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Joe Burrow Bengals

Joe Burrow Is Reaching A New Level

  • Jack McKessy
  • December 6, 2022
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As it turns out, all you need to beat Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs is to have one of the other elite quarterbacks in the NFL. At least, that seems to be the case after the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Chiefs for the third straight time this calendar year on the back of quarterback Joe Burrow

Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, has always been known as one of the game’s best quarterbacks when it came to processing and making reads quickly. But over the last few weeks, particularly on Sunday against Kansas City, the third-year quarterback has shined brighter than ever before, riding his elite processing capability into becoming a top-tier NFL quarterback.

It hadn’t always been an easy season for the reigning AFC champs. Cincinnati—and Burrow in particular—stumbled out of the gate, starting off their season 2-3 (0-2 against the AFC North) as the normally high-flying offense struggled against Cover 2 looks. The quarterback threw four interceptions in the team’s season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers and another one four weeks later against the Baltimore Ravens. In addition, Burrow was on pace to get sacked more than any quarterback had before in a single season behind a supposedly revamped offensive line. It was not the start that seemed fitting of what was a Super Bowl team just a year earlier, and it led some to question whether the Cinderella story of last year’s Bengals team was indeed too good to be true.

Not so fast. Since that 2-3 start, Burrow and the Bengals have turned things around to the tune of a 6-1 record over the last eight weeks. So, what changed? How did the offense go from 23rd in the NFL in Expected Points Added (EPA) per play to second in the league?

Well, the lackluster start goes back to what Burrow himself predicted in the offseason: Cincinnati’s offense saw a lot of two-high safety looks early in the season as opponents tried to take away the explosive plays that had made the offense so successful in 2021. Teams like the Ravens even messed with Burrow’s greatest strength—his pre-snap processing ability—by occasionally disguising their two-high looks. Meanwhile, the Bengals’ run game, which would normally be the counter to so many two-high looks, was struggling, so Cincinnati had to find a different way to succeed against Cover 2.

One answer they found was running a more spread offense than a condensed one, forcing defenders in coverage outside of the tackle box and preventing such heavy run defense. Another was running more plays out of shotgun, which opened up run-pass option plays (RPOs) and a focus on short, quick passes over the middle to take advantage of Burrow’s elite processing speed.

As the quarterback learned to take what he could get in the quick game instead of leaning on the deep pass like he and the team had last season, the Bengals have steadily improved. Burrow started getting the ball out quicker, meaning he took fewer sacks, and the offense didn’t have to rely so heavily on explosive plays to win games.

The culmination of all of that came against the Chiefs on Sunday, as Burrow completed 25 of 31 pass attempts (80.6 percent) for 286 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. When Kansas City rolled out two-high looks, even disguised ones, Burrow did a great job reading the defenders and taking advantage of routes opening up over the middle and splitting the safeties.

On one particular play, Burrow saw the Chiefs drop back into a two-high look after disguising it. Once he recognized what was happening, he quickly moved on from his first read, Ja’Marr Chase on the sideline, to a curl route from tight end Mitchell Wilcox over the middle and completed the pass.

Obviously, processing is only part of the job, with another important part being the arm talent to take advantage of that great processing, and Burrow has that, too. On the very next play after the pass to Wilcox, the Chiefs show a two-high look off of the snap. Receiver Tyler Boyd ran a nice route, bending off his post route over the middle of the field, and Burrow slotted in a perfect pass between the dropping linebacker and crashing safety.

As Kansas City learned that Burrow was able to take advantage of those two-high looks over the middle, they started to switch up their looks. Of course, that only meant a chance for the Bengals to go back to the deep ball to Chase. That’s exactly what they did in this Cover 1 look that left the elite receiver in one-on-one man coverage. Spoiler alert: he won his matchup.

As the season has gone on, we’ve seen Burrow and the Bengals’ offense develop in real-time. Now that they’ve figured out how to beat two-high coverage as the quarterback only gets better at reading what opposing defenses throw at him, Cincinnati looks nearly unstoppable. They just beat the Chiefs for a third straight time and have just one loss in their last seven games, and Burrow is getting better every week.

This Bengals team looks even better than last year’s iteration, a team that went to the Super Bowl. If they weren’t taking notice earlier this season, the AFC has to watch out for Cincinnati, a team that looks built to make another deep run when the playoffs begin.

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Jack McKessy