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Offensive Player Rankings, Week 3: Fixing Bengals' passing game

It's been a grim -- REAL grim -- start to the 2022 season for the Cincinnati Bengals' offense.

Last season, the offensive line was perceived as one of the only weak spots in an attack that helped carry Cincinnati to the Super Bowl. Fixes made to that unit this offseason raised expectations. But Joe Burrow and Co. have fallen far short, with the offense failing to find any sort of rhythm and settling into the bottom half of the NFL in terms of yardage, while the team has gone 0-2 this season.

And there's one aspect of the Bengals' struggles that rings uncomfortably true to me.

In 2021, Burrow was the most-sacked quarterback (51) in the NFL. And despite the revamped line in front of him, the third-year pro has again struggled to stay upright, pacing the league once more with 13 sacks through Week 2.

"I think we've given up too many sacks, absolutely," Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said after Sunday's loss to the Cowboys.

That is, to put it mildly, an understatement. It's been tough to watch Burrow -- whose rookie season was, after all, derailed by a torn ACL and MCL -- repeatedly brought to the ground. And not to one-up everyone, but unlike most people on this planet, I actually know what Burrow's going through:

Per NFL Research, the last quarterback in the NFL to take 13-plus sacks through Week 2 and start more than 10 games is ... yours truly, with the Houston Texans in 2002 and 2005. (Let me tell you, I just love when these stats resurface.)

This unfortunate perspective gives me some authority to explore ways the Bengals could snap out of their offensive doldrums.

Before I dive into that, though, I should say: I thought the team did a nice job addressing the O-line in the offseason, signing free agents Ted Karras, La'el Collins and Alex Cappa. The approach copied the blueprint used last offseason by the Kansas City Chiefs to overhaul their O-line to better protect a franchise quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) who had just been pressured endlessly in a Super Bowl loss. (Sound familiar?)

Luckily for the Chiefs, their new O-line jelled enough that the team finished in the top 10 in pass-blocking grade, per Pro Football Focus, in 2021. So far in 2022, Cincinnati has had no such luck. The Bengals ranked 25th in pass-blocking grade last season -- and through two weeks this year, they've barely improved, nudging that ranking up to 23rd.

As is the case with most units on a football team, it can take time for an offensive line to build chemistry. But the Bengals don't have a lot of time, given that they currently sit at the bottom of the AFC North, with a divisional loss (to the Steelers) already on their ledger.

To fix their offensive woes, the Bengals must start helping Burrow out by moving the pocket. The easiest way to do that is through play-action, but this is something the Bengals use very little of. Burrow has used play-action on only 13.7 percent of his dropbacks this season, fifth-lowest in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. Last year, his play-action rate was 18.7 percent, fourth-lowest league-wide.

It is ironic, given that he was plucked off the Kyle Shanahan-Sean McVay coaching tree, but Taylor's offense relies on dropback pass scenarios, with three-wide receiver sets used to spread the field. Taylor is constantly looking to push the ball vertically with a trio of talented wideouts (Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd).

Burrow was one of the more effective downfield throwers in the NFL last season, ranking in the top two in the league in completion percentage, passing yards per attempt and passer rating on downfield passes. This year, though, Burrow sits in the bottom two in each of those categories. Chase, meanwhile, hasn't been targeted deep once on any of the 102 routes he's run this season, after ranking third in receiving yards on passes of 20-plus air yards in 2021. Considering Burrow is also facing higher sack and pressure percentages in 2022 than he did last season, it seems he isn't able to stay clean long enough for plays to develop.

The performance of the O-line limits the scheme in a way that leaves Burrow a sitting duck when facing elite defenses like those in Dallas and Pittsburgh. Burrow was pressured on 21.4 percent of his dropbacks in Week 2 versus the Micah Parsons-led Cowboys and on 36.7 percent in Week 1 against the Steelers. And anyone wanting to argue Burrow is holding the ball too long should consider his average time-to-throw mark (2.58 seconds) is seventh-quickest in the league this season.

The Bengals have only been competitive this season because guys like Chase are elite. The second-year wideout can win one-on-one against any defender, but most of his highlight-reel plays are contested when in reality he should be schemed wide open like Cooper Kupp. The percentage of targets on which Chase has been considered open this season (36.0) is easily the lowest of the players ranked in the top 10 in receiving yards, per NGS; seven of those players have been open on 40 percent of their targets or more.

Based on the numbers, it would seem there are things Taylor could do to make life easier for the offense. Until Taylor implements some more QB-friendly tactics, I fear Burrow will continue to struggle behind an offensive line still learning to work together and protect him.

Top 15 Offensive Players

Each week of the 2022 NFL season, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr will take a look at all offensive players and rank his top 15. For the first quarter of the season, the rankings are based on a combination of:

1) Player accomplishments from the 2021 season.
2) Weekly performances, factoring in strength of opponent.

Rankings will be solely judged on this season's efforts following Week 4. Heading into Week 3, here is Carr's list:

Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · QB

Allen and the Bills are still full steam ahead in 2022 after blazing through the Tennessee Titans on Monday night. The MVP favorite through two weeks did all of the right things, throwing for 317 yards and four touchdowns (three to Stefon Diggs) in just three quarters of action. Next week should provide a bigger test: the Bills head to South Beach to take on another undefeated team

Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · QB

The Chargers had the Chiefs on the ropes for what felt like most of Thursday night's AFC West contest, jumping to a 17-7 lead in the third quarter; to be quite honest, L.A. should've built a much bigger lead. Mahomes deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Chiefs in it, making some routine Mahomes magic in the process, including the 9-yard TD pass to Jerick McKinnon to get the Chiefs on the board in the second quarter. Mahomes' ability to stay even-keeled no matter the deficit and to get everyone involved -- nine players have had at least one reception in both of the Chiefs' wins this season -- are big reasons why the Chiefs were able to complete the late comeback. It's also why they are still considered one of the AFC's best. 

