The Cincinnati Bengals will travel to Maryland to take on the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday at 1:00 p.m EST. Cincinnati has had a successful start to their season despite low media expectations entering the year. Second-year quarterback Joe Burrow has created big plays, while the Bengals’ free-agent additions have paid dividends. Veterans such as Mike Hilton, Trey Hendrickson, D.J. Reader (who was injured for most of 2020) and Chidobe Awuzie have filled out a unit that executes their assignments consistently with discipline.
Joe Burrow leads the NFL in touchdowns passes from outside the red zone (tied with Dak Prescott with eight) and has hit rookie superstar Ja’Marr Chase on four of them from 50, 42, 40 and 32 yards. Of the eight, five traveled at least 20 air yards, also tied for the NFL lead. Chase was the recipient of four of them. Six of Burrow’s touchdowns from outside the red zone have come against cover-1.
Ja’Marr Chase is a high IQ receiver who reads leverage extremely well.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) October 22, 2021
If you leverage outside, he’ll arm over and explode on the inside track.
If you open your hips outside, he’ll explosively fire inside.
The key to playing Ja’Marr Chase is staying in neutral. Patience. pic.twitter.com/51GFRLpqCR
The Ravens have run cover-1 55/229 coverage snaps. They rank seventh in Points Saved per play when running cover-1. Ravens star cornerback Marlon Humphrey ranks first among all NFL players in Total Points Saved and third in EPA allowed when Baltimore dials up cover-1. This is a strength on strength matchup that will be worth the price of admission. It’s worth mentioning that his cornerback mate, Anthony Averett, ranks 33rd among cornerbacks in cover-1, and has been relatively successful there.
The other side of the sword for the Bengals is that Burrow has struggled to consistently pick apart zone defenses. Against cover-2, cover-3, cover-4 and cover-6, Burrow is 23rd in the NFL in Points Earned, 25th in Points Earned per play, 19th in EPA (negative) and has the fourth highest “bust %” (percentage of plays with a negative EPA).
Against two-high defenses (man-2, cover-2, cover-4 and cover-6), Burrow has taken an NFL high 10 sacks. The only other quarterback to take more than five is rookie Justin Fields (eight). Burrow has seen the second most two-high coverage snaps this year, trailing only Patrick Mahomes.
Of the Bengals 196 drop backs so far, only 41 have been play action. On play action throws, Burrow is 23/37 for 345 yards (of which only 155 has been air yards) with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Burrow has been stellar against the blitz so far, but struggled when pressured. Burrow is 25th in the NFL in points earned when pressured, with -8.79. His EPA when pressured is -37.8, 22nd out of 32 QBs with 25 attempts under pressure. Making Joe Burrow uncomfortable is imperative for Baltimore’s defense.
Burrow’s other weapons, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, round out a well-balanced unit of playmakers. Higgins works the boundary and intermediate area of the field, while Boyd works out of the slot and makes hay underneath. The trio of Chase, Higgins and Boyd is well rounded, smart, consistent and capable.
The Bengals run the ball about as much as any other team in the NFL. Joe Mixon has the second most carries in the NFL (111) but only three of those carries have gone for 15 or more yards. Mixon is a powerful runner, but has only forced a broken or missed tackle on 4.5% of his runs so far this season.
Most of his work comes on zone or split zone concepts, where he’s had 83 carries so far. However, he’s produced the fourth worst EPA on zone concepts in the NFL so far. Mixon has seen the second most carries on duo concepts, also known as “power without a puller”. The Bengals rarely call power concepts (Mixon has seen 10) but they’ve been effective — producing three gains of 10 or more yards.
The Bengals’ offensive line is a more consistent unit than they’ve been in years past. Left tackle Jonah Williams is now two years removed from surgery on a torn labrum and has been a solid pass protector albeit not a dominant run blocker. Left guard Quinton Spain rounds out the left side and has been one of the top guards in the NFL this year. Spain is 13th in “blown block %”, only blowing four blocks in 346 snaps. The center through right tackle spots are more vulnerable. Center Trey Hopkins, right guard Jackson Carmen and right tackle Riley Reiff have allowed a combined 25 pressures and seven sacks between the three of them.
Flipping over to the defensive side of the ball, the Bengals are a steady unit that executes well. In terms of coverage, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo mixes it up. Of the 193 passes that the Bengals have defended in neutral situations (excluding spikes, screens, prevent and goal to go), they’ve used single high coverages (cover-1 and cover-3) on 102, while using a steady dosage of cover-2 (36 snaps) and cover-4 (24). The Bengals have dialed up eight cover-0 blitzes so far, allowing a touchdown and also recording an interception.
Anarumo doesn’t blitz frequently, rushing four or less on 159 of the 193 passes that they’ve defended in neutral situations. When the Bengals drop seven or more in coverage in neutral situations, they’ve allowed only two touchdown passes while intercepting four. When they do blitz, they’ve allowed opposing passers to go 22/28 for 234 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.
Hendrickson, the Bengals big ticket offseason acquisition, is the only pass rusher that’s made a true splash for the Bengals so far. Hendrickson ranks fifth in the NFL in Points Saved rushing the passer (14.7 Points Saved). Meanwhile, no other Bengals player ranks in the Top-80. The Bengals haven’t had a single unblocked sack so far this season, showing that they don’t aim to scheme up pressure, rather to drop seven in coverage and force opposing passers to pick them apart.
Nose tackle D.J. Reader and linebacker Logan Wilson have been high-level run defenders so far, while Wilson also has a team high four interceptions. Reader is an elite two-gapping nose tackle who controls the a-gaps with elite quickness, leverage and hand placement. He peaks and sheds, forcing opposing runners to bounce out of the designed gap frequently. Wilson also picked off Lamar Jackson the last time the Bengals ventured to Baltimore. He’s an athletic, intelligent linebacker who has been playing at a level that should gain more attention nationally.
When Cincinnati last traveled to Baltimore, the Ravens were reaching an impasse of incompetence in the passing game. Bengals star safety Jessie Bates said that the Bengals game plan was to, “take away 89 and 15”, which they did effectively. The Ravens’ defense assaulted Burrow, sacking him seven times, which left the Bengals belly up. The Bengals’ defense executed relatively well, using cover-2 and cover-4 on 18 of the 37 passes they defended, dropping two potential interceptions and breaking up another two passes. Jackson was 9/18 against those coverages and the Bengals kept the former MVP in check for the most part. Considering Jackson’s running ability, he faces more zone coverage than any other passer, and the Bengals will continue that trend.
The difference now? Jackson has been tearing zone defenses up in 2021. He is second behind Kyler Murray in both Points Earned and Points Earned per play against zone defenses over the first six weeks of the NFL season. He’s been patient, accurate, and pushed the ball downfield. Jackson has a better cast of weapons, more experience and has continued to play like the MVP player he was in 2019. The Bengals will have their hands full with the fourth-year passer.
For Baltimore to win this game, they must prevent Burrow and Chase from connecting deep, pressure Burrow and pick apart the Bengals seven man zone defenses. With Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay and James Proche II adding more experience and talent than the Ravens had the last time Cincinnati came to Baltimore, they should be up to the task.