Cover 2 looks forcing Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals' offense into more patient approach

CINCINNATI -- A few days before the season opened, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow made a comment that shouldn't shock anybody.

After saying each game requires a "different Joe," the flavor Burrow said he enjoyed the most is the one that throws for 530 yards. But what's fun for quarterbacks makes defensive coordinators miserable.

In the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, Burrow and the Bengals quickly discovered how teams will try to make Cincinnati's high-powered offense more vanilla. Pittsburgh played a Cover 2 defense to restrict the Bengals from any big plays in a 23-20 overtime win.

For Cincinnati to succeed against the inevitable Cover 2 packages defenses will deploy throughout the season, it will require some restraint.

"There's patience that's involved there," Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. "There's opportunities to get the ball down the field with the right play calls."

Also known as "two-high looks," Cover 2 is a defense -- typically zone -- in which the two safeties play deep in order to limit big passing plays. In 2021, the Bengals led the NFL in yards per passing attempt and were one of four teams to rack up 1,000 yards or more on throws that traveled 20 air yards or more, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

What the Bengals saw on Sunday against the Steelers was not a surprise.

“They were playing a lot of two-high coverage, just like we expect to happen all year,” Burrow said after tossing four interceptions and losing a fumble in the loss.

Burrow was just 9-of-17 passing for 92 yards and zero touchdowns versus Cover 2 against the Steelers, according to ESPN Stats and Information. All four of his interceptions came against that scheme, which also produced three sacks.

Early in the game, Burrow looked to push the ball into zone coverage. Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Burrow's first pass attempt of the season and returned it for a touchdown.

Burrow adjusted as the game progressed. After halftime, he was 18-of-24 passing for 151 yards, two touchdown passes and no interceptions on throws of 10 or fewer air yards, per NFL Next Gen Stats.

He looked for checkdown routes in those zone coverages, displaying the patience required against a Cover 2.

"If you don't have the right [play] call then you have to trust your quarterback to be patient and check down," Taylor said on Monday. "I thought Joe did a really good job of that. That allowed us to have a lot of plays quite honestly."

The amount of zone defense the Bengals face is another sign of respect for the offense's explosiveness. When the connection between Burrow and then-rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase started to heat up, teams began to employ more Cover 2 formations.

Through the first nine weeks of last season, Cincinnati faced that defense on 20.4% of its dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats and Information. That number jumped to 29.9% in the next seven games, the second-highest rate in the NFL during that span.

At the beginning of last season, defenses wondered if Cincinnati could push the ball downfield in big chunks, an aspect that was missing during Burrow's truncated rookie year in 2020. Now -- as they did with Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes last season -- teams are testing Burrow and forcing him to methodically move the ball.

"When the time calls for it and the defense structure dictates it, we have to be able to put together a 10-, 12-play drive without really feeling the heat and being able to move the ball right down the field the same way," Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said last month.

Between Burrow, Chase, running back Joe Mixon and the rest of the top receivers and tight ends, Cincinnati has the resources to be one of the best offenses in the NFL. The amount of patience and precision the Bengals show over the next few weeks could make or break their chance at contending for another AFC title.