The Buffalo Bills loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the Divisional round of the playoffs somehow felt worse than the final score of 27-10. The Bengals dominated from the opening kickoff and coasted through much of the game on their way back to the AFC Championship game. A big part of Cincinnati’s success came from an effective passing game. With that in mind, let's take an in-depth look at how they were able to exploit the Bills’ secondary.
Quarterback Joe Burrow seemingly had wide-open receivers all over the field for most of the game. Buffalo desperately tried to find coverages to slow down Cincinnati’s high-powered passing attack, especially in early action. Slippery field conditions, missed assignments, injuries, and bad tackling contributed to the Bills’ struggles. But let's give proper credit to the Bengals — their coaches came in with an excellent game plan that schemed a talented group of receivers open and gave Burrow opportunities to make high-percentage throws.
Cincinnati excelled in finding creative ways to run simple plays. They were down three starters on the offensive line and adjusted accordingly. By using a good mixture of pre-snap motion and play action they kept Buffalo's front six guessing. It also helped that they effectively ran the ball. Cincinnati incorporated numerous quick-hitting, short passes, but when they did attempt some longer-developing routes, they always left Burrow an easy dump-off route. Burrow quickly went through his reads and took what the defense gave him. Oftentimes, the simple dump-off passes turned into chunk plays because of poor tackling by the Bills. This gave Burrow little reason to test his luck forcing the ball into tight windows down the field.
By the numbers
Burrow posted a stat line of 23-of-36 for 242 yards with two touchdowns. He didn’t throw an interception and he was only sacked once. The Bengals' leading receivers were wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (five receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown), and tight end Hayden Hurst (five receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown). Here are some interesting Next Gen Stats from the game:
Looks like zone coverage wasn’t working well for the Bills in the first half.
5. Burrow is 16-22 for 150 yds and a TD when the Bills rush 4 or fewer, which maybe isn’t a great idea to use this front as Burrow has the 3rd most attempts, completions and yards from week 1-WC when defenses have attacked this way— cynthia frelund (@cfrelund) January 22, 2023
Buffalo’s defense did incorporate some blitzing as the game went on, but this statistic was surprising to me. A few times the Bills “blitzed” but dropped a lineman into coverage, which I will show later in the All-22 analysis.
A majority of Burrow’s throws were within five yards or behind the line of scrimmage. This shows that the Bengals kept it simple and were able to gain yards after the catch. Burrow took an average of 2.50 seconds to throw from the snap according to Next Gen Stats. These quick throws allowed Cincinnati’s receivers to run shorter routes and get the ball to their dangerous playmakers quickly so they could make defenders miss.
Burrow doesn’t give Chase to Poyer
The Bills brought a blitz off the edge with Taron Johnson and played Cover 3 behind it. The blitz did actually force Burrow out of the pocket, but he still found Ja’Marr Chase wide open for a touchdown. Burrow did an excellent job of looking off Jordan Poyer to the right side of the play, which led Poyer away from Chase in the middle of the field. The Bengals also ran the tight end to the flat which, for some reason, made two Bills defenders bite up on it and leave the middle of the field open. Ideally, Edmunds would have stayed in the middle of the field and ran with Chase until Poyer could have adjusted and covered him from the top side.
Poyer doesn’t provide the wheel cover
The Bengals showed a simple slip screen at the top of the play. (Typically on a slip screen, the inside WR blocks the outside defensive back, the play-side offensive line pass sets then releases downfield to block, and the outside WR comes underneath all of them to catch the ball.) Cincinnati showed this action but the offensive line stayed in to block and the inside WR pretended to block before he ultimately ran a wheel route. It appeared the Bills were in Cover 2, which would mean Poyer had the vertical wheel route. Poyer ended up biting on the fake slip screen and couldn’t recover in time to cover the wheel route.
Bills employ soft coverage on 3rd & 4
This play just doesn’t make sense to me. When the Bills lined up for this 3rd & 4 play the first words out of my mouth were: “Why are they playing so far off?” I have no idea what the thought process was on this play. They could have thrown it to any of the WRs and picked up the first down without even running a route past the line of scrimmage.
