'Empty' feeling: How Bengals are using RBs differently to help Joe Burrow

CINCINNATI -- Linebacker Jordan Evans looked across the line of scrimmage and immediately protested.

During an Oklahoma football practice a few years back, Evans was matched up against his future Cincinnati Bengals teammate, running back Joe Mixon, in a one-on-one passing drill. Having to deal with Mixon as a rusher was hard enough. But dealing with an athlete like Mixon alone in space was another dilemma.

"He lined up at receiver and I looked at [a] coach like, ‘This is one-on-one; this is not normal,'" Evans recalled earlier this week.

This season, Bengals opponents can empathize with Evans. With rookie quarterback Joe Burrow under center, the Bengals have liberally used Mixon and running back Giovani Bernard all across the formation. It's all in an effort to make the offense more suitable for their franchise quarterback.

"Those are things that we've done a handful of certainly over the last season," Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. "Joe is comfortable with the formation spread out. I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone running more empty [sets] than us at this point."

Callahan is correct. The Bengals have used an empty formation -- meaning the quarterback Burrow is the only one in the backfield -- a league-high 61 times, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The Houston Texans are the next closest with 45 snaps in empty.

Teams that use an empty formation typically use all wide receivers on this set. But the Bengals are unique in that those who flank the offensive line are running backs such as Mixon and Bernard and tight ends Drew Sample and Cethan Carter.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the amount of times the running backs line up in the backfield on passing plays has dropped from 90.5% in 2019 to 83.4% in 2020. The usage of Mixon and Bernard as slot receivers and on the outside has increased significantly this season with Burrow as the starting quarterback.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who was tight-lipped on the subject when asked about it ahead of Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens (1 p.m. ET, CBS), said how the Bengals decide where to put the running backs varies on the defensive formations and opponents.

Sometimes Mixon and Bernard will be motioned out of the backfield. When that happens, Burrow is 7-of-8 passing for 94 yards and a touchdown, per ESPN Stats & Info research.

Whether by audible or by design, it's all to the benefit of Burrow, who is a big fan of the empty formations.

"It makes the defense declare themselves," Burrow said Wednesday. "They can't disguise things as well when you're in empty. And then teams will start to zero-pressure you and blitz you a lot and get you out of it. And then you have to have a plan for that."

That formation played a big role in Burrow's success last season at LSU.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron said he told Burrow it was the quarterback's offense and he empowered him to tweak the system how he wanted. Burrow took advantage of that by emptying out the backfield. That also played into Burrow"s strength of analyzing the defense at the line of scrimmage.

"Joe was smart," Orgeron said this week. "Joe always had the option to do that, especially when we got up there and we had the backs in the backfield and we felt that they may be blitzing or we didn't know."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the Bengals resemble a blend of Burrow's schemes at LSU and the looks Taylor implemented in his first season with Cincinnati. That combination helped Burrow become the first rookie to throw for 300 or more passing yards in three straight games.

"He's putting up some excellent numbers and playing within the structure of the offense really well," Harbaugh said. "They've created a very smart offense around him."

The Bengals are using Mixon and Bernard differently, but the bulk of the duo's receiving damage still comes from when they line up in the backfield. In 2019 and 2020, 87.1% of their receiving yards have come from when they lined up in the backfield, according to ESPN Stats & Info research.

Mixon showed how potent he can be in the Week 3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Before a second-and-goal on the 9-yard line, Mixon said he and Burrow talked briefly after the huddle. Burrow asked Mixon about the defensive coverage and Mixon said it looked like they were going to drop into a zone, leaving him space underneath. Burrow found Mixon wide open and the running back did the rest by hurdling one tackler and leaping over the goal line for a touchdown.

In a season that is all about Burrow and his development, it was another example of what this team and the offense could look like in the coming years.

It doesn't matter who is lined up where. When the ball is snapped, more often than not, Burrow will find a way to make it work.

"That kid, he's a monster," Mixon said. "We love him here."