So far this season, the Cincinnati Bengals offense has not lived up to lofty expectations. Joe Burrow and Co. enjoyed a breakout season a year ago despite being saddled with one of the league's worst offensive lines, and after an offseason spending spree that yielded Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La'el Collins, it looked like that issue had been -- if not necessarily solved -- at least mitigated. With the group up front solidified, the thinking went, the Cincinnati offense would be even better in 2022 than it was in 2021.
Things have not exactly worked out that way. The Bengals rank just 16th in yards and 13th in points through four weeks, as well as 13th in drive success rate, 15th in points per drive, 28th in yards per play, 17th in EPA per play, and a miserable 27th in Football Outsiders' DVOA. The offensive line that was supposed to be improved has instead remained dreadful: the Bengals check in 27th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate and Adjusted Line Yards, 28th in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking grade and 30th in run-blocking grade. Burrow has been sacked on 27.1% of his pressured dropbacks, per TruMedia, the fifth-worst mark in the NFL; and Cincinnati's rush attempts have averaged a despicable 0.85 yards before contact, also fifth-worst in the entire league.
Much of this backslide seems to stem from the maddening predictability of their offense. Cincinnati has some of the most extreme run-pass splits when it comes to their quarterback's alignment that I can ever remember. This season, on plays where Burrow has aligned in shotgun, the Bengals have called a pass play 78% of the time. When he's been under center, they've called a run pay 75% of the time. Such extreme divergence in play-calling allows opposing defenses to key in on just one play type, and shut it down.
The average team has seen 29% of its under-center plays stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage this season, according to TruMedia. The Bengals have seen 35% of theirs stopped at or behind the line. The average team has gained 10 or more yards on 17.5% of under-center plays, while the Bengals have gained 10 or more yards on just 9% of theirs. Going by TruMedia's EPA-based success rate metric, only 38% of the Bengals' under-center plays have been positive, while the league average is 45.4%. Perhaps that's at least in part because opponents have stacked eight men into the box on 52% of Cincinnati's under-center snaps, considerably higher than the 47.6% league-average mark.
Similarly, when operating out of shotgun, Cincinnati has a 41.6% success rate, with 38.4% of its plays gaining zero or negative yards and 22.1% gaining 10 yards or more. The league averages for shotgun snaps are 44.7% success, 35.5% of gains with zero or negative yards, and 21.6% of plays gaining 10 yards or more. Again, the Bengals are behind league average in almost every category, and you have to think that it is at least in part because defenses pretty much know what's coming based on whether or not Burrow is taking the snap from under center.
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Cincinnati's extreme pass lean out of the gun has allowed opponents to place an umbrella over the field with two-deep coverages far more often this season than they did a year ago. Where the Bengals saw Cover-2 on just 12% of their pass attempts last season, this year they have seen it 29.5% of the time. Last season, they saw Cover-1 or Cover-3 on 48.5% of passing snaps, while this year they have seen it just 40.4% of the time. Defenses are also refusing to blitz the Bengals (they have a 20.7% opponent blitz rate, 28th in the NFL), which means more players are dropping into coverage. And Zac Taylor rarely brings the play-action game into the equation, with Burrow faking a hand-off on just 13.4% of his pass attempts, a rate that ranks 23rd in the league.
The combination of all those things has taken away some of the easy-read, "I am just going to throw this ball up to Ja'Marr Chase or Tee Higgins" type of stuff that constituted many of the Bengals' most successful offensive plays last season.
Meanwhile, Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan just keep handing the ball to Joe Mixon, with very little success. Mixon is second in the NFL in rush attempts (82) behind only Saquon Barkley, but he's 21st in rushing yards. Among the 50 players with at least 25 carries this season, he ranks 50th in yards per carry -- 41st in yards before contact per tote and 48th in yards after contact. He's also dead last in success rate (26.8%) by nearly three full percentage points, 43rd in the share of his carries that have been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, and 49th in the share that have gained five or more yards, and 49th in explosive gain rate.
Some of this poor performance is surely attributable to the offensive line issues and the predictable play-calling, but some of it also has to be laid at the feet of Mixon himself. The areas of running back play that a running back controls, like yards after contact, broken tackles, and making gains in the pass game (he's third among running backs in targets but 19th in yards per route run), Mixon has dramatically underwhelmed. It might be time to mix Samaje Perine and/or Chris Evans in more often, like the Bengals did last season.
With all these issues through the first quarter(-ish) of the season, perhaps the Bengals are lucky that their opponent this week is the division rival Baltimore Ravens -- a team whose defensive struggles in many ways mirror those of the Bengals on offense. The Ravens were supposed to be much-improved on defense this season, in large part because it seemed nearly impossible that they could be as beset by injuries as they were a year ago. Instead, Michael Pierce and Kyle Fuller are on injured reserve, Tyus Bowser is on the physically unable to perform list, Justin Houston has played only 38% of defensive snaps, Marcus Peters missed a game and spent two more ramping up to a full complement of snaps, and second-round pick Travis Jones has played in only two of the first four contests.
Baltimore's pass defense has been wildly disappointing, particularly in the second half of games against the Dolphins and Bills, during which they allowed double-digit comebacks. The Ravens are sporting the league's fifth-lowest pressure rate, according to TruMedia, and things on the edge have gotten so dire that they had to sign Jason Pierre-Paul and almost immediately give him a significant snap share (55 of 64 snaps in his first game). Fourth-round rookie Jalyn Armour-Davis got overextended in responsibility in Week 2 against the Dolphins and ended up getting smoked by Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, and he's since seen his workload significantly scaled back. (He didn't play at all in Week 4.) First-rounder Kyle Hamilton went from playing around half the snaps during the first two weeks of the season to just a quarter in Weeks 3 and 4.
An NFL defense is in many ways a weak-link unit, where the entire group is only as strong as the worst player on it. So far this season, the Ravens have had to use too many players who are not quite up to the task, so even though Marcus Williams, Chuck Clark, Marlon Humphrey, Odafe Oweh, Patrick Queen, and even the seemingly ageless Calais Campbell have been consistent presences, the defense as a whole has not been able to stabilize itself. It doesn't help that in addition to all the personnel turmoil, the Ravens are also changing defensive coordinators and schemes, even though Mike Macdonald was the linebackers coach in Baltimore before he spent the 2021 season as the defensive coordinator under John Harbaugh's brother, Jim, at Michigan. (They're blitzing and playing man coverage much less often.)
With these two disappointing units set to square off on "Sunday Night Football," we should at least get an interesting tactical battle. Throw in the fact that three of the four teams in the AFC North are 2-2 at the moment, and the game takes on added importance. If one of these two teams can get their underperforming unit back on track, it could give them a leg up in the race for the division title.