There were few offensive coaches in the NFL who were better at playing to the strengths and weaknesses of their personnel than Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor this season.
And it is possible that Taylor, who adjusted his play-calling to minimize the issues Cincinnati faced along its offensive line last season, doesn’t really get the credit he’s due after taking his team to a second straight AFC championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs this year.
It appeared, at least on paper, like the Bengals fixed their leaky offensive line from 2021 by adding center Ted Karras, right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La’el Collins in the offseason. Cincinnati’s offensive line allowed the fourth-lowest pressure rate during the regular season.
But Taylor also didn’t take any risks in allowing his offensive line to become a problem with his play-calling. And he turned what was a major weakness last season into a strength in part by getting quarterback Joe Burrow to get rid of the ball quickly.
The Bengals led the NFL in quick passes with a 53.2% rate. They were the only team over 50.0% and the league average was 35.3%. They had the 10th-highest RPO rate at 3.1% and they were third in the NFL in three-step drop rate at 55.2%.
Conversely, Cincinnati had the third-lowest play-action pass rate at 8.6% and the sixth-lowest rate of drop-back concepts. The team also ranked last in the NFL in five-step drops, had the second-lowest rate in seven-step drops and fourth lowest in rollouts.
And it’s worth noting how the offensive line has improved since Burrow went No. 1 in the 2020 NFL Draft. After it posted the 10th-worst pressure rate over the 2020 and 2021 seasons, the unit was average in pressure rate on drop-back concepts through the first 13 weeks of 2022. It’s been the best in the league since Week 14.
Burrow, who has totaled the fourth-most passing yards (9,086) in the NFL over the past two seasons, absolutely picked defenses apart in the quick game. Among 32 qualified QBs, Burrow ranked third in well-thrown percentage in the quick game, sixth in catchable pass rate and he had the lowest pickable pass rate at just 0.57%.
Despite leading the Bengals to the Super Bowl in just his third season at the helm in 2021 – his ability to turn things around after starting his head coaching career with a 6-25-1 record should give some NFL general managers and owners pause from making rash coaching decisions – Taylor continued to receive criticism for being too predictable as a play-caller and failing to generate points in the red zone last season.
He’s improved in both facets this season. After ranking 23rd in red-zone scoring percentage last season with a 54.55 rate, the Bengals improved to fifth this season at 65.08%. And that’s despite having an offense that ranked 28th in rushing EVE, though they were 14th in rushing success rate.
Taylor also did a pretty good job of keeping defenses on their toes, especially in expected rushing situations. With a rushing attack that was underperforming, the Bengals ranked ninth in first-down passing rate and sixth in overall passing rate. They rank in the 93rd percentile in passing in expected passing situations (including the playoffs), which obviously is predictable, but they’re in the 84th percentile in passing in expected rushing situations. They pass the ball 58.1% of the time in neutral situations, which is the third-highest rate in the NFL.
Taylor didn’t only neutralize potential issues in the passing game by leading the NFL in quick concepts, he also limited rushing opportunities overall. And since this is a copycat league, other teams could use the Bengals’ 2022 approach as a blueprint on how to succeed on offense despite issues along the offensive line. Of course, you also need excellent playmakers and an accurate, dependable quarterback who will not put the ball in harm’s way. Quick-game passes inherently come with lower big-play potential than many drop-back concepts. But a quarterback like Burrow can also raise the floor on those plays.
It’s not overly surprising that the NFL MVP finalist had the 10th-lowest average air yards this season (7.46) or that his average release time was the second fastest in the league behind Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bengals were not going to allow their own offensive line to beat them this season. So Burrow got rid of the ball fast even if it meant reducing the number of deep passes in which he thrived last season.
Burrow ranked 13th among qualified QBs with a 12.1% deep-passing rate in 2021. He went 33 of 80 for a 41.2% completion percentage and had 1,298 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions on throws over 20 yards last season. But his deep passing rate dropped down to 8.6% this season, which was the lowest among qualified QBs. And he went 22 of 58 for 743 yards with nine touchdowns and one interception.
The Bengals did improve the talent on their offensive line this season. But lowering their pressure rate had just as much to do with a change in offensive approach as it did with those offseason additions. And ultimately, even though the Bengals had to limit one of Burrow’s strengths in deep ball placement by reducing his attempts over 20 yards, it still ultimately resulted in an offense that ranks fourth in success rate and fourth in passing success rate.
It helps, of course, to have dynamic playmakers who can pick up yards after the catch. Running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon both ranked among the top 15 pass catchers in yards after catch per reception. Wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase ranked 12th among wide receivers with 438 yards after catch this season and 17th with 5.0 yards after catch per reception. Wide receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins also rank among the top 50 wide receivers in yards after catch per reception.
Burrow was third in overall well-thrown percentage, sixth in catchable pass percentage and had the lowest pickable percentage in the NFL this season. He might not have the arm talent or mobility of players like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, or even Trevor Lawrence, but he’s perhaps the most accurate quarterback in the league and his decision-making ranks among the NFL’s best over the last two seasons. There’s also the unquantifiable fact that Burrow and Mahomes are the only two quarterbacks to lead their teams to conference championship games over the last two seasons. Wins are not a quarterback stat, but Burrow has a knack for leading his team to victories.
The Bengals were doubted entering the 2022 season. At +2080, they had the NFL’s 11th-shortest Super Bowl odds, and their win total was just 9.5 despite winning 10 games a year previously. They finished the 2022 season with a 12-4 record after playing just 16 games, outlasted the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round and steamrolled the offseason darling Buffalo Bills 27-10 in the AFC divisional round. And amazingly, the Bengals’ rushing attack was a major strength in that game. Cincinnati’s run disruption-allowed rate went from a league-worst 67.1% in Weeks 15-17 to 36.7% while piling up 172 rushing yards against Buffalo.
The Bengals were a popular choice for regression since they went from 4-11-1 and last in the AFC North in 2020 to 10-7, first in the AFC North and a Super Bowl appearance last season. The thought is that they were overachievers. And this season has proven that they’re likely set to be perennial contenders as long as they can keep Burrow and a solid supporting cast in place.
And if anything, this postseason proved how important it is to keep offensive playmakers in place for top-tier quarterbacks. Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott and Bills QB Josh Allen both saw their pickable pass rates increase as key offensive playmakers were taken out of their offenses. It will be tough to keep the trio of Chase, Higgins and Boyd in place since Higgins and Boyd are both entering contract years and could be looking for extensions this offseason, but Cincinnati should do everything in its power to maximize its potential while Burrow, Chase and Higgins are all on rookie contracts. The Bengals can maximize that potential if they can win their next two games.
The Bengals have already beaten the Chiefs once this season and three times over the last two years. And now they’re facing a Kansas City team in the AFC championship game at the right time with Mahomes nursing a high ankle sprain. The Bengals are actually favored by one point over the Chiefs despite the spread opening with Kansas City favored by 1.5 points. However, our model gives the Chiefs a 74.5% win probability in this matchup at Arrowhead.
The bad news for the Bengals is that Kansas City’s defense ranks ninth this season in overall EVE and ninth in EVE against the pass. The good news for Cincinnati is that the Chiefs rank second-worst in EVE against the pass in expected rushing situations, and the Bengals love pass attempts in expected rushing situations.
If the Bengals have proven anything this season, it’s that they shouldn’t be overlooked. And now they can no longer play the underdog card as they prepare for Sunday’s title game showdown.