CINCINNATI — Leaning back and with his arms folded across his chest, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan tried to visualize some of Joe Burrow’s most important throws of the season.
Cincinnati’s quarterback has made several dazzling, downfield passes. But the one Callahan was trying to recall was Burrow’s best checkdown. Eventually he settled on two key plays in a Week 11 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On one of them, Burrow scanned the middle of the field before glancing at running back Samaje Perine, one of the secondary options on that play. That checkdown yielded a 6-yard touchdown in a 37-30 win, the Bengals’ first against an AFC North opponent this season.
On the surface, it was one of many nondescript passes Burrow has made. But it illustrated one of the major reasons the Bengals’ offense is one of the best in the NFL this season.
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In Burrow’s third year as a pro, getting the little throws right has resulted in massive gains. As teams have sought to keep the Bengals’ playmakers contained, Burrow hasn’t been shy about taking the checkdowns at his disposal. And the throws that can be perceived as momentary surrender have instead been what has propelled Cincinnati’s franchise quarterback and his offense to new heights.
“To see him improve an area of his game that really helped the offense reach the next level that we’re capable of reaching was really a joy to be around and watch and to coach,” Callahan said. “He just started to understand what it meant to move our offense efficiently, that it didn’t have to always be a touchdown. We don’t always have to have an explosive play.”
The Bengals (11-4) will bring one of the league’s top offenses to a Monday night showdown with the Buffalo Bills (12-3) in Cincinnati (8:30 pm ET, ESPN/ABC/ESPN2/ESPN+).
Cincinnati ranks sixth in points per drive, up from 11th a year ago, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Bengals are also fifth in red zone efficiency and ninth in plays per drive, with the latter showing significant improvement from a year ago when the Bengals were 29th.
A lot of that success is derived from Burrow’s improvement in his short game.
Burrow has the second-fastest time to throw among qualifying quarterbacks this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, at 2.55 seconds per attempt. His air yards per attempt ranks 27th in the league.
Monday night’s matchup pits the reigning AFC champions against the Bills, the current No. 1 seed in the conference and the betting favorites to win the Super Bowl. After Burrow completed a career-high 40 passes in a win over the New England Patriots last weekend, he was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week for the third time this season, matching Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen.
Thirty-three of those completions were for 10 or fewer air yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
“Everytime something like that happens,” Bengals quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher said, “it just kind of reinforces for you that just cause I’m checking the ball down doesn’t mean I’m surrendering.”
IN 2021, as the Bengals marched to their first Super Bowl appearance in 33 years, they were reliant on one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses. Cincinnati, which struggled with big plays in Burrow’s injury-shortened 2020 season, led the NFL in yards per attempt (8.66). Nine of Cincinnati’s passing touchdowns came on throws of 25 or more air yards, the highest total in the league.
In the playoffs, however, those big throws all but disappeared. The Bengals’ yards per attempt dropped to 7.77, and Cincinnati’s two longest completions — a 46-yarder to Ja’Marr Chase and a 75-yarder to Tee Higgins — didn’t come until the team’s Super Bowl loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
As the Bengals looked to rebound from that loss, Burrow and the offense knew opposing defenses would try to prevent them from going deep. The number of zone coverages Cincinnati has faced has increased in 2022. That includes Cover 2 formations, which has risen slightly from 22.4% to 23.8%.
“The goal is always to get an explosive [play]but that’s not the reality,” Burrow said.
Burrow has adjusted by taking the underneath receivers if there’s nothing available downfield. It is the area in which the third-year quarterback believes he has grown the most this season.
“Overall, I’m playing the game faster and finding the checkdowns quickly when I need to,” Burrow said in December. “That’s allowing them to turn those checkdowns into 7- or 8-yard plays.”
That improvement, Burrow said, is a result of getting more experience.
“You learn from your mistakes and you learn from reps and playing more ball, understanding what defenses are trying to do to you,” he said.
Learning how to manage those situations isn’t limited to games. During individual drills in practice, Burrow and Pitcher — who took over as quarterbacks coach in 2020 — talk through various scenarios.
For example, Pitcher will set up a Tampa 2 defense. While the other receivers are working in separate drills on one of the fields, Burrow is on the other, throwing passes to whoever is available, whether it be assistant equipment managers or an offensive assistant. Burrow will analyze the depth of would-be defenders and determine which situations are ideal for a checkdown.
“Part of what you have to do is use your imagination a little bit,” Pitcher said. “You’re not just dropping back in front for the hell of it. You’re trying to see what it is in front of you that would force you to throw the ball to the spot.”
BURROW’S PROCLIVITY FOR patience and checkdowns in 2022 can be illustrated in the receiving production of Cincinnati’s top two running backs.
Joe Mixon has career highs in receptions (55) and receiving yards (400), breaking marks he set in 2021 despite having played in three fewer games. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Mixon has five fewer targets than Tyler Boyd, Cincinnati’s No. 3 wide receivers. As a group, Cincinnati’s running backs have the third-most targets in the NFL coming into Week 17, trailing only the Los Angeles Chargers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Perine, who has four receiving touchdowns and converted 11 of his 37 catches for first downs, said that even though they don’t practice checkdowns in practice, they know that everything is on the table.
Perine added the chemistry with Burrow has been built over the past two years, but the Week 11 win over the Steelers provided a tangible sign of their understanding. With Chase out because of a hip injury, Perine and Mixon combined for seven catches for 94 yards despite Mixon missing the entire second half because of a concussion.
Callahan said when Burrow throws a checkdown, there’s an implicit trust in his receivers to make something happen after the catch, an aspect Perine echoed.
“He trusts me to be where I’m supposed to be,” Perine said. “I trust that if nothing’s open downfield, he’s going to find me and get me the ball. I just feel like over these past few weeks, it’s just been ramping up and he’s getting more and more trust in us. We’re getting open and making plays.”
BURROW’S WORK ON checkdowns are a testament to the way he constantly tweaks different aspects of his game. Ahead of the 2021 season, Burrow sought to increase velocity on his throws to help produce a more explosive offense. Before the 2022 campaign, Burrow had to overcome a ruptured appendix he suffered in late July, a situation that left him hospitalized for days and caused him to miss a large portion of training camp.
Jordan Palmer, the private quarterback coach for several NFL starters, including Burrow and Allen, compared the position to a point guard in basketball who can constantly deliver the ball to players in favorable matchups.
“I think what Joe’s capable of doing is creating shots,” Palmer said. “He can move in the pocket and drop a dime. He also takes what they give him and is letting the game come to him.”
That point hasn’t been lost on Burrow this season. After a Week 7 win over the Atlanta Falcons, he credited the rise of the team’s explosive plays on the ability to capitalize on the short game.
“When you take those checkdowns and turn them into 8 yards up and down, defenses get impatient,” Burrow said in October. “Then they get more aggressive, so we have more opportunities.”
This year, the work on the checkdowns has led to key conversions and even a few touchdowns like the one to Perine in Pittsburgh.
“[It] didn’t plan out the way we expected it,” Burrow said after that game. “But, you know, that’s sometimes how it works.
“And checkdowns end up being touchdowns.”