In 2021, the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense thrived on the long ball and explosive plays. Second-year quarterback Joe Burrow led the league in yards per pass attempt. Rookie receiver and 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja’Marr Chase finished fourth in the NFL in receiving yards and third in yards after the catch. Second-year receiver Tee Higgins put up his first 1,000-yard season.
That reliance on deep passes and big plays last year is exactly why the Bengals’ offense needs to evolve to succeed in 2022.
Looking at the defenses Cincinnati faced last season, not many of them used two-high safety looks against a young quarterback and two young receivers that hadn’t yet fully proven themselves. That meant Chase and Higgins got to take advantage of one-on-one matchups in Cover 1 looks all season and thrived in those situations.
After the season Burrow and his two leading receivers had, it’s obvious that teams are going to take his arm a lot more seriously in 2022. Burrow himself has acknowledged that the defensive looks the Bengals will see this season will be of a different nature than what they saw in his second year.
“Teams are going to be playing two-high and making us check the ball down and all that, so we’ve got to be able to sustain drives and run the ball and take what the defense gives us all the way up and down the field,” Burrow said to reporters a couple of weeks ago. “Then take those [big play] opportunities when they present themselves.”
In the coming season, teams know where the Bengals are going to want to go on the offensive side. Chase and Higgins simply won’t be getting as many looks in one-on-one man coverage because teams are going to commit more players to stopping them on the outside. With the additional fact that the Bengals gave their offensive line a facelift, it would make sense for defenses to commit more men to stopping receivers than to rushing the pass.
Burrow alluded to it a little bit, but an evolution of Cincinnati’s offense is going to have to include more dependence on the run game. Obviously, that means running back Joe Mixon will have to keep up his performance and production after his first Pro Bowl season, but Burrow could also play a big role.
Burrow has always been a mobile quarterback, dating back to his time at LSU. He was no Jalen Hurts or Lamar Jackson by any means, but he ran the ball with some frequency. In 2018, his first year at LSU, Burrow recorded 128 rushing attempts for 399 yards and seven touchdowns. The next season, he had 115 more rushes for 368 yards and five touchdowns.
As much as he succeeded as a passer because of his accuracy and ability to keep his eyes downfield and throw on the run, Burrow also had the mobility to succeed as a rusher on options and in draw plays. It’s not something we’ve seen much of at the NFL level thus far with just 77 career rushes. He rarely scrambles for extra yardage because he’s just so talented at throwing on the run even after the pocket collapses, and his knee injury as a rookie is likely what held him back from more designed runs. Now that he’s a full year removed from the injury, we could see him show off more versatility as a runner, especially during a year in which he’ll see more two-high looks.
An evolved Bengals offense also needs Burrow to continue doing something he already did well last season: spread the ball around and take what the defense gives him. A big part of that is getting slot receiver Tyler Boyd even more looks this season.
As great as Chase and Higgins were last year with their dual 1,000-yard seasons in Cincinnati, Boyd was right there with them as a relatively underrated piece of that offense. In 2021, Boyd had 828 receiving yards—including 389 after the catch—with five touchdowns while still seeing fewer than 100 targets.
In 2022, the Bengals’ slot receiver will no doubt get more looks over the middle as opposing defenses commit more of their focus to stopping Chase and Higgins on the outside. Considering how solid Boyd was after he had the ball in his hands in 2021, he should see even more production with some extra targets this season.
So while Cincinnati’s offense will have to evolve as opposing defenses adjust to try to stop them after 2022, the Bengals may not have such a hard time doing so. We may see fewer explosive plays from Higgins and Chase but see even more impressive seasons from Mixon and Boyd as well as more looks from Burrow as a rusher.
An imminent evolution doesn’t mean a difficult one, nor does it mean a less successful offensive showing. The Bengals will still be an offensive force to be reckoned with in 2022.
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