The annual injury bug joined forces with the annual Steelers jitters this past Sunday to knock the Bengals down several pegs in a 36-10 shellacking at Heinz Field. For as many injuries that the Bengals are dealing with, their rookie class has maintained its health for the course of the season so far, which has been a nice change of pace compared to previous years.
But the story of the game surrounds the rookie that needs to play well every single game in order for Cincinnati to stay competitive, and he unfortunately did not play well this week.
The Burrow Breakdown, Vol. 9
This is an important question: is development of an NFL player always linear?
The answer is, of course, no.
Joe Burrow showcased great strides in the month following his calamitous performance against the Baltimore Ravens back in Week 5. He commanded a top-five passing offense in the three games that followed and re-established himself in the forefront of the Rookie of the Year race. We can’t forget that, nor push it to the side when talking about this past Sunday.
But, we have to talk about this past Sunday, because it was a clear setback in his rookie campaign.
The Steelers had a plan to fluster the 23-year old Burrow, and they executed it to perfection. Against the Ravens, Burrow had trouble diagnosing blitzes in the pre-snap phase, which lead to him getting sacked almost 10 times that afternoon. The Steelers didn’t hit him nearly that much with their vaunted pass rush, but he struggled even more against pressure than he did in Baltimore. He finished with zero completions on 17 dropbacks when facing pressure.
17 represents barely under 40% of Burrow’s total real dropbacks (he spiked the ball once) and for most of the game, Burrow had clean pockets to work with. So why did he not take advantage of them as well as he’s done for most of this season?
The answer likely lies in Pittsburgh’s plan with their back seven. Burrow and the offense faced a lot of coverages that took away vertical routes down the sidelines—routes that Burrow has had more success with in recent weeks. These coverages often appeared as Cover 2 before the snap and stayed as a two-high zone, or the Steelers had one of their safeties drop down and bracket certain routes that usually succeed against coverages with just one deep safety.
Pittsburgh’s underneath defenders—their cornerbacks and linebackers—had a role in their success as well. They often played with inside leverage to combat in-breaking routes in the Bengals’ quick passing game, and it worked to perfection for the majority of the afternoon as Burrow was forced to throw outside the numbers more, which has been a weakness for him.
On the bright side, Burrow had a near perfect passer rating of 155.8 when targeting Tee Higgins. For most of the seven times the two connected, it was taking what the Steelers were giving them, but Burrow found Higgins for his only deep completion of the game and later completed his only tight window throw to his fellow rookie as well.
About half of Higgins’ 115 receiving yards came on that wide open go route that went for 54 yards, and he would’ve had more yardage if Burrow hadn’t missed him on the first play of the third quarter. Still, the rookie played well for his first game against Pittsburgh despite fumbling the ball away after making his second catch of the day.
Many expected Tyler Boyd to have a special game playing in his hometown on his 26th birthday, but Higgins carried the receiving corps—like he’s done for the past four games—after his big fumble. He leads all rookies in receiving yards since Week 6 (389) and trails only Justin Jefferson in yards per route run (2.74) since then as well.
The second quarter featured the majority of Burrow’s meaningful production, but as we all could tell, he just wasn’t the same after he rolled his ankle near the end of the first half. During my charting of the game, most of Burrow’s second half throws were of bad quality, and his decision-making was just as questionable as it was in the first half. The game felt like it was over during the third quarter, and Burrow’s play solidified it.
Burrow’s arm strength may not be near the league’s best, but some of these misses were uncharacteristic, even for him. The wind at Heinz Field was a factor during the entire game and you have to think that Burrow’s ankle was giving him trouble. Nevertheless, Ben Roethlisberger dealt with the same conditions and overcame them.
It wasn’t just abnormal inaccuracy for Burrow; he also missed easy reads far too often. By the second half, the Steelers seemed to rattle Burrow’s post-snap processing and forced him to make throws he didn’t want to make. The Steelers’ pass rush also had more success getting to Burrow around this time, which was just too fitting for the theme of the day.
Going back to the ankle, Burrow erased any and all speculation on whether or not he believed Bud Dupree’s late shove on him was dirty. Calling out that sort of thing doesn’t seem to be his style, but no matter how much he may deny it, he didn’t look the same after it happened.
So, the Ravens and Steelers both found easy success in making the Bengals’ quarterback appear not only mortal, but utterly ineffective. Their schedule gets easier on paper these next two weeks, but Burrow will go from facing Pittsburgh’s elite defense on the road to the equally-imposing defense of the Washington Football Team in Washington. It’s going to be anything but easy for Burrow to bounce back next Sunday.
Advanced Stats and QB Comparison
*The EPA/play from the top figure will only factor in non-running plays. The Total EPA from the bottom figure will factor in all plays.
**SR from the top figure stands for Success Rate, which is the percentage of plays that achieved a positive EPA outcome.
Through the first seven weeks of the season, Germaine Pratt was on the field almost exactly twice as much as Logan Wilson. Pratt’s 303 snaps to Wilson’s 150 gave us a clear sample size to judge the beginning of Pratt’s second season, and the consensus conclusion was that Pratt has not progressed enough to warrant being on the field considerably more than Wilson.
The last two weeks have been a different story as Pratt has seen 77 snaps to Wilson’s 65. On Sunday, Wilson even got onto the field for the first two plays of the game. Pratt ended up playing more than Wilson, but it’s clear that the Bengals want to see more of Wilson, and rightfully so.
Since Week 6, Wilson has been the team’s best linebacker, whether you trust the film, or look to Pro Football Focus’ grades. He’s simply more athletic than Josh Bynes and more disciplined in his run fits than Pratt, but the Bengals need him in coverage the most with Akeem Davis-Gaither, and that’s where he’ll continue to be used. Wilson was only targeted once, and it was an incompletion on the first play of the game thanks to an errant throw from Roethlisberger.
The closest Davis-Gaither came to making an impact was nearly sacking Roethlisberger before he threw his second touchdown of the game.
What’s not getting enough attention is Khalid Kareem’s rise in playing time and impact. He’s played 69 snaps over the last two weeks after playing in 104 snaps the previous seven weeks.
Kareem may not be there as a pass-rusher just yet, which is where the Bengals need any and all help possible, but he made two superb stops in just 11 snaps against Pittsburgh’s rushing attack.
It would’ve been interesting to see how Takkarist McKinley impacted the rotation at edge defender, but McKinley was waived due to a failed physical on Tuesday. Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard should continue to start, and Kareem has shown enough promise against the run to not get lost in the shuffle.
No one was really sure what was going to happen with the Bengals’ offensive line this week. Somebody had to play right tackle and most figured that was going to be Hakeem Adeniji, but then Jonah Williams never came onto the field and the left tackle spot had to be occupied.
Adeniji manned the blind side tackle position for the second week in a row and held it with promise for all of the first half. It wasn’t until the later portion of the game that we saw Adeniji struggle against Bud Dupree and the Steelers’ pass rush from that side of the formation. Adeniji was charged with three allowed pressures on 43 real pass-protecting snaps, and his gutsy performance deserves a spotlight showing for The Weekly Lineman later this week.