CINCINNATI -- After leading the offense to its best output this season in a comeback win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow declared: “We know who we are now.”
A slow start for what was expected to be an even more explosive offense than 2021 left the Bengals searching for a new identity. Opposing defenses have tried taking away big plays and the running game has struggled to find its footing.
The answer seems to be having multiple identities, but lately run-pass options seem to be the trick.
“Whatever the game plan calls for every week is going to be different,” Burrow said Wednesday in his press conference leading up to this Sunday’s home game against the Falcons. “Last week we were able to get the RPOs going. We’ll see how the week goes and see what we end up doing this week. But I feel good about where we’re at.”
What worked against the Saints might not work against Atlanta, a team that has defended well against the run but not against the pass-- 281.2 yards per game, second worst in the league.
Burrow likes the run-pass options, which the Bengals were able to take advantage of in the 30-26 win at New Orleans, because it gives the offense different ways to win. But some weeks the defense isn’t giving those options. Burrow said the key now is being able to adjust quickly in games when something is not working for them.
“I think we’re good at mixing it up,” Burrow said. “One week we might throw a bunch of RPOs like last week. The next week we might be able to be a down-hill run team. We’ll have to see. Every defense is different so every game plan calls for something else.”
The Bengals had struggled early this season because of the deep zone defenses that teams were playing against them in an effort to take away the explosive plays for wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. RPOs provide a way to beat those defenses because they put the opponent in conflict over who to cover and eventually it softens their coverage on the backend.
On Sunday at New Orleans, Burrow capitalized on three short passes that led to Cincinnati’s longest plays, including a 60-yard touchdown for Chase, who also had a 15-yard score as part of a 132-yard receiving performance. Burrow also showed he’s athletic enough to scramble when needed. He scored on a 19-yard run against the Saints and said that’s a part of his game he is improving.
“You just have to be patient throughout the game,” Burrow said. “The way that defenses are going across the league it’s not just us, they’re kind of playing everyone like that. So, you just have to take those underneath ones until they’re tired of it then it opens up opportunities down the field.”
The area Burrow has been best, though, is on third down, where the Bengals have converted 47.6 percent of their opportunities – their best through six games since 1991. No team in the league has had more third-down-plays than Cincinnati’s 76, and Burrow ranks second in expected points added per play on third down.
Burrow has yet to throw an interception on third down, and he leads the league in third-down passer rating and completion percentage. Chase leads the league in third-down catches.
“That’s really what ends up determining games is how you execute on third down,” said Burrow, also crediting quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher for the schemes he comes up with for third-down plays. “Obviously, if you’re playing really well, you don’t even get to third downs… but the especially the last couple of weeks, taking the check-downs, getting into second-and-6, third-and-3, that’s going to be a recipe for success on third downs.”
Coach Zac Taylor said while the offense seems to be finding a rhythm, the Bengals have to be cautious about making sure they continue working to earn that success each week. Knowing Atlanta likes to run the ball and control possession time, Cincinnati can’t afford a slow start.
Much of Burrow’s success has come when under pressure trying to lead a comeback, but the Falcons can be a tough team to do that against.
“You just gotta maximize your possessions,” Taylor said. “The points per drive is going to be critical. I think we’ve had eight possessions last week and probably around there against Baltimore. So we’ve played these styles of games before. This is nothing new to us. Again, we can’t afford to do what we’ve done and get down 10 points and try to fight our way back. That’s not the best way to play football. So we gotta more efficient early in the game.”
Falcons at Bengals, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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