False Narratives: Cincinnati Bengals

As the Kanas City Chiefs extended their lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers, it became clear that the Cincinnati Bengals would be traveling to Nashville to face the Tennessee Titans this Saturday. As local media members are known to do, they immediately had to put out a tweet with keys to the game or their quick thoughts on “intriguing storylines to watch,” thus setting the tone for the week’s talking points on the airwaves.

However, I’m here to tell you (as Jared Stillman put it): Ignore the noise. You’re going to see a lot of things out there about familiarity between former college teammates, how you have to pressure Joe Burrow, etc etc — storylines that really lack context, and some storylines that frankly just don’t matter.

So, I am going to give some thoughts, with assistance from fellow staffers here at Broadway Sports, to provide clarity, expectations, and insight into what is true and what is media fluff.

The Bengals’ Year So Far

The Bengals finished the regular season 10-7 with the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL, according to pro-football-reference.com. They clinched their division title in Week 17 and were able to rest key starters during Week 18.

Their most impressive win came in Week 17 over the Kansas City Chiefs, where they were able to pull off a 34-31 upset at home. Their 10 wins came against opponents with a .489 winning percentage, just barely shy of .500.

Much like the Titans, they have their share of horrible losses. They lost to the New York Jets, got blown out by the Browns in Week 9, and also lost to the hapless Chicago Bears led by Andy Dalton.

The Bengals are the NFL’s 7th-highest scoring team, and the 17th-best scoring defense. They have the 12th-highest scoring percentage in the league, scoring on 42.6% of their offensive drives. They have the 4th-lowest number of plays per drive, adding to the 17th-most yards per drive, and the 11th-most points per drive. So they’re very efficient with their offensive possessions.

If you’re into meaningless volume stats (which don’t take quality of opponent or number of plays into account), they have the 26th-ranked pass defense and the 5th-best rush defense in terms of yards.

Revenge Game?

Last year, the 5-1 Titans went up to Cincinnati to face the 1-5-1 Bengals in what should have been a “gimme game.” The Bengals were fielding third-string offensive linemen all over their line, and the Titans had a fully healthy squad of offensive weapons.

However, in true NFL fashion, the Titans continued their trend of playing historically bad defense and could not generate a sack on Joe Burrow. The Titans ended up losing the game 31-20, in a game that saw both Derrick Henry and Corey Davis go over 110 yards each.

So is this some sort of revenge game on the horizon? Not really.

This is a revamped defense. They have an actual defensive coordinator this go-around, coaching a unit that isn’t the worst in pressures, sacks, and third down percentage anymore.

Only five defensive starters from that game are still on the roster, with only three of the five guaranteed to play this game. Titans’ head coach Mike Vrabel will have this team focused on the present, not the past.

Fans and media play up this revenge factor more than the team will. Sure, I bet some players will have thought about it, but for the most part this team is coming in with a “that was then, this is now” type of mindset. As they should, and as fans should, too.

Familiarity

No doubt the main talking point is the familiarity that former college teammates will have with each other. As I am sure you’ve heard at least 25 times by now, Kristian Fulton, Joe Burrow, and Ja’Marr Chase all won a national championship at LSU together (along with Titans fullback Tory Carter, wide receiver Racey McMath, Bengals tight end Thaddeus Moss, and Bengals defensive lineman Tyler Shelvin).

Cool story, bros.

That was 2019 (and early January 2020). This is now two football seasons later where all players involved have improved their craft. There is no tactical advantage to be applied, even though talking heads will scream about it into their mics to your ears.

So why is this such a non-factor? I went to some of the pros. I spoke to former defensive backs coach, Johnathan Boren, who you should be listening to on Coaches Corner, and asked him his thoughts on this.

I don’t think it’s much of an impact. Anything Fulton knows about them, Chase and Burrow would know about him. I think it will be a minimal impact on the game.

-Johnathan Boren, Coaches Corner

No Flags Film, also a part of the Broadway Sports family, added to the discussion with this nugget: The Titans line their cornerbacks up on the same side every play — they don’t shadow. NFF also followed this up by showing the amount of defensive coverages the Titans have employed during the regular season.

The facts are that if you’re the opposing QB scanning the Titans defense, you’re going to see Fulton lined up on the left side. In fact, Fulton has lined up there almost exclusively since Week 2. He has 549 snaps on that side versus 28 snaps at the other.

Meanwhile, Chase splits the majority of his time fairly evenly on both sides. In terms of facing DBs using our example of Fulton’s side versus Jackrabbit’s side: Chase since Week 5 has run 234 routes on Fulton’s side and 183 on Jackrabbit’s. It still leans towards him seeing a lot of Fulton, but game by game has been more of a 2 or 4 routes-ran-difference on a per-game basis, which isn’t a lot.

Former offensive coach and offensive coordinator Ryan Watson, also of Coaches Corner, throws in his opinion:

Agree with Johnathan about Chase and Fulton. Also, each has learned/might have different tools now that they have learned in different schemes since college. Plus that was a few years ago right? Weaknesses might not be as weak anymore, etc.

