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Packers v. Bengals By the Numbers Preview: Is Cincinnati really any good?

Maybe? Maybe not? Who’s to say?

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Cincinnati Bengals are 3-1, so that’s pretty weird! But are they any good? Let’s dive in for this week’s by the numbers preview for the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent.

The Opponent’s Opponents

We’re still at a point in the season where who you play matters a lot in regards to your team’s statistical output, but also early enough to where adjustments for that get really noisy. I just don’t think we can quite overlook how fortunate Cincinnati has been in that regard, though. The Bengals rank second in easiest schedule played so far per Football Outsiders, only outdone by the Buffalo Bills, who got to enjoy a completely hapless Houston Texans this past weekend. The Bengals offense has faced the tenth easiest slate of defenses so far, but the Bengals defense has had it far easier, facing the second easiest slate of offenses.

One glance at their schedule makes it clear why. The Bengals beat the Vikings in overtime in week one, then lost to the Andy Dalton Bears in week two, beat the powerless Steelers offense in week three, and narrowly beat the traveling Urban Meyer circus last Thursday night. They’ve faced one offense that isn’t in the bottom seven in EPA-per-play. That will change this week as they face a Packers offense that ranks fourth in EPA-per-play the past three weeks after laying an egg in week one.

Either way, the Bengals defense has been quite stout so far, posting negative EPA-per-plays for both rushing and passing (again, massive opponent quality caveats here). The player that really pops in the numbers for Cincinnati’s front is EDGE Sam Hubbard, who leads all players with a 39% run-stop win rate on the edge. His counterpart, Trey Hendrickson is following a breakout 2020 with a strong start to 2021 as he is eighth in pass-rush win rate among EDGE at 28%. Despite Hendrickson’s strong follow-up, the front overall is a quite porous 25th in pass-rush win rate, which should provide some relief to an offensive line that has played quite well (Packers rank sixth in pass block win rate and tenth in run block win rate so far) despite missing their two best lineman for some or all of the season so far.

The Bengals have also dumped quite a few resources into their secondary in recent years, and at least against lower-quality offenses, the returns are there. Star safety Jessie Bates is expected to practice this week after missing last week’s game against Jacksonville, so that is a major boost to the Bengals secondary.

Whose Offense Is it Anyway?

Zac Taylor, funnily enough, is the son-in-law of former Packers coach Mike Sherman. Really. Everyone in the NFL is related to one another. Taylor got his big break after being apart of the Sean McVay offenses in 2017 and 2018. However, Joe Burrow’s preference is not that of the Shanahan system of boots and outside zone. If Burrow has it his way, the offense will involve a lot of five-man protections and allowing him to pick apart defenses from the gun. You can think of it as similar to how Drew Brees played for much of his Saints tenure.

The following excerpt from the Football Outsiders Almanac illustrates this tension quite clearly:

Cincinnati used an empty-backfield 146 times last season, the third-highest total in the NFL. With Burrow at quarterback, they had an exceptional 42.6% DVOA and averaged 6.4 yards per play from empty backfields. So the operation was a success, except that the patient nearly died: Bengals quarterbacks were sacked a league-high 13 times on empty-backfield attempts. Meanwhile, Taylor did not use play-action as often or as effectively as his fellow Mini-McVays around the NFL. The Bengals dropped back for play-action passes just 151 times last year, 22nd in the NFL. They averaged just 6.5 yards per paly on play-action passes, 25th in the NFL. That’s right: the Bengals used empty backfields almost exactly as often as they used play-action!

After an absolutely disastrous 2020 from the offensive line, they have reached respectability protecting Burrow so far, ranking thirteenth in pass-block win rate and even sixth in run-block win rate.

Speaking of the running game, expect to see plenty of it, especially if Joe Mixon is healthy.

No team has run the ball on early downs more than expected this year than the Bengals. So that tension between the run-based offense of Taylor and the “just let me play in empty like I did at LSU” from Joe Burrow does not appear to have a winner yet.

Green Bay is likely to be without Jaire Alexander this week, and the Bengals have a deep group at receiver with rookie Jamar Chase headlining the options. Chase ranks tenth in DVOA, Tyler Boyd ranks 28th, and Tee Higgins would rank 32nd with a few more targets. Don’t be surprised if the Bengals try and exploit a weakened cornerback group this week with more empty sets and less heavy personnel.