After a shocking run to the AFC North and AFC Titles, with a narrow Super Bowl loss, the Bengals’ hopes as a franchise entering 2022 couldn’t have been much higher. A discouraging week 1 loss, with Joe Burrow rusty off a busted appendix/stunted offseason was a bummer, but did little to dissuade the excitement of the fanbase. When week 2 came to a close, that changed. The Bengals won a lot in 2021, but they were flawed. The offense was talented but inefficient, far too dependent on high-variance explosives. Ranking just 11th in the NFL total Expected Points Added (EPA) per play, behind the likes of New England and Arizona in 2021, it was clear the Bengals were frankly a bit lucky to achieve what they did the previous season. Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn had exposed them, and the Bengals were 0-2. What was a fun, surprising Super Bowl run appeared to be nothing but a passing curiosity in the broader NFL landscape.
Like at LSU, Chase and Burrow, in 2021, lived on a play known as 989. The basic idea is that you have to go routes on the outside and a bender in the middle. The concept is designed for single-high coverages like 1 and 3, where the offense will have one on ones outside, and for when your players are just better than theirs. Just have Chase go win deep and have Burrow drop it in the bucket, the same way they did it at LSU. These explosives were the lifeblood of the 2021 Bengals offense.
The Return of Tampa-2
In order to understand why the Bengals started the season so poorly, and to understand the way modern defenses are dealing with explosive passing games, understanding Tampa is just as important as the Vic Fangio coverages that have gotten a ton of airtime.
When played well, Tampa-2 is among the most structurally sound coverages ever invented. It defined an entire era of defensive football, launched the careers of coaches like Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin into the stratosphere, and forced changes in how offenses were run. 20 years later, it’s having the same effect on spread offenses in the NFL, and even now making a mark on the collegiate game. Resurgent defenses like Illinois, UConn, and Missouri gave QBs a lot of difficulty with different presentations of the coverage on passing downs this past season.
The structure of Tampa isn’t exactly complicated, but it’s sound and does a good job of constricting space across the field. That said, the main utility of Tampa is that you have clouds (CB covers the flat, Safety over the top) on each of the outside receivers, while also having a defender in the deep middle. The result for offenses, when the coverage is well-executed, is the inability to create big plays down the field in the passing game.
The roles of individual players may be switched around, but the end result is always something like this. The roles, in the most standard presentation of Tampa (again, roles may be switched to create moving pictures and disguises for the QBS), are as follows:
CBs; Cloud (Play the flat). Often the CB will be asked to be physical with the WR to knock him off his route, or he may be asked to sink on anything behind him, but broadly, they play the flats.
Safeties: Deep Half. The job of the safeties in Tampa is to cap anything vertical on the outsides, nothing gets behind them.
OLBs: Hook/Curl. Their job is to squeeze the hook windows in the intermediate seams, playing out to the curl windows if there is nothing there.
MLB: Middle Runner. He takes deep middle, if nobody is in the deep middle, a lot of times he will be asked to flip his hips back and look to nail down anything in the intermediate middle
Here we see how Tampa takes care of 989. The outside WRs are both clouded, and the middle runner takes care of the middle read route, forcing Burrow to hold the ball and try to make a play, where he’s run down by the edge.
One of the best ways to punish Tampa-2 is with the run. Because the Safeties have to play so deep, they have to be out of the run-fit, which gives the defense a numbers disadvantage in the box. Due to the Bengals' lack of use of under-center play-action, combined with an outside-zone-based run game they ran primarily from under center, they couldn’t punish these two high looks with the run, as teams could easily check out them when they saw the Bengals under center. As a result, their run game never actually saw Tampa. They could get into bear fronts like above, spin a safety down, and be heavy against the run while still stopping the vertical passing game because those elements of the offense were completely separated. Dan Quinn put together a complete gameplan that also could have served as an effective blueprint for future opponents on the Bengals’ schedule.
BUT...soon after this game, the Bengals adjusted!
PASS GAME ADJUSTMENTS
Around week 5, the Bengals shifted toward quick and intermediate pass concepts to take advantage of the windows opened by 2 high coverages. Teams were SO SCARED of their ability to create explosive plays that they were willing to get hit with 8-20 yard completions over and over and over. The Bengals took full advantage of that fear.
One of the best ways to punish these coverages in the pass game is to put 4-5 guys in the concept, and put the 2nd level defenders into hi-lo conflict. The Safeties have to prevent the verticals, so you can operate in the space underneath them. This is a concept called RACE by Bengals HC/offensive play-caller Zac Taylor’s former boss Sean McVay, but has many names across football.
One weakness of Tampa 2 is that there is a lot of space behind and inside the Hook-Curl defenders. So teams will place a “hi-lo” on the Hook-Curl. If he jumps underneath to cover what some coaches call the “idiot route” (one of my mentors at UConn taught me that term) underneath, you can throw the dig into space behind him. If he gets proper depth (a lot of Tampa-2 coaches teach that anything under the 5-yard mark is a “no cover zone”), you can take a free 7-8 yards beneath him.
Swiss is particularly good against Tampa because the special route (deep over from number 3 in a 3x1) runs off the Middle Runner. In Tampa, if there is nothing vertical, a lot of the time that middle-read player will be taught to flip his hips back and squat in the middle so you need the special to clear out the space for the dig. From there, it’s just a hi-lo on the Hook-Curl defender like the previous play against Atlanta.