Cooper Kupp
Los Angeles Rams · WR

The Falcons' defense was no match for Kupp, who had 108 receiving yards and two TDs on 11 receptions, marking his 15th straight regular-season game with 90-plus yards. What's scary is Kupp is ahead of his record-setting pace from last year through two games:

  • Weeks 1-2, 2022: 29 targets, 24 rec., 236 rec. yds, three rec. TDs
  • Weeks 1-2, 2021: 21 targets, 16 rec., 271 rec. yds, three rec. TDs
Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers · QB

The Packers' offense looked much better in Week 2 than it did in Week 1, with Green Bay leaning on the run game and limiting mistakes against the Bears. When he did throw it, Rodgers turned to his more experienced pass catchers, including Sammy Watkins, Aaron Jones and Randall Cobb. Green Bay's backfield tandem of Jones and AJ Dillon must continue to lead the way while Rodgers, who is now 9-0 in the game after a loss under Matt LaFleur, builds trust with his skill position players. 

Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts · RB

The Colts looked terrible Sunday when getting shut out by the Jaguars. Taylor posted just 4 rush yards in the first half and finished with his fewest carries (nine) since Week 10 of 2020 (his rookie season). Here's a thought: Until Matt Ryan starts throwing to guys in Colts uniforms, maybe hand the ball off to last year's rushing champion. 

Justin Herbert
Los Angeles Chargers · QB

Herbert pitched a near-perfect game until that fateful pick-six at the goal line with a little more than 10 minutes remaining. It's tough, because Herbert showed so much growth in every aspect year-over-year through three quarters. He also displayed toughness down the stretch when playing through a rib cartilage fracture. There's a lot to praise following Herbert's Week 2 performance, but the overriding feeling is that he let this division tilt get away.

Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens · QB

Jackson put the Ravens in position to improve to 2-0 with a dazzling performance through three quarters, logging touchdown passes like this and touchdown runs like this. This game should've never gotten away from Baltimore, but the offense stalled out and the defense allowed 28 fourth-quarter points to facilitate Miami's epic comeback win. Jackson -- who posted his 11th career game with at least 100 rush yards (the most all time by a quarterback) -- has always been able to take over with his legs, but it's great to see him improving as a passer. All three of his touchdown passes Sunday came against the blitz, one week after he threw three pass TDs on non-blitz plays.

Travis Kelce
Kansas City Chiefs · TE

As exciting as last Thursday night's Chargers-Chiefs bout was, it was weird not seeing Kelce playing a huge part in the story. The perennial Pro Bowler had just five receptions for 51 yards, though three of those catches resulted in first downs. 

Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings · WR

With Kirk Cousins struggling mightily against an opportunistic Eagles defense, Jefferson understandably was frustrated Monday, amassing just 48 yards on six catches. It looked as if Cousins and Jefferson were often not on the same page. The Vikings seem to always find ways to come back down to earth after a big win, and they did it again (due to a number of reasons).

Ja'Marr Chase
Cincinnati Bengals · WR

Chase has been targeted 25 times through the first two weeks of the season. Seeing that number, you might assume he's racked up 300-some receiving yards. But that's not the case -- for all the reasons I mentioned at the top of this article. Chase will win his matchups more often than not, but it's time Zac Taylor starts putting his star wideout in more favorable situations.

Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · QB

Brady continues to find ways to win games despite losing key players -- to injuries, ejections, you name it. He got his first regular-season win over the Saints since joining the Bucs, thanks to finally finding some sort of offensive rhythm and the defense forcing Jameis Winston to makes plays down the stretch. It hasn't been pretty, but the Bucs are 2-0 heading into a Sunday night tilt with Aaron Rodgers.

Davante Adams
Las Vegas Raiders · WR

Though Adams caught a 1-yard TD pass on the Raiders' opening possession, he recorded his fewest receiving yards (12 yards on two catches and seven targets) in a game since Week 7 of 2012. This came a week after he had a 10/141/1 outing.

Tyreek Hill
Miami Dolphins · WR

After Sunday's comeback win over Baltimore, Hill said Mike McDaniel's second-half play-calling "was like he was playing Madden." He's not wrong. That observation captures the luxury, for coaches, of working with a dynamic player like Hill (just ask Andy Reid). It's not just Hill's ability to score on from anywhere on the field, but how he opens the field for the rest of the offense (SEE: Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki). The Dolphins scored 28 fourth-quarter points, with Hill recording touchdown receptions of 48 and 60 yards. This offense has become one to watch.

Nick Chubb
Cleveland Browns · RB

Chubb knows he has to be the guy in the offense to keep the Browns competitive while Deshaun Watson serves his suspension. And honestly, he's doing just about everything he can in that role. Against the Jets, Chubb hit paydirt three times to help the Browns build a 13-point lead with 2 minutes remaining in regulation. OK, so he'd take that last score back if he could; still, it's too bad the defense decided not to protect that lead.

Stefon Diggs
Buffalo Bills · WR

No two players are more in sync this season than Josh Allen and Diggs. They have already connected for 20 receptions, 270 receiving yards and a league-leading four receiving TDs (including three vs. the Titans on Monday night). Having a reliable wideout in Diggs, who thrives under the lights, will be key to the Bills fulfilling their Super Bowl aspirations.

JUST MISSED: Derek Carr, QB, Raiders (Previously No. 13); Joe Burrow, QB, Bengals (No. 14); A.J. Brown, WR, Eagles (No. 15), Derrick Henry, RB, Titans; Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants; Jalen Hurts, QB, Eagles.

Follow David Carr on Twitter.

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