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.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (orange and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

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.

He has a lot of room to grow but appears well set up for that growth. Improvements to the offensive line will go a long way, but he still needs to address his decision-making when things aren’t immediately there. Having well-earned confidence, support from fans, and an early expectation of winning can go a long way towards facilitating this growth. He will get the benefit of the doubt when things don’t go well. And if this offense stays healthy, there is no reason to believe it won’t improve on last year’s performance.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (orange and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

The biggest turnaround for the Bengals in 2021 came on the defensive side of the ball. They had talent in 2020 but lacked leadership and cohesiveness. In the offseason they signed a slew of veterans, several of whom came from defenses that had established trust and a high level of play. Notably, Trey Hendrickson came from New Orleans and Mike Hilton came from Pittsburgh. These were the top two defenses in the NFL in 2020, and the hope was that they would bring that mentality to Cincinnati.

It worked. The defense stepped up when it needed to and played its best games against the top offenses. The new additions really blended well from the outset and improved the two most important elements of the defense: pressure and coverage. They routinely capitalized on opponent mistakes and avoided their own. On the season they had the fewest first downs allowed by penalty in the NFL. They also remained mostly healthy, especially for the first half of the year. This greatly benefitted their cohesiveness and trust.

This approach, staying disciplined and capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes, sometimes created the impression that offenses who struggled against them “beat themselves.” This was why everyone came out of the playoff win against Kansas City saying the Chiefs lost on offense by making poor decisions, both in play-calling and execution. In reality, this happened frequently enough against good quarterbacks that the Bengals deserve some credit. They took away the deep ball and what good teams wanted to do, causing frustration and second-guessing in key moments. Teams that wanted to throw deep struggled against them, including KC (+0.78 Def. Adj. Eff. Rating) and LAC (+0.52). The teams that played relatively well against them had quarterbacks who preferred to dink-and-dunk or rely on the ground game, like NYJ with Mike White (-1.47), JAC (-1.06), and CLE (-0.34). Chart B shows their Adj. Eff. Rating (performance relative to opponent average) ranking each opponent by its overall passing effectiveness on the season in EPA/play.

Chart B

When a team is built correctly on offense, this is all you need from the defense. You can’t be a liability. They earned a reputation for being weak against the run, but this wasn’t quite accurate. They could stop the run if they made it a priority. But they philosophically wanted people to run on them, because it’s less efficient than passing. This is smart strategy and it helped them reach the Super Bowl. When they focused too much on stopping the run, teams beat them in the air. They had to avoid that. Overall, the defense resembled the Chiefs’ defense from their Super Bowl run: they stopped the pass, got key stops and turnovers, then let their offense finish the job. If the offense had been better, they would have won the Super Bowl.

In the Wild Card round they beat the Raiders because they kept them out of the red zone. Then they completely flustered the Titans and became the first playoff team to win a game while giving up 9 sacks on offense. They held Kansas City to 3 points in the second half and overtime to make the Super Bowl. And they made the Rams earn their Super Bowl victory by converting a fourth down and several third downs on their game-winning drive. They pretty much played championship-caliber defense (by today’s NFL standards) when it mattered.  

I expect the Bengals defense to remain consistent in 2022. They built chemistry and confidence over the season and have the talent to remain above average. They remain focused on the things that matter, leading to their best performances against the top competition. They’ll need to emerge from what is now an extremely difficult division, but could make another playoff run in 2022.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Bengals: I anticipated looking to fade the Bengals after a somewhat fluky playoff run in which incorrect public narratives surrounded them. But the betting markets have not been fooled. They addressed their biggest weakness (offensive line) and should be even better in 2022. I especially like the Bengals against teams that rely on blitzing for pressure, which allows the talented receivers easy opportunities for yards after the catch.

When to fade the Bengals: The Bengals benefitted from relative health in 2021 and are susceptible to significant negative impact if one of their key players (such as Chase or Higgins) gets hurt. There is also a chance that a team capable of getting natural pressure and winning in coverage could elicit key mistakes from Burrow.

What to look for in the offseason: Given Burrow’s weaknesses, addressing the offensive line is priority number one. They have already made big strides in this direction and betting markets may not have caught up yet. Also keep an eye on the defense, which will need to retain its key pieces to ensure they don’t backslide in 2022.

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