The Bengals offense never really got going this week and a big part of that was their failure to keep drives alive by converting on third down. And by failure, I mean complete failure. The Bengals were 0-13 converting third downs.
Fingers have been pointed at the quarterback, the protection, and the play calling, but there was not a singular cause to the Bengals third down woes.
“Sometimes we could have made a better call,” Zac Taylor explained during his press conference on Monday. “Sometimes we could have made some contested catches. Sometimes we could have been more detailed with our routes and sometimes we could have been more accurate with the throw. And so really it’s, it’s, I think about every third down checked each one of those box(es) in a different way and, and again you’re not gonna beat a good football team when those are the reasons you’re not converting.”
There were many factors that led to the Bengals lack of success on third down. I looked at each of their 13 attempts, to find what caused them to come up short.
First quarter, 10:36, third-and-seven
2 receivers in the same area pic.twitter.com/fTOcMkdlP6— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) November 17, 2020
After rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins was called for a false start on the Bengals’ first offensive play of the game, they were forced to throw the ball three times in a row.
On third down A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd line up at the top of the screen. Green is jammed at the line of scrimmage, which is the likely why the two receivers are so close together when the ball is thrown.
The Steelers are playing man and doubling the inside receivers. Boyd is running a dig route, cutting to the inside. Since the safety jumps this route the middle of the field opens up behind him, and Green should open on the post route.
Unfortunately, Green runs his route too short. The two receivers are too close together and the play has little chance of success. What was a one-on-one matchup became a two-on-three.
Who's to blame? A.J. Green’s route
Running Count: 0/1
First quarter, 7:31, third-and-seven
The corner route is open on the on the bottom of the screen, but expecting a fierce pass rush on third-and-long, it was probably been predetermined that they wanted to hit the quick out to move the chains. That’s good because Marcus Allen is coming on a blitz and closing on Joe Burrow as he throws.
Tate aligns tight to the formation at the top of the numbers. He does this to give himself room to run the out. The problem is that it is a tell for an experienced cornerback like Joe Haden, so Tate needs to run a good route to make sure Haden doesn’t sit on the out. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.
He runs towards Haden’s outside shoulder, but not in a way that threatens the outside release fade route. Haden sees the out route coming the entire time. Because Haden is so close to Tate, Burrow has to put the ball to the outside where only Tate has a chance of making the play.
Tate needs to make this catch. He lacks the speed to truly threaten Haden deep, but he is a big, physical guy. If he can’t win with speed, he needs to be able to make catches when he is being tightly defended.
Who’s to blame? Auden Tate’s route and hands
Running Count: 0/2
First quarter, 3:31, third-and-13
The throw is up top to Tee Higgins pic.twitter.com/N3uYGw8yGW— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) November 17, 2020
Burrow has Higgins open for the first down at the top of the screen. He appears to look in his direction, but then Cameron Heyward gets into his throwing lane and jumps up. This gets Burrow off of that route, and he takes the check down to Giovani Bernard.
He should have stayed on Higgins and gone for the first down throw. Even if he had to pump and reset the ball after Heyward entered his field of vision, he still had the throw.
Who’s to blame? Joe Burrow’s decision
Running Count: 0/3
Second quarter, 10:47, third-and-two (goal to go)
With third and goal on the two yard-line, the Bengals run a play action pass out of the shotgun.
Problems come quickly as Stephon Tuitt stunts into the A-gap and Alex Redmond moves back, trying to keep him out of the backfield. As Bernard crosses Burrow on the play action, the pocket is starting to dissolve.
The routes have not developed and Burrow is forced to scramble to the right, eventually throwing the ball away.
The protection was definitely an issue here, but the scheme was also to blame. They needed a quicker developing route so Burrow could get rid of the ball when he felt the pressure coming.
Who’s to blame? Protection and scheme
Running Count: 0/4
Second quarter, 5:01, third-and-12
He has the throw and he knows it, but the DL twist takes it away pic.twitter.com/JP5XgCuG7h— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) November 17, 2020
The Bengals had second-and-two, but a holding call pushed them back, and they eventually found themselves in a difficult third down situation.
Burrow has a receiver open on the comeback at the top of the screen. He is looking in that direction when Bud Dupree loops to the inside. Without an immediate A-gap threat, Trey Hopkins is helping out left guard Michael Jordan and is not in position to pick up Dupree. He adjusts, but bumps into Burrow in the process. As Burrow stumbles, T.J. Watt comes around the edge and cleans up the sack. Watt would get credit, but Dupree’s stunt is what makes the play happen.
