The Bengals won their season opener for the first time since 2018 on Sunday when they beat the Vikings 27-24 in overtime.
This is also the first overtime win for Cincinnati since 2015. They achieved this victory with an efficient passing game, a strong rushing attack, and a dominant interior pass rush. Let's watch film of these areas and see exactly how the Bengals won these three phases.
Seasoned Pre-Snap Approach
Joe Burrow's ball placement and physical ability were absolutely impressive, but the thing that stuck out the most to me upon rewatching the game was his pre-snap ability. Not only did Burrow get a free play from a hard count, but also he consistently used hard counts to force the Vikings' defense to show what they were doing despite their disguise. In addition to the hard counts, he also switched things up and utilized quick counts as well. This was useful to get plays off while the Vikings were out of position. Together it created a pre-snap game plan that effectively worked against one of the best disguise defenses in the league.
This play does not look like much. Burrow gives a hard count before the snap, but nobody bites. That’s the key. Nobody bit on the hard fake, so the most likely outcome here is that there is no disguise or blitz put forth by the Vikings. The presnap shell is clearly zone quarters which will give Tee Higgins advantageous leverage against the corner on his 10-yard dig route. The corner is responsible for the deep quarter of the field so he is not going to play the in breaking route as hard due to playing outside leverage. The safety to that side cheats a tiny bit to the three receiver side so he will not be nailing the dig route either. The flat from the back forces that curl-flat defender to widen creating a big window for Burrow to throw through. It ends up being a nice gain and a first down.
Here is the other end of the hard count where Burrow gets the defense to show its disguise.
When the Bengals come out it looks as if the Vikings are playing cover 3. They are single high (one safety circled) with zone coverage (shown by no one over the slot). Here is the look the Vikings give after the hard count.
The safety that was on the line of scrimmage rolls back while the SAM and WILL [linebackers] show that they are blitzing. This is a clear indication of a 4 deep, 2 under fire zone from Minnesota.
The SAM and WILL are blitzing while someone on the line of scrimmage is dropping into a zone. The defensive end to the field ends up dropping into coverage in the short area of the field creating the quarters fire zone. The Bengals are running 989 which is mirrored go routes from the outside receivers to each side with a post/dig option from the slot depending on the coverage. This was one of Burrow's favorite concepts at LSU. He knows that the route from the slot is going to occupy the safety to that side, so he holds the safety there with his eyes before throwing the go route to Ja'Marr Chase. This creates a one-on-one situation with no help for Breshaud Breeland, who's on an island with the Bengals rookie. Burrow throws a perfect ball and Chase scores his first touchdown as a Cincinnati Bengal.
This play is an example of a quick count, which is the opposite of a hard count. Burrow utilizes the Vikings' tendency to disguise and bluff against them as he quickly snaps that ball after getting to the line of scrimmage. Not that it is the true reason this play works, but it keeps the defense on their toes and doesn’t allow for them to feel as comfortable when bluffing and disguising their intention to the offense.
This also gets the defense to bite harder on the hard counts that the quarterback is giving. If he is not only giving normal counts but also giving quick counts the defense needs to be prepared to quickly flip into their coverage from the disguise.
The coup de grace for Burrow’s hard counts came on the 4th-and-inches call for the Bengals as they were driving for the game winning field goal. He gives a hard count and sees the defense is committing to stopping Joe Mixon and the run game, so he kills the called run play. On plays like this, the head coach typically gives two plays (a run and a pass) for the offense and the quarterback is in charge of deciding which one is best before the snap.
The called play (the run on this example) can be changed to the alternate play (Y leak here) by using a kill call. Burrow kills the run call to get to the pass play after giving a hard count to see what the defense is doing. The Vikings defense has an idea that leak is coming, but the defender cannot find the tight end until it is too late. Burrow floats the perfect pass over the top to Uzomah and the rest is history. All possible by Burrow’s pre-snap work with the snap count.
Pollack's Wide Zone
Next, I wanted to take a look at some of Frank Pollack’s wide zone system in this game. Pollack’s wide zone seems to emphasize the offensive line defining the read to the running back and letting him play with decisiveness and confidence.
Within the first second the read on this play is defined as the backside A gap between Trey Hopkins and Xavier Su'a-Filo. Where Mixon’s vision really shines is his ability to press the line of scrimmage and force the defenders to commit to a gap. He gets the nose to commit to the frontside by pressing the line hard along the intended path. Once the nose commits to the front side, Mixon quickly cuts upfield behind him for a solid gain.
This is another example of Pollack’s wide zone system utilizing Mixon to the fullest of his abilities. As he gets the handoff on this play the read is clearly telling him to cut it all the way back as the defense flows hard to the playside. He waits for just a tick to make sure that the defense will continue flowing to the playside and then sticks his foot in the ground and works north for a great gain.
