NFL Film Room - Week 2, 2020 - Joe Burrow: Looking Good Losing

By Tyler Arthur

We’re back, ladies and gentlemen. Last week we had some technical difficulties getting the All-22. But now, with Week 2 in the books, I’m taking a look at one of the most exciting players to watch in 2020; the first-overall draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, Joe Burrow.

The LSU star was picked above some incredibly talented players, most notably Chase Young and Tua Tagovailoa, and he was immediately plugged into the starting role on a poor Bengals team who have struggled massively in recent years.

The offense has some talented pieces on it, with Joe Mixon the star attraction at running back and AJ Green and Tyler Boyd offering good receiving weapons. The offensive line is very weak, something I recognised numerous times throughout this game, and it puts serious pressure on the QB to do one of two things – either he has to throw the ball faster and make his reads in a rush, or he has to scramble out of the breaking-down pocket regularly.

As you guys will see throughout this film room, Joe Burrow is very good at doing both of these things.

The Week 2 matchup for the rookie came in the battle of Ohio against The Cleveland Browns. It was also a battle of number one picks, facing Baker Mayfield in a prime-time matchup where both sides were coming off the back of losses.

Joe Burrow
Credit: Fox Sports (Getty Images)

Quick, Confident Release

For the first play we are going to look at a nice simple play to demonstrate how quickly and cleanly Burrow can get the ball in and out of his hands. Here the Bengals were on fourth and four and they came out in an empty set. First things first, it is awesome that they put their rookie QB in a position to make plays like this and be aggressive with his excellent ability in the short passing game.

The formation they set up in is Empty Trips Right. However they motion a tight end across the formation to move into this to confirm that the Browns defense are in man coverage, which they are. They are showing a cover 1 look, and not being subtle about it. Burrow can be seen signalling to the two receivers at the bottom of the screen, which is him giving them the call for how he wants to beat this coverage. Naturally, this means that he knows exactly where he is throwing this ball, and he can do so in rhythm and on target.

The playcall is a quick pick concept, where the outside receiver, Green, runs a 1 yard ‘slant’ route that is really just supposed to create traffic for the slot cornerback, as Tyler Boyd runs a flat route from the slot. He runs flat under his teammate and then turns up towards the sticks to try and position himself to catch the ball for a first down. Burrow gathers the ball and very quickly throws the ball to Boyd’s back shoulder, to ensure that he can’t be intercepted, and they easily convert for a first down.

These quick passes should be expected of any quarterback, but I thought that this play was a good sign of not only the confidence of Burrow but of the team in him – and not just because he was comfortable calling an audible at the line. He had over 60 pass attempts in his second ever game, so clearly he has the confidence of Head Coach Zac Taylor, but going for it on fourth and four in an empty set is the exact type of play calling I want to see to give the rookie a chance to prove himself and thrive.

Poor Play Recognition Or A Lack Of Protection?

The next play we are going to look at is a play from the second quarter that looks very different when you watch it on the all-22 film than it did with the broadcast camera angle.

So, as you can tell on the broadcast, the passing play concluded with an angle route to Joe Mixon for a really nice gain, but there is even more to this play and there was actually a bigger play to be had if Burrow had recognised a break down in the coverage.

The play call has the HB angle with a single receiver to the boundary side on a fade route, and then to the field there is a trips look with an in-line tight end. The TE runs an outside hitch route and the two wide receivers run a corner flat concept from a slot stack. This look to the right side is one that the Bengals like to use a lot, with one stationary target on most play calls, and often in the same direction as a concept that targets certain defensive looks.

The Browns defense come out in a Cover 6, but the way that it plays on this rep, it looks more like a broken cover 4 (because the left side safety was playing so narrow), and the only way that I worked out this was definitely a Cover 6 was that they ran the same thing on the next play. Let’s watch this play on the all-22:

The angle route was a good read as the linebackers gave a window for Joe Mixon, who is quick and a good receiving back, but you can actually now see that the fade down the left sideline was wide open for a would-be touchdown. A Cover 6 is fundamentally just a coverage that splits the field into two halves; the field side is playing a quarters (cover 4) shell, but then the boundary side just has one deep safety as if he’s in a Cover 2 – thus the name Cover 6. On this play, the left side safety didn’t respect the outside receiver enough and got caught on the eye candy of Joe Mixon’s quick breaking route.

The receiver running the fade even throws his hand up to try and signal to the rookie QB that he’s open, but unfortunately there was very quick pressure as the left tackle did a bad job of blocking. And if Burrow held on to the ball any longer, he would probably have been sacked. Plays like this always frustrate me on film, because it removes our chance to see if he would have made the read on the backside fade route.

So, the Bengals missed out on a touchdown because there was too much pressure and they couldn’t take advantage of the left side safety being very narrow (and the cornerback clearly isn’t aware of quite how narrow he is). They made up for it, though…

Lessons Learned Immediately

On the very next play, they came out in a heavy set, in 13 personnel, with all three tight ends in a three-point stance. The single wide receiver is to the field side. Joe Mixon motions out to the left side of the formation and sets up as a wide receiver, widening the cornerback and pushing the safety a bit deeper to respect the potential passing play, despite the run-heavy look they’re in.

