The Bengals certainly out-executed the Bills in their convincing 27-10 win in the divisional round, but the game plans on offense and especially on defense were masterclasses by Zac Taylor and Lou Anarumo.
Behind an offensive line down three starters, Burrow threw exactly half of his passes (19) in 2.5 seconds or less against the Bills. He completed 16 of those attempts (84.2%) for 108 yards. Buffalo’s pass rush, mitigated.
Now, two of his touchdowns came on attempts in which he held the ball longer, and the score to Hayden Hurst to extend the lead to 14-0 was brilliantly designed.
Watch as Hurst and Ja’Marr Chase sell the wide receiver screen, Burrow pump fakes it to get safety Jordan Poyer to bite, then Hurst continues upfield to a vacancy in the end zone.
In the snow, when traction was limited, there was simply no way Poyer was going to slam on the breaks in a split second, then explode in the opposite direction fast enough to get to the football. And of course, the screen to Chase had to be respected at the start of the play. Genius.
For as much as Cincinnati marched down the field with ease against a banged-up Buffalo defense, I want to focus on what Cincinnati did to a Bills offense that, while far from flawless since mid September, finished second in the NFL in scoring and yards per play during the regular season and was coming off a rather sloppy 34-point outing that featured 423 yards of total offense.
And it wasn’t a blitz-happy plan whatsoever.
The Bengals blitzed Josh Allen just seven times on 47 drop backs (14.8%). It was the creativity of the blitz and often the appearance of the blitz that confounded Buffalo’s ultra-talented quarterback and Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey all afternoon. It felt similar to what Cincinnati did in the second half of last season’s AFC Championship Game, when Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense were unrecognizable.
Check out this “blitz” in the fourth quarter. I put blitz in quotes because technically, it was a double corner blitz, but watch how both blitzing corners slowed as they reached the line of scrimmage. Their presence was to draw a tackle away from defensive linemen then serve as outside contain players to keep Allen from going off-structure, where he’s arguably the most dangerous quarterback in the NFL.
With the right guard helping inside, right tackle Spencer Brown had to respect the corner blitz, thereby leaving defensive end Cam Sample essentially unblocked to rush up the field. Instinctively, Allen bounced outside, and Hilton was waiting.
On the last play of the first quarter, already in a 14-0 hole, Allen was sacked by safety Vonn Bell on a play that technically was not a blitz. At the snap, Sample, at left defensive end, sunk into coverage. On the opposite side of the line, Bell blitzed, so only four Bengals rushers were sent after Allen.
Bell’s free run at the quarterback was directly in the throwing lane of Allen, who was looking to get it out of his hands quickly to Diggs. And because of Sample floating down one hash mark, Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt could drastically widen his drop to contest that throw if it was made.
Because of all that, Allen held the football and was eventually taken to the turf on that first down. That was 99% a play-design win from Anarumo.
And then late, as the Bills were making their last gasp at a comeback, Anarumo dialed up an amazing corner blitz Allen and his offensive line never saw coming. Why’s that? Hilton wasn’t creeping near the line, he was ridiculously far away from the football at the snap
As per usual on these zone blitzes, on the opposite side of the field, a defensive lineman dropped into coverage, muddying the initial picture for Allen. That caused enough hesitation to give Hilton the time needed to get all the way to the quarterback inside the pocket, nearly forcing a fumble and potentially saving a touchdown. Check out Stefon Diggs streaking down the middle of the field.
The play was ultimately ruled incomplete, but altogether was a success for Cincinnati’s defense.
I have to mention, this wasn’t solely a game-plan victory for Cincinnati. The Bengals players dominated in the trenches on both sides of the ball and the skill-position players for Burrow’s club were far better than Allen’s.
But every time the Bills started to show signs of life offensively, Anarumo went into his bag of tricks to perplex one of the most talented quarterbacks on the planet and his first-year offensive coordinator.
Those wrinkles were the cherry on top for Cincinnati in one of the most impressive playoff wins in team history. Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, but the Bengals have the quarterback, the offensive and defensive talent, and the game-plan mastery to win a Super Bowl.