Cincinnati Bengals 2021 Team Study

Part 9 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 8 here: Washington Commanders. Part 10 now available: Baltimore Ravens.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
5.01 -0.02 17th

Offensive Eff. Rating (orange and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
9th 22nd 12th

The Bengals were not a top offense in 2021 overall but they did the things that matter well and got better as the season went on. The pure numbers also suffered in a meaningless Week 17 game in which Brandon Allen really struggled to move the offense. They finished 9th in passing EPA/play and only 22nd on rushing attempts. That’s an acceptable tradeoff for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. They also evolved into a pass-heavy offense as the trust in Burrow built up over the course of the season. After some moments early on where he appeared slow to process and made some poor decisions, he grew in confidence and his decision-making speed got faster.

Burrow benefitted from insane receiving talent. Rookie phenom Ja’marr Chase partnered with Tee Higgins to form one of the most versatile and talented receiving duos in the league. Their impact was so strong that they may have caused this off-season's mad rush for wide receiver talent across the league. Having two elite receivers is a huge advantage. Burrow’s greatest asset is his accuracy, even under pressure and in big moments. With two stud receivers (not to mention Boyd and Uzomah), a highly accurate quarterback has plenty of opportunity to play throw and catch with open guys. It sounds simple.

The receivers did a lot of the work. The Bengals ranked 25th in the percentage of passing yards obtained through the air vs. after the catch, and 2nd in yards after the catch per completion. Chase in particular was absolutely electric after the catch. Even running backs turned screens into big plays, including Samaje Perine's 41-yard catch-and-run that got the Bengals back into the playoff game against the Chiefs. But Burrow deserves credit for putting the ball in spots where his receivers could make plays after the catch.

With Chase and Higgins, opposing defenses could not simply focus on locking down the #1 wide receiver (if they could even determine who that was). Teams that struggled against #2 wide receivers predictably played poorly against the Bengals because whoever you put at #2 was arguably the best #2 wide receiver in the league. Chart A shows this trend, ranking the Bengals’ adjusted Eff. Rating by each opponent’s DVOA against #2 wide receivers:

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent DVOA against teams' #2 wide receiver.
*Omitted meaningless Week 18 v. CLE because Cincinnati benched Burrow, etc.
DVOA data from Football Outsiders.

Burrow’s biggest weakness involved holding the ball too long when his receivers were not able to create separation. He has been playing with such elite receivers for so long that he may be too comfortable with letting plays develop. It's easy to scapegoat his offensive line for his league-leading 51 sacks taken (plus a shocking 19 more in the playoffs), and that’s somewhat fair. But Burrow deserves a healthy share of the blame as well. His refusal to throw the ball away or give up on a play often led to sacks and some really bad interceptions. These bad interceptions directly led to losses against the Bears and Packers. And he got away with one against the Chiefs in the playoffs, when instead of throwing the ball out of bounds he put it in play where a Chiefs linebacker could easily pick it off. Fortunately for him and the Bengals, it was dropped.

This is a flaw that he can improve. And as long as he has a healthy Chase/Higgins combination, it likely won’t be a major problem anyway. His receivers do get open. When the pieces are there around him, I think he has the leadership and talent and can learn the mental side of the game to be a highly successful quarterback. But it’s important to keep perspective: that’s his upside. He has not made it there yet. He could fall off if one of his receivers gets hurt and he no longer can find open receivers quickly. He did perform very well against the blitz, which is a great sign. The best quarterbacks routinely punish defenses for over-committing potential coverage to pressure, and he did just that. But again, blitzing leads to easier coverage opportunities to exploit.

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