Pollack also keeps a windback play in his back pocket to utilize when the defense flows too hard on the wide zone. Windback is essentially counter without a puller. Looks a lot like wide zone, but the intended path is to the backside. On this play in particular they use Tyler Boyd to cut across the formation and lead the way. The fake holds the defenders where they are for the Bengals' offensive line to get in position to make their blocks. With the offense washing the defense in the opposite direction of the play, a huge hole is created off the edge between the tight end and the wide receiver. Works to perfection against a defense trying hard to stop Mixon on the Bengals’ bread and butter play, wide zone.
Mixon was very impressive in his season debut and I do not think that this is just a coincidence. His prowess in Pollack’s wide zone system is due to the symbiotic relationship that each of them give each other. Mixon gets well-designed run plays from the offensive line, while Pollack gets one of the best running backs in the NFL running his system. Especially when it comes to setting up blocks and seeing the entire field on every play. I would expect Mixon to have one of his best seasons this year if he can remain healthy.
Powerful Pass Rush
On defense, there was really one area that stood out to me the most. That was the pass rush from the interior of the Bengals defensive line. Whether it was DJ Reader, Josh Tupou, Larry Ogunjobi, or the recent addition, B.J. Hill, it seemed like the interior of the Vikings offensive line was constantly crumbling.
Hill had two sacks and this was the most impressive one. The only issue is that you probably want him to work to the A gap rather than the B gap because he is getting in Mike Hilton’s rush lane. It's still a very nice play from Hill.
He initially punches into the left guard to bullrush him. When the guard misses his hand placement Hill uses that to his advantage by swimming over the top of him. Then he does a great job finishing off Cousins with a sack. He beat the left guard so quickly that he got there before the free rusher was able to get there. It’s an embarrassment of riches to design your pressure well enough to get the free rusher, but also have one of the defensive linemen dominate their guy so much that the free rusher wasn't necessary.
Instead of bringing the heat on this pass rush, this was a drop 8 scenario. When the defense drops eight guys into coverage there will only be a 3-man rush. The Bengals utilize both of their edge defenders as fake rushers before dropping so that the offensive tackles cannot double the interior guys. Awesome design to get three 1-on-1 matchups for the interior guys while only bringing three pass rushers. Hill gets the initial rush here as he bulldozes the right guard backward into Cousins. He cannot disengage so he is not going to come up with the sack. Tupou coming from the other side is doing a good job bull rushing as well, but his rip move does not get him off of the block. It does however get the left guard to shift his weight to that side pretty heavily.
Tupou takes advantage of that with the Reggie White signature move, the hump move. Tupou knocks the left guard onto the ground and he is free to go after the quarterback. This great play didn't count because cornerback Eli Apple got called for defensive holding, but it was still great execution of a quality design.
Another nice showing of strength from Tupou as he clubs the center. He turns the center to the sideline and completely takes him out of this play. Once the center is gone it is just Tupou and the quarterback. He gets a nice hit on him, but Kirk Cousins does a good job of not taking a sack.
Now we have Reader’s main pass rush contribution, where he forced a drive killing holding penalty. He is bull rushing the right guard and not only pushes him backward but also turns him. Once he is turned, Reader can reach out to try to get a hand on Cousins. Instead of allowing his quarterback to take a sack or get hit, the right guard grabs hold and yanks him backward. The referees throw the penalty flag and the offense still loses 10 yards.
This one is not a pass rush situation, but I wanted to show that when Larry Ogunjobi is playing his game, he is a force to be reckoned with. Here his first step is so quick that he gets through the Vikings offensive line before they can even get a hand on him. He makes the running back slide to the ground to give himself up immediately after getting the ball. An awesome play from the defensive tackle.
This was my overall favorite play from the defense. Ogunjobi shows off his herculean strength as he lifts the center and drives him straight backward. Then instead of trying to disengage to make the sack he just uses the center as a weapon to pummel Cousins into the ground. Geno Atkins used to use this move all of the time when he was in Cincinnati. It was great to see another 3-tech do this.
This pass rush was exactly what the Bengals' defense was missing last year. They were one of the worst teams in the entire league at generating a pass rush. This year it looks much better. By drawing a multitude of holding penalties along with the sacks and pressures, the defensive line was able to control this game.
This is all without even mentioning that the defensive line also was a key part in holding Dalvin Cook to one of his worst performances of the past two years. This was an absolutely dominating performance from the defensive line. If they can keep this up to a similar degree throughout the year, they will be a problem for opposing offenses.
For more film breakdowns, go here.