jaguars defense is really bad. If anyone was wondering Doug Marrone might not be the very next guy to be fired but if the Jags aren’t looking for a new head coach before the 2021 season I will be shocked.

So that’s the system. It’s based on West Coast principals but it mixes in modern wrinkles and clever play design. This offense is currently being held back by a bad offensive line, it legitimately changes the way Zac Taylor has to design and run his offense. I’m not saying Zac Taylor is a good head coach, I’m saying that I like his ability to design plays enough to say that he needs more time to be evaluated even though his pre-Bengals qualifications were highly suspect.

Let’s take a look at who he has running his plays.


Quarterback:

At this point if you haven’t heard of Joe Burrow I would like to welcome you to your first year of football fandom. Football is a wild sport and you’ve kind of jumped into the deep end with this article but I commend you for learning about something new.

For everyone else, you might be wondering if Joe Burrow has lived up to being the number one overall pick. The answer to that question is more difficult to answer than me giving you a list of his accomplishments from his LSU days. I’ll do my best to paint an accurate picture of how Burrow has played thus far.

Rookie move

Against the Ravens Joe Burrow looked like he was playing in his first football game every time the Ravens sent anything that even resembled a blitz. Burrow looked like that because his offensive line had no idea who to block. The Ravens did such a good job disguising blitz packages the Bengals center and left guard ended up blocking no one while giving a defender a free run at Burrow through the A-gap.

Burrow should have just taken the sack here but he’s hardly the first rookie quarterback to chuck up some terrible throws under pressure.

He has to adjust his internal clock

The 2019 LSU Tigers had multiple NFL caliber offensive linemen blocking for Joe Burrow. The Bengals have but one. The time Burrow has now is significantly less and he has to learn to get the ball out quicker.

Having said that, this is still better than an interception.

Play action again

Once again we see the Bengals use play action to pull the linebackers up which creates a nice throwing lane. Burrow makes the right read and delivers a nice ball through traffic. This was a very nice throw and a big play for their offense.

Has to be frustrating

Joe Burrow throws up a lot of 50/50 balls, at least it sure does seem that way. Here he throws up a pretty decent pass that should have scored a touchdown but instead the Jags Miles Jack takes the ball out of the tight end’s hands to get the interception.

Inexperience

Clips like this make me really aware of my ability to breathe. Gasping for breath after getting blown up dealing with the panic of not being able to get air in but also the damage caused by the hit itself.

Outstanding touch

Joe Burrow throws with great accuracy and touch. He doesn’t have the biggest arm in the world but he’s not going to be seriously hampered by it. He’s shown me enough through the first five weeks of his NFL career that as long as he gets quality coaching and add a lot of talent up front, Joe Burrow is going to be a very good quarterback for a very long time.


Running Back:

Giovani Bernard is one of those guys who feels like they’ve played for the same team for 20 years. You forget that he even plays football until you watch the team and then you question yourself because you’re pretty sure you remember seeing him get tackled by former Dolphins linebacker Bryan Cox, but then you realize it might have been his son Bryan Cox who played for the Browns last season. Maybe it’s just me.

Regardless of your Bryan Cox memories Bernard has spent eight seasons with the Bengals. He isn’t their feature back but he is used effectively from time to time as a gadget player running the occasional end around or the like. Bernard isn’t someone Matt Eberflus is going to lose sleep over but he’s a solid player to have in a stable of NFL backs.

The guy Eberflus might lose sleep over (but probably won’t) is fourth year pro Joe Mixon. Mixon has gone over 1,400 all purpose yards each of the last two seasons and is on pace to have a career year in 2020.

You’ve seen this look before

Mixon does a great job accelerating and picking up yards after contact. He almost always falls forward and rarely goes down after the first hit.

Get Joe the ball

The Bengals will do everything they can to get the ball in Mixon’s hands. Here he hurdles a defender to get into the end zone. He takes a shot at the end but he scored so it was probably worth it. Mixon is a playmaker week in and week out. If you watch enough of him it’s tough to not like his game.