Who’s to blame? Protection (Hopkins and Jordan)
Running Count: 0/5
Second quarter, 0:21, third-and-21
Here’s the play everyone wants to see pic.twitter.com/jYUjELqb2g— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) November 17, 2020
After a first down sack left the clock running, the Bengals were forced to clock the ball on second down. This led to third-and-forever as the first half neared its end.
Tuitt uses an excellent swim move and gets into the backfield quickly. Burrow scrambles to the left and eventually gets rid of the ball.
The Bengals were unlikely to convert third-and-21 anyway, but the pressure quickly eliminated any potential of success.
Who’s to blame? Pass protection (Redmond) and situation (third-and-forever)
Running Count: 0/6
Third quarter, 13:37, third-and-seven
The seam at the bottom of the screen is open, but I don’t think Burrow sees the late safety rotation, and as a result he works the other side of the formation.
The biggest issue here is the throw; it should be a little farther outside where only Tate can make the catch. Tate however could have helped out by using his body to shield the ball from the defender.
Haden isn’t going to bail out too quickly because Tate lacks the speed to threaten him deep, so Tate has to understand what his gifts are and how he can have success. He can have win by using his size and strength. He needs to be able to consistently use his body to protect the catch point on routes like this.
Who’s to blame? Burrow’s read/throw and Tate’s body position
Running Count: 0/7
Third quarter, 8:53, third-and-nine
Once again, the Bengals go with a quick pass to the outside to try to move the chains. This was a great effort by Tyler Boyd, but even after review, it was called an incomplete pass.
It was close, but Burrow’s throw was just a little too far outside. Boyd was forced to extend his body into a weird position to try to make the catch. If the ball hadn’t been quite so far outside, he may have been able to haul it in.
Who’s to blame? Burrow’s throw
Running Count: 0/8
Third quarter, 4:13, third-and-10
Burrow seems to have predetermined that he is going to throw the ball to Green on this play. Green is open and the best throw on the play, but because he stares it down, Steven Nelson jumps the route, looking for the interception. Nelson isn’t able to come up with the pick, but unfortunately Green can’t make the catch in bounds either.
Burrow needs to do a better job with his eyes. He cannot project the throw and give such a strong indicator for the defender to jump the route. This was nearly a turnover, which obviously would’ve been much worse than not converting the third down.
Who’s to blame? Burrow’s eyes
Running Count: 0/9
Third quarter, 1:30, third-and-four
This was a really cool play design, but one key element was missing from its execution.
The Bengals are in a quads-bunch formation with four receivers tightly bunched on the left side of the formation.
Boyd is lined up as the farthest receiver to the inside with Cameron Sutton over top of him. This is a pick play designed to get Boyd open in the flat by making Sutton have to navigate through three other receivers and defenders. The issue is that Sutton easily flows to the outside and makes the tackle on Boyd for no gain.
The only player who could have impacted this is Higgins. He should have been aware of Sutton and as he saw him flow to the outside Higgins should have widened his release to force Sutton to adjust his path.
This was an excellent play call for the situation, but that one factor caused it to fail.
Who’s to blame? Higgins’ pick
Running Count: 0/10
Fourth quarter, 13:58, third-and-10
The Steelers buried the Bengals deep in their own territory with a punt that was downed at the three-yard line.
On first down, they ran the ball for no gain. On second down, Dupree almost got to the quarterback. When it came to third down, not willing to risk a safety, the Bengals called a quick wide receiver screen which was very unlikely to convert.
This was understandable given the situation.
Who’s to blame? Situation (Field position)
Running Count: 0/11
Fourth quarter, 8:31, third-and-six
Burrow has Boyd on the slot fade up top and you can tell he wants to go there, but he just doesn’t have enough time.
The Steelers run a twist on the defensive line. Heyward comes from the inside and engages with left tackle Hakeem Adeniji before releasing inside. This forces Burrow straight into the arms of Dupree for the sack.
Who’s to blame? Pressure (Adeniji)
Running Count: 0/12
Fourth quarter, 5:14, third-and-17
After a second down sack, the Bengals had third-and-very long in the red zone.
Burrow looks to his left and not finding an open receiver goes to the check down on his right. If he looked to the right instead, he would have seen he had the throw to Green for the first down.
This would have been a better place to look because the flat defender was showing blitz and not in position to make a play underneath Green’s route.
Who’s to blame? Burrow’s read
Running Count: 0/13
It was not one person who was responsible for the Bengals struggles on third down on Sunday.
Bad reads, bad throws, bad routes, bad play calls, and bad pass protection were each the culprit at different times. Penalties and sacks on early downs and field position also played a role.
They were never able to convert a third down and try to keep the drive alive, so they could fight through their issues and build momentum. The offensive was struggling and desperately needed someone to stand up and make a play to get that first conversion and a chance to find a rhythm.