Exotic coverage creates INT opportunity
For those of you saying that defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier called a “vanilla” game, I would beg to differ. They switched up coverages often and tried to do it from many different looks. This play is an example of what I would call an “exotic” coverage — you don’t see this type of coverage every day. They took slot corner Taron Johnson, and had him bail out to play deep safety in Cover 2. They moved the safety from Johnson’s side and rotated him to the opposite high safety. Then they brought Poyer from high safety down to “rob” the middle of the field. What a cool coverage! This actually almost led to an interception. Burrow responded with a terribly underthrown ball. Dane Jackson hesitated for a moment, but he needed to find a way to come up with this interception.
“Been caught staring”
The Bills brought a zone “blitz” again, but they dropped a defensive lineman into coverage, so they still technically only rushed four players. Tremaine Edmunds and A.J. Epenesa both were caught staring at the QB and left the middle of the field wide open. The shallow crosser was headed toward Tre’Davious White and should have been passed off. Instead, Edmunds bit up on the shallow crosser and lost sight of the deep crosser behind him. Edmunds and Epenesa ideally would have found more depth in the middle of the field to take away the deep crosser. Edmunds played really well in the Super Wild Card Weekend matchup against the Miami Dolphins, but he had a very poor outing on Sunday against the Bengals.
Edmunds’ error leads to 3rd & 10 conversion
Buffalo employed another exotic coverage on this play. It’s similar to “Play 4” above but they got to it from a different pre-snap look. Instead of showing Cover 2, they showed a one-high safety look and then dropped into a Cover 2. Once again they took slot corner Taron Johnson and had him bail out to play deep safety, and rotated the other safety to the opposite side of the field. Poyer started in the slot area but then drifted inside to “rob” any in-breaking routes. It appears to me Edmunds was supposed to cover the “hook to flat” area, but he pulled up short to cover the seam route. This ultimately left Burrow an easy throw to the first-down marker. If Edmunds would have run straight to the hook area, it’s likely this play would have turned out well for the Bills. Instead, they gave up a backbreaker of a first down on 3rd & 10.
Rousseau in coverage favors Burrow
There was nothing special by the Bengals here — they just took what the defense gave them. Everyone was playing off coverage, so they ran two hitch routes at five yards to complete an easy throw and catch.
For the record, dropping defensive linemen into coverage is a nice wrinkle to throw in the mix occasionally. But I would prefer it not be defensive end Greg Rousseau in coverage when Burrow is the opposing quarterback. That’s even more the case when a player as talented as Burrow has a big lead in a playoff game and his offense is driving down the field.
Not Poyer’s best game with Bills
As I stated earlier, the Bengals found “creative ways to run simple plays.” This was just a glorified swing pass with Ja’Marr Chase. The Bengals lined Chase up in the backfield and motioned him outside. Cincinnati quickly faked a run play to the opposite side to draw defenders away from Chase, and then quickly threw him the ball in space with two lead blockers. This left Chase one-on-one with a safety, which is exactly what the Bengals wanted — especially because said safety was 15 yards off the line of scrimmage. The Bills did have one advantage here though: That safety was Jordan Poyer, one of the best tackling safeties in the league. Poyer closed the 15-yard gap in the blink of an eye and had an opportunity to make a tackle for a minimal gain — but he missed the tackle. Giving up 10-plus yards after the catch is never a good thing. A creative play, with a simple throw, and a great run after the catch equaled success for the Bengals.
The Buffalo Bills’ defense certainly didn’t look like their normal selves on Sunday, and it’s disappointing that an uncharacteristic performance like that happened in a playoff game. The Cincinnati Bengals deserve all the credit for having a superior game plan and allowing their players to execute on a dominant level. However, I will say that Buffalo’s defense did provide some stops in a few potential pivotal moments.
If the Bills’ offense could have responded with a touchdown after one of those defensive stops, it had the potential to become an entirely different ball game. Buffalo’s offense had the capability to compensate for a bad defensive performance by scoring lots of points, hence their second-best 28.4-points-per-game average. Scoring 10 points in a game won’t lead your team to victory very often. If the team’s offense played to their "average," this article might have ended with "see you next week" instead of "see you next season."