Something that is abundantly clear to me when looking at this play is that someone on the Cincinnati sideline (not to mention the wide receiver himself and ideally Burrow) recognised what happened on the previous play, and they call a play here to specifically attack the area of the field where they were exposed.

This is a fun take on a four verticals play, from a very unique empty set. The right-side TE and the single wide receiver just run vertically, but then the three players to the left side pick on the defense with more direct routes. The TE closest to the centre runs an outside-release post route, and the second TE runs an arrow route directly to the front pylon.
The way that this play is designed is to directly attack a Cover 2 (or, if aimed at the correct side of the field, Cover 6), with the post widening first but then attacking the middle of the field inside the safety and the arrow route trying to attack the gap between the cornerback and the safety towards the sideline.

This is a perfect example of a play caller recognising an opportunity and executing a play that exposes the defense. Joe Mixon’s five-yard in route holds just enough intrigue for the cornerback to maintain the space, allowing Burrow to put the ball in the exact spot where CJ Uzomah could catch it between the CB and safety for a 23-yard touchdown.

The ball arrives at near enough the last possible moment, with the safety arriving for a last-ditch attempt to impact the play. Watching the play from the endzone camera allows you to recognise just how tight of a window this ball was fitted into. If this was a corner route, instead of the more uniquely direct route that Uzomah ran, the safety would almost certainly have been able to break on this pass. Joe Burrow’s footwork could have possibly been a bit quicker to get under way, but once he started his drop, he was efficient in getting to a throwing platform and deliver the ball on time.  

Putting It All Together

So, we’ve seen the quick and efficient decisions and throws, the ability to make passes within, and avoid taking unnecessary sacks in a collapsing pocket, and fit the ball into tight windows. Now let’s watch a play where he does all of the above.

Something that Burrow – be it a good thing he’s capable, or a shame that he has to – does very often, is extend plays out of the pocket and escape from pressure. He has 15 rush attempts for 65 yards and a touchdown, but he never forces the rush when he has to use his feet. The rookie is very comfortable tempering his speed, and keeping his eyes downfield when he’s scrambling.
On this play in particular, there was a curl and dig combination to the right side of the field, but the right tackle couldn’t do any more than just force the defensive end behind Burrow, as he beat him with a speed rush. Burrow had to step up in the pocket and escapes out and engages the scramble drill. Then, he makes one of the best throws I’ve seen this season.

Now, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that he had CJ Uzomah open on his curl route at the moment he started scrambling, but that doesn’t take away from how good of a snap this is to demonstrate his ability. This play and the throw at the end of it is very impressive. What is more impressive is that he makes these extended plays regularly. In this same game he had another ridiculous escape artist play – with a less outrageous throw, but this time an even more awkward pocket to navigate his way out of.

This play looks phenomenal from every angle, but the wired replay camera is my personal favourite. His escape from the pocket involved breaking a sack and then scrambling away from an army of Browns defenders (five of whom were between him and his nearest offensive lineman when he threw the ball), but he still kept his eyes downfield and threw the ball to Joe Mixon who was wide open. Just a little bonus note on this play, too, great job by the receiver who didn’t get the ball to move vertically as Burrow was scrambling to create space for his teammate.

It’s plays like these that I think are going to really keep defenses under pressure when facing Joe Burrow. You can get a great pass rush, and have solid coverage on the play, and he can still turn it into a first down, all on his own, whether with his legs or his arm – or both.

Competitor To The End

For our final play of this week, we are going to look at Joe Burrow’s final play. This says a lot, too, because the game was all-but over and yet for the second week in a row the rookie was executing a two-minute drill offense to try and score at the end of the game. Whilst this week it was just to at least give them a chance, last week they actually should have gone to OT.

On this play, 3rd and 9 from the Browns’ 10-yard line, the Bengals went five-wide once again and put the ball in their young star’s hands. They ran five verticals to the end zone and just let him make a play – running verts to the end zone from close range is more common than you think, and is basically just a game of leverage and throwing your receivers open – and it worked.

Burrow steps up through the pocket and threatens to scramble for the end zone, while keeping his eyes toward Tyler Boyd, who is able to gain leverage behind the defender trying to cover him, and delivers an accurate ‘my guy or nobody’ throw to the back of the endzone. This ball is literally unstoppable, and Boyd making the grab with his feet in bounds was impressive. When a QB plays as hard and as well as Burrow has in his first two games, his receivers will show up for him – hopefully AJ Green will get that memo soon.

All in all, I have been very impressed by Joe Burrow so far. He has played well in both of his starts, and despite the fact the team is 0-2, they have to be enthusiastic about their decision to draft the Heisman winner. The offense is looking better than it did last year, and their ability to go five wide and be aggressive with their passing game gives a much-needed balance, and offers Joe Mixon a better chance to produce when they do run the ball. Whilst I am excited about the improvisation that we see as a result of it, I think it’s safe to say Cincinnati need to focus a lot of their draft capital on improving their offensive line, to truly get the most out of their new star. The talent is there, and so is the confidence. I honestly can’t wait to keep watching as he proves to everyone that he was worth that first overall pick.

Tyler Arthur

NFL Film and Prospect Analyst

A graduated Journalism student, Tyler also writes for Read American Football and Gridiron Hub. He played Wide Receiver and eventually Quarterback for his university team at DMU, and is now using his knowledge and passion for learning to dive deeper into the analysis of X’s and O’s in the NFL.