Tampa-2 isn’t the only 2-high structure the Bengals were presented with. Here they run an out-dig pairing, an extremely similar concept to RACE but a more versatile one. If it’s quarters or a 4 deep, 2 under pressure coverage like this. and the CB bails deep, you can put the linebacker in horizontal conflict as well as vertical. because only he is in a position to play either route. Even when teams wanted to add an extra body to the rush, they were hesitant to play single high looks for fear of being gashed like they were in such situations a year ago, creating opportunities underneath.
Choice routes can be really good against 2-high coverages as well, with the Bengals running McVay/Shanahan’s CHOICE STUCKO frequently.
This is more of a Cover-2 “carry” type of coverage with man principles underneath. Still, it plays out like quarters in the underneath windows, which gets torched by these choice routes because it only features has 3 underneath defenders. With the corners sinking hard, only the NICKEL, MIKE, and WILL remain underneath. With the MIKE pushing to the front side, the choice route simply needs to read the leverage of his defender and either way, he’s open.
The Bengals got a lot of regular quarters and Cover-6 (quarter-quarter-half) as well, which are other types of two-high structures. Against these looks, if you have a QB who is really sharp with his timing, anticipation, and placement, these seam benders can be really effective to target. A bender is a vertical stem that, if capped by a safety, the route-runner can flatten and “bend” underneath into space. If this play were Cover-3 and the S were in the middle, Hurst would continue straight. The timing and placement are critical though, Burrow does a great job layering it just over the WILL here who, when he sees the back release into the flat to the trap corner, works back to the front-side, and gets it in just before the S can make a play. The intermediate stuff is HARD for a QB, so to do what the Bengals do against these coverages, you need one who is very sharp and can pick those tight windows with the proper timing.
Commonly seen with 4 verticals, these bender routes are really good against quarters and Cover-6. The Bengals did a good job all year of spacing out underneath defenders and ripping these benders behind them and underneath the safety attached to different concepts.
Being as spread out as the Bengals are allows put a lot of guys in the concept, with route structures aimed at attacking multiple different coverages and having the QB pick where to go based on what they do. To the strong side, the Bengals have what they call “ZEUS,” which is an underneath shallow route paired with a corner. This is good against Cover-2. To the backside, the Bengals have a shallow cross (coming from the frontside) paired with a dig from the nub TE. This creates the same “hi-lo” effect created by those concepts discussed earlier. The Bills are in Cover-6, with the quarters side to the ZEUS concept, so Burrow moves his eyes to the backside hi-lo and hits it on time in the space underneath the safeties. Having a QB like Burrow gives you the ability to do this because it’s a lot to process, but it’s also a lot to cover.
For Ja’Marr Chase, our other friend, it was a bit more boring of a season because defenses were terrified of him and his vertical connection with Burrow. When they weren’t playing Cover-2, corners played him extremely softly, with loose quarters and soft cover-3. As a result, his usage was primarily on deep comebacks, blaze-outs, stops, and other routes designed to punish the cushions he was given. Chase presents a home-run threat so large that defenses have to be willing to concede a free 10-15 yards to him if they aren’t going to cloud him in Cover-2.
In an effort to get him the ball, the Bengals moved him around a bit more. Here he runs a sail from the slot to beat quarters.
The classic way to punish 2-high is by running the football. With light boxes, defenses made themselves a bit more vulnerable to the run than they’d ideally like to be. The Bengals run game was efficient, but not explosive. The Bengals ranked 13th in rushing success rate last season, ahead of lauded, well-designed running games like Detroit, Dallas, and Chicago, but they ranked 28th in runs of 20+ with just 7 all season.
Midseason, the Bengals shifted away from their outside zone-based framework to a more downhill, inside zone and gap scheme (counter, power, duo, crunch) based gun run game which marries better with their passing game, as it can be operated from the gun. By presenting the same looks, they prevent teams from keying in on the run as they did early in the season.
They also took advantage of lighter boxes by putting 2nd-level defenders in conflict with the RPO.
As Dan Quinn did with the old one in week 2, I think Ravens DC Mike MacDonald, at the end of the season, demonstrated a way to give the Bengals new offense some trouble. By living in two-high alignments pre-snap and rotating after the snap to single-high coverages, you can take away the Bengals answers to 2-high WITHOUT them keying in on it and taking shots, provided you mix it well with actual 2-high coverages. If you mix coverages well, you can prevent them from punishing you deep while also making their quick and intermediate answers difficult. Because the Bengals don’t play heavy personnel groupings like 12 or 21, it’s hard to keep defenses honest, create 1 on 1s outside, and most importantly, keep them static/predictable on the back end by making them put that safety down in the box before the snap. Here we see an example of a 3-SKY (S down to flat) rotation from a 2-high shell that does a good job squeezing the intermediate windows while presenting as 2-high.
The other problem with 11 personnel is that you have to win a lot of 1v1s up front, and it’s easier for defenses to survive playing down a body in the run-fit and stay in 2-high to stop the vertical pass. When you mix in those heavier packages, defenses have to bring that safety down or they will sustain an untenable amount of damage on the ground. The Bengals stay on schedule in the run game, but as mentioned earlier, they don’t present any threat of explosives, which is what it takes to make defenses honor it.
Going forward, I do think the Bengals would be well-served to play more 12 personnel to keep defenses honest and open up explosive opportunities for their stars on the outside, but they’ll have to get a couple of versatile TEs to do that (this is a bit of a teaser for one of my next pieces). Additionally, they’d need to get much better at under-center play-action to keep teams from keying in. That said, the Bengals offense is in much better shape than it was a year ago, and it’s hard not to be optimistic about the present and future for Burrow and Chase in Cincinnati.