The Bengal Blueprint

Not long ago there was a common belief that so-called “college offenses” could never work in the NFL.

After a statement win against the Chiefs this past Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals have given us another example of why that old narrative is no longer true.

Coming out of college, Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow was one of the most accomplished passers in NCAA history. In his final season at LSU, Burrow shattered the SEC single-season record for passing touchdowns (60) and quarterbacked a Tigers’ offense that many view as the greatest in NCAA history.

That LSU team was loaded with talent across their roster, but another component of their success was the style of offense they ran.

The Tigers ran a modern spread offense where snapping the ball under center was rare, four and five receiver sets were common, and the word fullback wasn’t even in their dictionary.

The general principle of a spread offense is a rather simple one. It’s designed to… spread the field. By aligning offensive players across the width of a formation, they force defenses to respond by placing bodies in those same spots. In theory, this creates larger holes in the defense which talented offensive players and smart coaches can take advantage of.

Spread concepts have become more common in the NFL recently, but the schematic creativity seen at the college level has typically dwarfed what we’ve seen in the pros.

At least until recently.

When the Bengals’ drafted Burrow in 2020, they were a bad team.

They were coming off of an abysmal two-win season, their roster was starving for talent, and their head coach — Zac Taylor — was in just his second year in charge. Their team lacked a true identity, and they hoped Burrow could come in and provide them with a foundation to build upon.

Because Burrow was joining a team that wasn’t married to a specific scheme or style of play, the Bengals had the freedom to start from scratch when building around him. They figured the best way to do this was by recreating the environment he thrived in at college.

The Bengals aren’t running a carbon copy of that LSU offense, but many of their concepts are the same. They’re running a ton of wide-open sets, spreading the field wide, and recreating a style of offense that’s worked for Burrow in the past.

If we look at the personnel groupings Cincinnati is running this year, we notice they haven’t taken a single snap without a wide receiver on the field:

While they aren’t rolling out four or five receivers as often as LSU did, the formations they run from more traditional personnel packages are having that same effect.

They have a group of tight ends and running backs who are versatile enough to act as receivers on any given snap. This allows them to run formations traditionally designed for receiver-heavy sets while only having two or three on the field:

Emptying out the backfield isn’t unheard of in the NFL, but it’s rarely a central part of a team’s philosophy.

While the Bengals don’t do this on every single snap, they’re embracing the idea that these looks can be more than just an occasional wrinkle that’s used to shake things up. Formations like these are a key component within Cincinnati’s broader offensive philosophy that’s all about using space to gain an edge against your opponent.

In year two of the Joe Burrow era, this philosophy has been working.

The Bengals offense ranks 5th in the league in points scored (27.8 per game), they just clinched their first AFC North title since 2015, and Burrow is once again thriving in a wide-open offense.

However it’s not just scheme that’s causing the Bengals to take a major step forward this season — another element from that 2019 LSU offense is playing a major role as well.

When the Bengals drafted Ja’Marr Chase 5th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, they reunited Burrow with his favorite target at LSU.

Upon arriving in Cincinnati, Chase wasted no time making his presence felt.

Despite this being his first NFL season, he ranks 4th in the league in receiving yards (1,429) and 2nd in touchdowns (13) through 17 weeks. He’s already cementing himself as one of the best receivers in the game, and the impact he’s having on this offense in year one is nothing short of astounding.

Chase has the makeup of a true alpha receiver in the NFL. His freakish athleticism and well-rounded skillset mean he’s just as capable of beating defenders with his elite speed…

…as he is with his strength and physicality at the catch point.

Chase’s dominance on the outside doesn’t solely lead to gaudy individual stats though. He has a gravitational effect on any defense that lines up against him.

Much of the damage Chase inflicts on his opposition comes in the deep, outside portions of the field. His connection with Joe Burrow in these hard to reach locations amplifies the effects of Cincinnati’s spread offense by stretching the boundaries of a defense even further.

The impact Chase has on opposing defenses is similar to what we see from Steph Curry on a basketball court.

The threat of Curry’s limitless range as a shooter forces NBA defenders to consistently guard deeper and deeper beyond the three point line. By doing this, Curry stretches out (or spreads) the entire defense beyond their typical comfort level, which opens up space for the other four Warriors he shares the court with

Meanwhile, Chase is having a similar impact on NFL secondaries. He’s spreading defenses thinner and thinner by forcing them to cover areas of the field that are typically viewed as untouchable. He has a gravitational effect on opposing defenses that creates space for the rest of the Bengals’ playmakers in the middle and underneath portions of the field.

It’s easy to point to Chase’s gaudy stats and strictly use numbers to measure his impact, but what he’s doing for this offense goes far beyond the box score.

Of course creating an ideal environment for your quarterback doesn’t work if the quarterback can’t hold up his end of the bargain.

This hasn’t been a concern in Cincinnati.

Burrow’s stats this year have been eye-popping. He’s 5th in the league in passing yards (4,611) and 6th in touchdowns (34), yet to measure how truly impressive he’s been, we need to dive a little deeper into the numbers.

So far this season, Burrow’s leading the league in completion percentage (70.4%) — an impressive feat no matter how you slice it. Making this even more impressive though is the fact that he’s pulling it off while still ranking inside the top 10 in air yards per attempt (8.1).

This is simply unheard of.

League leaders in accuracy aren’t supposed to be the same guys pushing the ball downfield at high rates, yet Burrow’s doing it anyway. He’s emerging as a star in this league, and he’s playing for an organization that’s doing everything in their power to ensure he’s put in a position to succeed.

It’s not just an elite quarterback, X’s and O’s, or a superstar wide receiver that are driving the Bengals’ offensive success this year — it’s the combination of everything.

The Bengals used the 2019 LSU offense as their blueprint to build a contender around their young quarterback. Early signs indicate emulating arguably the greatest team in NCAA was a wise strategy, but only time will tell if Burrow can experience the same level of success while wearing a Bengals’ uniform.

Luckily for the Bengals, they’ve already locked up a playoff spot and have a chance to prove themselves once again when the games matter most.

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Michael Dolan

Michael Dolan

Football nerd who‘s here to learn and teach the sport by writing, analyzing, and studying the game. @TallGuyDolan on Twitter