– Ryan Watson, Coaches Corner

In the end, it’s a fun story that amounts to very little. I am sure there will be an NFL pregame segment done on the three of them at some point. I am sure some tendencies from the many practice reps over two years ago will present themselves, but ultimately the Bengals will dictate how much of Fulton vs Chase we see on Saturday. The tactical advantage would be putting Chase on 32-year-old Jackrabbit as much as possible (although Jackrabbit’s physical style of play is not as big of a mismatch as it would be against a speedier receiver).

So like I said, cool story, bros, but give me something with substance.

Pressuring Joe Burrow

I am going to let you in on a secret. If you have a successful pass rush that sacks the QB the majority of the game, then likely that quarterback won’t play well. That’s the overarching consensus. However, every quarterback handles pressure differently, and no quarterback in the league handled pressure this season better than Joe Burrow.

The narrative this week will be about how the main key to a Titans victory will be putting pressure on Burrow and forcing him to make mistakes. That’s easier said than done if you look at the advanced data.

Let’s get a few things out of the way, if you pressure any QB 10+ times they’re probably going to have a rough day moving the ball on offense. Burrow’s record in such games is 5-5. In games where he’s pressured less than 10 times, he is 5-1.

The Bengals’ OL ranks 30th in Pass Block Win-Rate, the worst out of the remaining playoff teams. It’s a horrendous group of pass blockers, but like I said before, what matters is how Burrow plays under pressure.

Burrow has only been pressured on 33.3% of drop backs, which is just 16th-most in the league. These pressures have converted into sacks 25.9% of the time, for the third-highest pressure-to-sack percentage in the NFL. Here are how his stats rank when under pressure.

Comp. %YardsTDsINTY/APasser Rtg.1st DownsTWP*TTT**
Joe Burrow60.91,142968.692.45593.32
NFL Rank1st5tht-2ndt-6th most1st1stt-5th mostt-15tht-19th longest
Regular Season
*Turnover Worthy Plays
**Time To Throw

What this data should tell you is that while the pass blocking offensive line is one of the worst in the league, the defensive coverage has to hold up to let the defensive pass rush get to Burrow to convert the sack. If Burrow has easy throws once the play breaks down, he will make your defense pay — and he is the best in the NFL at doing that.

Meaningless Volume Stats

One of the biggest gripes we have here behind the scenes at Broadway Sports are local media latching onto volume stats as an indicator of a team’s strengths and weaknesses. In their defense, it’s the most accepted way by and large, however the point is that we as a society need to evolve pass that.

Volume stats do not take into account the quality of opponent that the team has faced, the number of plays run to accumulate those stats, and often times, game script plays a big part as well. So when someone says: “The Bengals have the 5th-best run defense, so Henry will have a tough match up,” is that actually true?

The Bengals do have the 5th-best run defense in terms of yards allowed. In every other rushing category, however, they rank 13th or worse. So how were they able to rank so high in terms of rush yards allowed?

Well, look at the six games they won in which they allowed 90 yards or less on the ground. They outscored their opponents in the first half alone 110-37 in those games, which is an average of 18.3 to 6.2. Most teams will have to start passing more at this point, because of the big deficit, because of course the Bengals won’t just stop scoring at halftime.

So what should we, as analysts and fans, be looking at instead of volume stats? For rushing, average yards per attempt on the season. This takes into account game script more so than just volume stats. For reference, if you want to measure the pass defense, use EPA allowed per attempt, yards per attempt allowed, and passer rating allowed.

The Bengals are allowing 4.3 yards per rush attempt, which is 13th best in the NFL. Henry, before his injury, & D’Onta Foreman are at that 4.3 YPA mark, while Dontrell Hilliard is at 6.3 YPA. So the potential Titans’ rushing attack the Bengals will see averages out to just under 5.0 yards per attempt as a unit. So this, by that metric, is not as tough a matchup as some will lead you to believe (yards per carry can also be a dangerous metric, by the way, as it doesn’t take successful short yardage runs into account).

As of now, one key player for the Bengals has been ruled out after the team placed Larry Ogunjobi on Injured Reserve, and Trey Hendrickson is currently going through the concussion protocol. Both of those guys allow the linebackers to attack the run gaps, and this could be an even bigger blow for this unit on multiple fronts.

Conclusion

Don’t overthink parts of this game. The Titans are currently favorites, and while the Bengals are red hot coming into the game, the Titans with rest and Henry back should be able take care of business if they don’t commit too many mistakes. Don’t let people this week fill your head with thoughts about Fulton being able to shut down Chase cause they’re familiar. He will shut down Chase because he’s a fantastic cornerback.

Don’t let people tell you Henry will have a tough road versus a 5th-ranked Bengals rush defense. There are injuries on the Bengals defensive line, and they’re not that great on a per-attempt basis anyway.

Ignore the noise this week. Bring the noise on Saturday.

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