Cincinnati’s 26th-ranked offense obviously struggled in 2020 but there is plenty of room for long-term optimism. Joe Burrow had a difficult time adjusting to NFL speed early in the season behind a suspect offensive line. He opened with a vanilla playbook, which was to be expected for a rookie starter in an abbreviated offseason. But when the coaching staff expanded the playbook he often held the ball too long waiting for the play to develop, leading to bad throws under pressure. These were all very typical rookie struggles, and just as he was showing serious improvement he suffered a season-ending injury. The replacement quarterbacks played noticeably worse than Burrow was playing when he got injured.
The positive spin here is that Burrow showed true improvement over the course of his 10 games as a starter, with the exception of some tough divisional games.
*Adjusted Rating for game against Washington only includes Burrow-led drives before injury
This chart tracks the Bengals’ offensive Adjusted Rating in Burrow’s starts, from first to last. With the exception of two rough games against Baltimore (-2.31) and Pittsburgh (-0.49), the Bengals offense trended upwards in Burrow’s starts, in particular starting in Week 4 against Jacksonville. The Bengals looked like an above-average offense against the Colts (+0.46), Browns (+1.10), and Titans (+0.51) as Burrow found his groove.
But Cincinnati’s Achilles’ heel was defensive pressure, regardless of who played quarterback. The offensive line did not combat pressure well and the quarterbacks struggled against teams that successfully exerted pressure.
This chart tracks the Bengals’ offensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s season-long pressure rate. They trended strongly towards better performances against teams that did not pressure well, even relative to other offenses against those same teams. They played better than average against TEN (+0.51), JAC (+1.24), HOU (+0.43), and CLE (+0.36 avg.), who were all bottom-10 in pressure rate. Meanwhile, they struggled mightily relative to average teams against BAL (-1.63 avg.), NYG (-1.76), MIA (-1.29), and LAC (-1.21), who all finished top-14 in pressure rate.
When a team has excellent weapons in the passing game but a quarterback who does not handle pressure well, their offensive success hinges on whether the offensive line can keep the pocket clean. Pressure becomes the difference between getting the ball to the team’s playmakers and not getting it there. Cincinnati fit this mold.
They had excellent weapons available in the passing game, led by rookie breakout Tee Higgins and an underrated Tyler Boyd. But their offensive line was hurt (and was not too strong to begin with), and each of the quarterbacks was very inexperienced. When the pressure hit the quarterbacks too quickly, they were unable to take advantage of the weapons because they could not get the ball out accurately. But when they were given enough time in the pocket, the quarterbacks comfortably got the ball out to the talented receivers for nice gains.
This tendency to perform significantly better when given time in the pocket will likely continue in 2021, as Higgins will likely improve in his second year and the team replaced an aging A.J. Green with the highly-touted Ja’Marr Chase. These playmakers will be the difference for the Bengals, but pressure once again will likely negate their receiving talent when the offensive line struggles.
The bad news for Cincinnati’s offense is that they still play in a division with defensive stalwarts Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and Cleveland looks to have improved its defense as well. This will make it tough in those divisional games. But the good news is that they seem to have invested in improving the weapons and the offensive line. As rookies tend to take time to adjust to the NFL, I predict that the Bengals have a brighter future with Joe Burrow. But that will likely not mean immediate success in 2021.
The Bengals’ 26th-ranked defense was just as bad in 2020, rarely playing above expectation and putting up little fight against the run and the pass. Like all bad defenses, they dealt with injuries. But injuries do not account for all of their struggles, particularly given that they played a fairly easy slate of opposing quarterbacks.
CIN Defensive Stats
|Yards Per Play||6.1||28th|
|Net Yards Per Pass||6.9||26th|
|Yards Per Carry||5.1||31st|
They were near the bottom in every major defensive statistical category. But most telling was that they executed blitzes at the 15th-highest rate, yet this translated to the 3rd-lowest pressure rate and the fewest sacks. The whole purpose of a blitz is to create immediate pressure, and if it does not create pressure then it puts defensive backs in bad situations. In zone coverage, this means having to cover more ground. And in man coverage, this often means single coverage. The Bengals defensive backs were not good enough to handle this, particularly with Trae Waynes on IR for most of the season.
Although the Bengals were bad against the pass, they were arguably worse against the run. Ultimately it did not take creative schemes or a top-tier passing offense to beat the Bengals’ defense. Their defensive line offered little resistance to running backs and vanilla passing offenses.
This chart tracks Cincinnati’s defensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s run rate on the season, with run-heavy teams on the left of the chart and pass-heavy teams on the right. In general, their defensive performance trended positively with how frequently opposing teams passed the ball, suffering some of their worst performances against BAL (-1.36) and CLE (-1.89 and -0.89), two notoriously run-focused teams, and playing their best defensive football against pass-happy PIT (+1.05 and +0.21). The outlier games don’t tell us much because their good performance against Baltimore came in a 27-3 blowout where the Ravens did not need to play well offensively, and the poor game against Jacksonville was one of the Jaguars’ few 2020 games at full strength.
The Bengals will need to be more effective at getting pressure on the quarterback to improve on defense. And given that their top division foes include Baltimore and Cleveland, two teams who run well, they will need to improve their defensive line play in particular. They seem to have invested more in the offense than their defense in the off-season, but they still could improve with a few key additions if they stay healthy on defense in 2021.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, Cincinnati is slightly overrated. Despite the optimism in this review, I think the rebuilding process will likely take at least another season. The hype is building around Joe Burrow with these weapons in the offseason, but they also went 2-7-1 with Burrow last year because (1) they could not handle pressure and (2) they could not play defense. This won’t be fixed overnight.
- Anticipate a slow start from Cincinnati as their young players continue to adjust (or begin adjusting) to the NFL. Do not overreact to poor play early on as they should be a better team by season’s end.
- Expect the Bengals to outperform offensively against teams that fail to exert a lot of pressure but underperform against teams that successfully get to the quarterback.
- Expect the Bengals to underperform defensively against more vanilla offenses that rely on power runs and easy passes for success.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- There are reasons to invest in this passing offense from a fantasy perspective, given their relatively fast pace of play, high passing rate, and likely game script. But with a tough divisional schedule, a rookie wide receiver who likely will gain an increased role as the season progresses, and an inexperienced quarterback coming off a major injury, I have some doubts about the massive potential others see here. I see big weekly upside but inconsistency for all of the weapons, making them potentially frustrating season-long fantasy options.
- Expect Cincinnati to run more to keep pressure off Burrow, which will be good for Joe Mixon when they can win the offensive line battle and stay in the game. Mixon may also see an increased role in the passing game with Gio Bernard gone, so he offers some stability and upside provided he stays healthy.
- Given the Bengals’ defensive weaknesses and likely game scripts, target running backs with a large role in DFS when playing against them.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
As a team that really struggles when it loses both line battles, I was looking to fade the Bengals against teams with a strong offensive and defensive line. In both Week 5 and Week 17, I projected blowouts by Baltimore, who do not let their foot off the gas in games they win and blitz more than any other NFL team. In Week 5 the Ravens were 12-point favorites and in Week 17 they were 12.5-point favorites. I do not put large wagers on big favorites, but I put 1 Unit on the Ravens in each game, and they covered comfortably both times (27-3 and 38-3). They were able to dominate the offensive line of scrimmage and pressure the quarterbacks effectively, which led to such lopsided results.