CINCINNATI — As he does after every game, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow sat in front of his locker and pondered what had just happened.
Seven months after the Bengals put on an unlikely run to the Super Bowl, Burrow walked past Sunday’s 20-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, in which he threw just 199 pass yards while being sacked six times. In the AT&T Stadium locker room, Burrow sat thoughtfully, wondering if there was anything he could have done to help the reigning AFC champions avoid back-to-back defeats.
“Oh, and two is tough, but don’t panic,” said Burrow, who completed 24 of 36 passes and posted a 48.4 QBR, after the game. “We’ve lost two games in a row before, we lost two games in a row several times last year. There is still a lot of football left to play.”
Through two games, the Bengals are (0-2) 21stSt in the NFL in points per drive and penultimate in yards per game. The latter stat shows how difficult it was for an offense that finished seventh in that category last season. Cincinnati’s offense was in a funk that seduced everyone on the team — including Burrow.
“I think as a unit we just need to keep improving and get more points,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said when asked about Burrow on Wednesday.
Many of Cincinnati’s problems in 2022 relate to the team’s offensive line, which despite four new starters in the five-man unit still ranks in the NFL’s bottom quartile in terms of pass block win rate. center Ted Karas, one of the new signings, said Monday that the offensive line needs to make Burrow more comfortable in the pocket. Under his new line, Burrow has been fired 13 times so far – a pace that would see him break the NFL record for most single-season layoffs (David Carr, 76, in 2002) and double his single-season total (51) .
While much of the early sack totals may have helped two of the NFL’s top pass rushers in the ‘Pittsburgh Steelers’ TJ Watts and Dallas’ Micah Parsons, the numbers when Burrow is not under duress show the problem is more than the offensive line. When Burrow wasn’t pressured in 2021, he was second in the NFL in Completion Percentage over Expectation (CPOE), according to ESPN Stats and Information. In a small sample size in 2022, Burrow ranks 25th. For throws of 15 air yards or more without pressure, the difference in Burrow’s CPOE from last year to this year is 23.1%.
“Obviously we just haven’t lived up to our standards so far,” Burrow said when asked about the difference between this year and last year.
The Bengals offense has two 1,000-yard receivers (Yes’Marr Chase, Tea Higgins), a 1,000-yard rusher (Joe Mixon) and Burrow, who has been known for pinpoint accuracy since his last season at LSU. But unity is in the dirt, much like last year’s postseason run in early 2022. The Bengals’ pass-block win rate, an ESPN metric backed by NFL Next Gen, is down from 30th in the NFL only improved marginally to 25. And Mixon, who was third in rushing in the NFL last season, has the odds of lowest rushing yards when playing formations with six or fewer defenders near the line of scrimmage. This means that under actually favorable running conditions, he gains the fewest yards running back.
“Our level of execution is not at the level that we think it should be, that we think it should be, that I think everyone in our dressing room thinks it should be,” said Brian Callahan , Bengals offensive coordinator. “Joe is part of it.
“Anyone can play better. We can train better. We can plan better. We can play better.”
After the loss to Dallas, Callahan and Burrow both noted the increased number of Tampa 2 defenses the Bengals faced this season. This type of “Cover 2” formation consists of two players, each protecting a deep half of the field, and another defender occupying a zone below them. Callahan said he saw more Tampa 2 variations in Cincinnati’s first two games than in the past 10 years.
“People just know how to adapt to us now,” Chase said after the loss to the Cowboys. “I feel like we need to learn to make more adjustments in the game. Everyone knows what we’re going to do now.”
Despite all the collective struggles in the first two weeks, Cincinnati led every contest to the last game of the game, losing to both the Cowboys and the Steelers by game-ending field goal.
Sunday’s road game against the New York Jets (1 p.m. ET, CBS) offers Burrow and the Bengals another chance to boost their offense and shake off the early-season malaise that has plagued the unit.
“We have great players and great coaches who understand our plan,” Burrow said. “We know what we need to fix it.”