Bernard gets a clip too

I noticed a few similar plays from Bernard this season. Ultimately if he’s in the game and goes in motion, the defense has to respect the fact that he might get the ball on the end around and they have to defend that until they’re sure he doesn’t actually have the ball. He absolutely adds a wrinkle to an offense that needs all the creativity it can find.

He’s pretty fast too

Mixon’s speed isn’t in the same class as some of the NFL’s fastest players but there aren’t many 220 pound running backs that move as fast as he does.

Mixon is constantly making something out of nothing or turning what should have been a three yard loss into a one yard loss. If the Bengals don’t get some help on the offensive line this season I’m afraid Mixon will always be someone that never gets his due because he isn’t able to produce the way lesser backs behind better lines can. Joe Mixon is a special back entering his prime.

Even though I believe he is special, I don’t foresee the Colts having any issues shutting him down given what the defense has shown us so far this season. Their offensive line won’t be able to get a push and while Mixon is likely to turn in a few nice runs, overall the Colts defense is just too good to let Mixon beat them consistently.


Pass Catchers:

A.J. Green is one of the best receivers of his generation that has been stuck on some awful Bengals teams (exactly what I’m afraid of for Mixon). This season Green hasn’t looked like the same guy he used to be, he left last weeks game with a hamstring injury but will likely play this weekend. A 32 year old wide receiver who looks like he’s lost a step playing through a hamstring injury, isn’t usually a recipe for success.

That said Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins are more than capable of picking up the slack. Watching the tape this week both men impressed me multiple times.

One of the first things I noticed was how big these receivers are. Green is 6’4”, Higgins is also 6’4” and Boyd is 6’2”. Throw in 6’4” tight end Drew Sample and the height difference between these pass catchers every defensive backfield in the league starts to become noticeable on the tape.

The next thing I noticed is how often these guys used their height to go up and make plays on the ball.

Like this

This play was called back for holding, but the receiver does a good job to go up and catch the ball in the end zone.

This guy is 21 years old

Tee Higgins only has 16 receptions on the year, but sprinkled in those 16 receptions are some of the best catches I’ve seen all year. Higgins seems to be very good winning Burrow’s often thrown 50/50 balls.

A.J. Green isn’t suddenly a bad football player, he hasn’t looked the same as in years past but that’s to be expected, he’s 32 playing wide receiver. He’s still able to go up and snag balls out of the air and do some of the amazing things we’ve always seen him do. The issue is he’s been overshadowed by Higgins and Boyd who at this point in their careers are much more physically gifted than the aging Green.


Offensive Line:

I’m warning you now, I’m not spending much time on this offensive line. I spent the entire article telling you they were awful and I meant every word.

From left to right:

Jonah Williams, Michael Jordan, Trey Hopkins, Alex Redmond, Bobby Hart

Williams is the only one of them I have any real hope for. After missing his rookie season to injury the former 11th overall pick from Alabama needs more time to grow into the position at the NFL level. The other four players should be upgraded as soon as possible. I don’t even mean in offseason free agency and the draft. I mean immediately, trades, tryouts, see if you can lure someone, anyone out of retirement. Just do something before Joe Burrow is ruined.

Average pass rep

The more I watch this one clip the more comfortable I am with my takeaways of the Bengals line. in that clip the only one who truly won his block is Williams, everyone else was either clearly outmatched or simply doing nothing.

The Colts defensive line should have a field day against these guys. I don’t know if they will and I’m not going to make any promises but if someone on the Colts D-line doesn’t have a career day, I’m going to be disappointed.


Final Thoughts:

The Bengals offensive system is solid. They have a talented rookie quarterback with a special running back and good, young receivers. These guys should be pretty good on this side of the ball, right? Well not really. The Bengals offensive line is so bad it influences everything they try to do from the top down.

This is the first game the Colts have played in this year that their opponent’s weakness is Indy’s strength. Assuming the Colts offense can score any points at all, things are looking up for this weekend.