The Cincinnati Bengals want to run the ball and force defenses to roll down a safety to be in a better position to play the run. When opposing defenses make this adjustment, they want to take advantage of one-on-one matchups for Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins on the outside. It’s not a bad philosophy, but the problem is that even if you have the numbers, you’ve still got to block.
This past Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers came out with two high safeties for most of the game, but they won on the line of scrimmage and limited the Bengals running game to 3.3 yards per carry.
Furthermore, Cover 2 is not a perfect defense. There are holes. One of the big ones is the side-pocket, which coincidently would have been a great nickname for Joe Burrow and Chase’s dorm room, had they bunked together at LSU, because they pretty much lived in the side-pocket in Baton Rouge.
The side-pocket is the gap between the safety and the cornerback along the sideline. It is a tough throw to make, but one that Burrow has made time and time again. Here are a few examples of how the Bengals attacked this area against the San Francisco 49ers.
All night pic.twitter.com/yOdLnoKjc0— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 14, 2021
Who could forget this play?
Chase runs a sluggo route on the top of the screen. A sluggo is a slant-go. As you can see, Chase starts running a slant, before getting vertical. This was set up throughout the game, as the Chase was able to find the hole in the zone between the Cover-2 cornerback and the hook player on multiple slant routes.
Burrow throws a gorgeous ball down the sideline, and Chase hauls it in for the score. A good call that was well-executed.
Switch pic.twitter.com/4FP7iHxDuJ— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 14, 2021
The Bengals found a few different ways to target this area of the field.
On this play, Higgins and Tyler Boyd run a deep switch on the bottom of the screen. This means that both head vertical, putting the safety in conflict, but as they get deeper into their routes, they switch.
Higgins, who started as the outside receiver, continues his vertical press, but heads inside to the seam.
Conversely, Boyd starts out as the slot, but takes his vertical route outside to the fade.
Burrow throws the ball down the sideline and Boyd turns around to make a phenomenal catch for the first down.
Side Pocket pic.twitter.com/JmkAa3oiiK— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 15, 2021
On this play, the formation is condensed, so even though Higgins is the outside receiver on the top of the screen, he is in position to pressure the safety in the seam.
As he presses vertically, the safety speeds up, gaining depth, but not width. This opens up a lot of room on the sideline and as Higgins makes his cut on the corner route, he has all kinds of real estate to work with.
Another dime from Burrow results in a big pick-up for the Bengals.
Had the throw, but not the time pic.twitter.com/fymfrErejX— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 14, 2021
As you can see, the Bengals found a weakness in the 49ers’ Cover 2 that they could exploit, and they were successful. It’s also worth noting that they had success in this area using different formations, route-concepts, and players.
So why didn’t they do it more?
The answer is pass protection.
In the above clip, Burrow has his choice of side pocket throws. He’s got a receiver open on both the top and the bottom of the screen. He just doesn’t have enough time to make the throw.
For all the improvements that they have made, the Bengals still can’t trust their pass protection to hold up on a consistent basis. This fact is preventing them for truly unleashing Burrow and this pass game, even in games like this where they really need to.
That is the other piece to their above-mentioned strategy. If teams are worried about the run, they not only roll down a safety, their defensive linemen alter their stances. Instead of being in a long, thin stance designed for a speed pass-rush. They get more square and balanced, so they can take on run blocks.
Defenses that are worried about the run will also avoid overload blitzes that make them unsound and vulnerable. Passing into defenses that are poised for a run, makes life easier on your offensive line and protects your quarterback.
It’s fair to say that they should have taken more advantage of these side pocket throws and other holes in Cover 2. It’s also fair to say that, had they done so, the increased pressure on the quarterback would have led to more negative plays.
Unfortunately, that’s what it comes down to. Inconsistency on the offensive line severely limited their play calling. In the end, they lost this game in the trenches.