With just under five minutes left in the third quarter of Cincinnati’s third game, it finally happened. The Bengals, clutching a four-point lead over the Los Angeles Rams and finding it increasingly difficult to move the ball, lined up in a pistol formation. Joe Burrow took the snap, faked a toss to his left, and rolled out to his right—OK, “rolled” is a bit of an embellishment. He strolled gingerly outside the pocket and floated a pass to Ja’Marr Chase for a 43-yard catch-and-run.
And with that, the Bengals had their first deep completion of the season—the last team to check that box. Even the Zach Wilson–led Jets completed one sooner, in their Week 3 loss to New England. That’s not the sort of company we expected the Bengals to keep this season, but thanks to Burrow’s calf injury—which has limited the star quarterback since the early days of training camp—that’s where they are. The defending AFC North champs came into the season as +150 favorites to win the division. At 1-2 and +380, they’re now the third favorite behind Baltimore and Cleveland. Their 19-16 win over L.A. this week may have reenergized the team, but it’s easy to see why bookmakers don’t trust them: The Bengals offense ranks 28th in expected points added per play and 31st in success rate, per TruMedia, and it has mustered just 46 points all season. It’s also got the NFL’s second-worst explosive play rate, which isn’t something you’d expect out of a team that rosters Burrow, Chase, and Tee Higgins.
Cincinnati has been here before, with the team lagging behind in the standings, the quarterback playing poorly, and the rest of the offense also stinking. These same stories were written at the start of the 2022 season, and the offense eventually got its shit together and nearly brought the team to the Super Bowl. The same thing happened in 2021, when the Bengals came out of the first half of the season with a mediocre record after the offense got off to a slow start. That team did make the Super Bowl. Recent history suggests that it’s too early to panic. That Burrow and Co. will eventually figure things out.
But this season feels different. Sure, some of the issues are familiar—the deep passing game isn’t there, and the run game has been useless—but Burrow’s calf adds a layer of complexity to the problem and will make finding a solution all the more difficult. The injury could linger far into the season, and as the Bengals try to keep pace with the AFC’s elite, they don’t have time to wait. If there’s a temporary fix for the offense, head coach Zac Taylor, who calls the plays on that side of the ball, better find it fast. But where should he be looking for possible solutions?
The deep throw to Chase against the Rams on Monday night was surprising not just because it was Cincinnati’s first real explosive pass this year, but also because it came on a play where Burrow was on the move. He’s scrambled only once so far this season and has traveled outside the pocket on just 12 pass snaps. Only Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, and Jimmy Garoppolo have done so fewer times among full-time starters, according to TruMedia.
“I asked him a few plays before, and he felt good about it,” Taylor said of the play call. “It’s a quick toss, probably seven steps before he whipped out the bench route to Ja’Marr.”
Taylor wasn’t asking too much of his quarterback, but the coach was clearly worried about putting him on the move. That Burrow played at all on Monday night was a bit of a shock; all week, it looked like backup Jake Browning would have to start. But the Bengals were desperate. “There is risk to go out there and potentially reinjure it,” Burrow said of his calf after the game. “But there’s also the risk to not go out there and be 0-3.”
You could sense the desperation in Taylor’s play-calling. The Bengals run game was completely snuffed out in the game, so Burrow was forced to drop back 50 times. He threw for 259 yards but averaged under 5 yards per pass play. Most of his attempts were aimed underneath the Rams zone coverage and tossed just a second or two after he received the snap. It’s hard to blame him for that quick release with Aaron Donald lined up on the other side of the ball, but Burrow’s been doing that all season. His only deep passes have come on quick, vertical throws aimed at the sideline. Throws over the middle and to the deep and intermediate areas of the field have been nonexistent.
You’ll notice on that chart that the passes to the perimeter haven’t been very productive, either. Opposing corners are staying over the top of those routes, challenging Burrow to make throws that lead the receiver up the field; and, with Burrow’s plant leg banged up, he can’t throw his patented back-shoulder balls or drive the football.
That latter inability explains why he’s not throwing to the middle of the field, where floated passes either get picked or can put receivers in the blue medical tent. Watch this pass from the 2022 season and pay close attention to Burrow’s feet while he’s going through his throwing motion.
