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Opponent Scout: Joe Burrow isn’t a typical young quarterback

The Cincinnati quarterback has the awareness (and playmakers) to make defending him far from simple.

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In this weekly series, I break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining its strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect its matchup with Kansas City.


With just two games remaining in the regular season, the Chiefs travel to face the Cincinnati Bengals — an AFC playoff-hopeful looking to continue its momentum into postseason play.

Overview

The Bengals enter the game at 9-6, looking to keep their spot atop the AFC North. Depending on the results of other games, a win this week could clinch the division for them.

Cincinnati scores 27.3 points per game — the NFL’s seventh-highest rate. In total yards, the team ranks 12th. The Bengals have one of the league’s most efficient offenses, ranking fifth in yards per play and third in net yards per pass attempt. But In terms of converting on third down and in the red zone, they are league average. In total offensive DVOA, they rank 19th.

The Bengals’ defense allows 21.6 points per game — the league’s 13th-best mark — while ranking 17th in total yards allowed. Statistically, the Cincinnati defense is at its best against the run: it’s allowed the league’s seventh-lowest yards per carry rate. On the flip side, the unit has allowed the fourth-most passing yards. The Bengals rank 14th in total defensive DVOA and seventh in rush defense DVOA.

Offense

The Bengals present a well-balanced offensive attack; depending on what they need, they can succeed with the running game and through the air.

When passing, it all starts with second-year quarterback Joe Burrow. Currently, he has the NFL’s highest yards-per-attempt rate (8.7), second-highest completion percentage (69.9%), and second-highest passer rating (105.0). He has shown ability in many facets of being a successful quarterback: managing a lead, coming from behind or just flat-out dominating — like the 525 passing yards he put up against the Baltimore Ravens last week.

Burrow is unique among the crop of young, potentially-elite quarterbacks. He doesn’t have Justin Herbert’s incredible arm talent or the unicorn athleticism of Josh Allen. Instead, Burrow wins with excellent anticipation and accuracy to all levels of the field. His impressive pre-snap recognition allows him that anticipation — and it also lets the Bengals trust him with a lot of empty pass sets.

Along with that awareness of coverage, Burrow has a very good feel for how the pocket is shaping around him. For a young quarterback, he is already exceptional at maneuvering within a cluttered pocket while keeping his eyes downfield. On top of that, he has good instincts in avoiding sacks; he’s a natural at just playing football.

But because his offensive line has been subpar so far in his career, he has had to develop these traits; this season, Burrow has been sacked at the league’s fourth-highest rate.

The young Burrow has also benefitted from the team’s willingness to invest in wide receivers. In the last two drafts, the team used high picks to secure wideouts Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase — who both have over 1,000 receiving yards this season. Higgins’ lengthier frame allows him to make tough catches and win on jump balls downfield — while Chase seems to do a little bit of everything; he impresses the most with his yards-after-catch ability and playing through contact.

The Bengals are not afraid to lean on running back Joe Mixon on the ground. There have been games in which Mixon had about 30 carries — while in other weeks, he’s had closer to 10. On each play, their zone-running scheme gives Mixon the freedom to find the particular weakness in a defensive front — and he will take advantage.

Defense

Cincinnati’s defense is headed by a stout defensive front — particularly against the run. The entire defensive line and linebacker group contribute to consistently holding teams to less-successful rushing outputs than they’d like.

When that front is looking to get after the quarterback, edge rusher Trey Hendrickson receives all of the attention. He has earned 14 sacks this season — the fifth-most by any NFL player.

Hendrickson will primarily rush from over the left tackle, typically winning around the arc with a great jump off the snap and good hand usage. His success has been helped by the play of Cincinnati’s other impactful defensive linemen; defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and defensive end Sam Hubbard each have seven sacks this year.

At linebacker, the Bengals appear to be getting Logan Wilson back. The second-year player has emerged as their best man at the position. This week, he has been a full participant in practice after missing time since his injury in Week 13 — and the Bengals struggled to make up for his absence.

In the back end, the Bengals have experience with veterans like cornerback Mike Hilton and safety Vonn Bell — but the key to their secondary is safety Jesse Bates III. He is the primary deep safety in the Bengals’ one-high coverage looks — but he will also be trusted to make plays closer to the line of scrimmage or in a robber role over the middle.

In this play in that robber role, he nearly makes a game-winning interception in their overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers; he reads the quarterback’s eyes and follows them to the route, perfectly times his jump — and then drops the ball.

In general, Bates can get to the ball quickly — making up ground faster than some quarterbacks believe he can.

The bottom line

When the Chiefs defend the Bengals, they need to respect Burrow’s abilities and intelligence. Blitzing him won’t be as effective as it could be against other young quarterbacks; with the weapons available to him, he can get the ball out quickly.

On offense, Kansas City needs to pay attention to Hendrickson — who mostly succeeds when he attacks with speed around the edge; the Chiefs should help left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. with chips on the outside or tight ends aligning next to him. And quarterback Patrick Mahomes will always need to be aware that Bates will be lurking in the secondary.