Now watch him make a similar throw in 2023:
Here’s another one:
I’m no mechanics expert, but there is a clear difference there. Without the ability to drive off that back foot, Burrow appears to be putting a lot of weight on his front foot, which doesn’t give him enough power for middle-of-the-field passes. Those are, by far, the most efficient passes in today’s game, and it’s nearly impossible to build a viable offense without them.
Having a run game would make things easier for Taylor, but Burrow is taking almost all of his snaps from shotgun these days, which limits Taylor’s options. Cincinnati’s run game is now almost exclusively built around run-pass options from shotgun, which are easier to defend against than an under-center approach because the alignment of the back reveals a lot. If a back takes a handoff from the quarterback’s left, he’s almost always running to the right—unless the offense is using some sort of counter-run concept.
When Kyle Shanahan was installing the zone-read concept in Washington to accommodate Robert Griffin III, he noticed that defenses were far better at defending it when the offense offered up that tell. “The only way the NFL stopped it was when a [running] back was offset,” the 49ers coach told Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic. “So they could change their defense because they know the zone read would only be on that one way.”
The Bengals don’t run a lot of zone reads with Burrow at quarterback, but RPOs are a big part of the offense. Those two concepts work similarly: The quarterback reads an unblocked defender, and if the defender attacks the handoff aggressively, the quarterback throws a pass to a receiver instead of keeping the ball and running. Knowing where the run is most likely headed makes defending those plays easier. And Burrow has taken the pass option only five times this season.
The Bengals are running into light boxes at the league’s highest rate, per Sports Info Solutions. Which is a good thing! But the offensive line isn’t very good, so they haven’t been able to capitalize on the numbers advantage. And while talent is an issue, the telegraphing they’re doing isn’t helping. In 2012, Shanahan, facing a similar problem, came up with a simple solution: “I gotta teach this all out of pistol so no [defenses] can ever do that,” he said. “And I can run our entire outside zone out of pistol, too, and now we have the threat of a zone read every single play.”
The pistol is essentially a middle ground between shotgun and under-center formations. The quarterback is aligned at the same depth in the gun, but the back is directly behind them rather than being flanked to the side. That helps to disguise the direction of the run, or, if it’s a pass play, it can disguise which way the protection is sliding. Another benefit: A quarterback with limited mobility—maybe one with a bad calf—doesn’t have to drop back from under center, but the team can still get into concepts that don’t work as well in the gun. As Shanahan mentioned, the outside-zone play works out of the pistol, which can set up the play-action game.
Remember that deep pass to Chase from the Rams game? It’s the only time this year that Burrow has attempted a pass from the pistol formation. And it came on a play-action design!
With the current offensive setup, Cincinnati is getting nothing out of its play-action pass game. Burrow has used play-action on 17.5 percent of his dropbacks, per TruMedia. That’s near the bottom of the league, which makes sense given that the offense is operating out of the gun almost exclusively. Play-action passes are typically more effective when run from under center—mainly because it’s easier for the quarterback to sell the run fake with his back turned to the defense.
One or two minor tweaks—like using more pistol formations and play-action—won’t be a cure-all for the Bengals’ problems. That’s not enough to turn a bottom-five offense into the juggernaut we expected to see in Cincinnati this season. But those adjustments might help unlock Cincinnati’s deep passing game, as they did for one play against the Rams, and improve a run game that needs more variety.
The Bengals certainly need to do something differently until Burrow is back to full strength. The current model is not sustainable. And making this offense work in the meantime will require plenty of ingenuity and creativity—something that’s never been a hallmark of this offense. You don’t typically need to scheme receivers open when they don’t need any help getting open and when the quarterback can fit passes in there even if the defender is in tight coverage. But that’s not where the Bengals are right now.
While the “Make something happen, Joe” offense has been effective for Taylor and his staff in the past, it won’t work as long as Burrow’s calf injury lingers. And even when Burrow fully recovers, the team has more rot below the surface that will need to be eradicated before January rolls around—if Cincinnati is still in the race by then. The Bengals extended Taylor through 2026 after he led them to the Super Bowl in 2022, and they handed him the keys to a sports car that any coach would be lucky to drive. He’s been riding shotgun—that pun wasn’t intended, I swear—for these past few years while Burrow has had control of the wheel. With Burrow down (but not out), Taylor will have to take over and prove he can lead this team for the rest of this season and beyond.