Bringing up issues with connecting on deep passes is something we typically have to reserve for older quarterbacks. We’ve been having these discussions about the likes of Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers already this season. It’s not usually a problem with younger quarterbacks, especially rookies, but it might be worth having a discussion about Joe Burrow.
For as much as Burrow has flashed during his first half season with the Cincinnati Bengals, there has been a glaring deficiency in his deep ball production. Through eight games, Burrow is just 7-of-34 on passes that have traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That 20.6% completion percentage is 27th on 29 quarterbacks with at least 15 deep attempts in 2020, according to Sports Info Solutions, above just Drew Lock and Joe Flacco. His 6.3 yards per attempt on those throws is the lowest of that group.
Even during Burrow’s historical hyper-efficient season at LSU, arm strength was never his top attribute, but it didn’t really matter in that offense. Burrow didn’t have a noticeably high rate of deep passing in 2019, but his on-target percentage and completion percentage on those throws were still among the best in the draft class.
That part of his game has yet to translate and it was an even slower start than the current 20.6% completion percentage would suggest. Over Burrow’s first six games, he started 2-of-25 on deep passes (8%) before going 5-of-9 over his past two.
Joe Burrow Deep Attempts By Game, 2020
Despite everything else Burrow has done well, the comfort level on these deep passes has yet to show up. Burrow’s on-target rate for these passes has been just 47.1%, which ranks 24th of that group of 29 quarterbacks.
Early in the season, some of those deep attempts were flat out misses like the one to a wide-open A.J. Green on Week 1.
Of course, that throw was two plays after he put one on John Ross in the back of the end zone.
Even some of Burrow’s misses that have been left short haven’t screamed a lack of arm strength but more of an inconsistent or misjudged touch to put on the ball. There was a deep incompletion to Tee Higgins in Week 3 against the Philadelphia Eagles that was left short and forced Higgins to reach back over the defender for the attempted catch.
One positive over the past few weeks is that the Bengals have leaned into this tendency and have used a few more back shoulder throws on 20-plus yard attempts. Here’s a nearly identical throw from Week 7 against the Browns, but on purpose, with Higgins ready to adjust back for the ball for a gain of 27 yards.
Deep shots, in general, have yet to truly be ingrained into the Cincinnati offense. Part of that is the receiving talent, which isn’t exactly set up for a high volume vertical offense. With John Ross struggling to find the field, Higgins represents the best deep threat on the roster. Despite a lack of straight line speed, 55% of Higgins’s routes were deep in his final college season, per SIS, though he is more likely to dominate on those contested catch adjustments than run past a defender. But Higgins has been Cincinnati’s best receiver, though he only has four deep receptions.
Bengals Deep Targets, 2020
Higgins was the recipient of the Bengals’ best deep play of the season, a 67-yard gain against the Indianapolis Colts.
It’s also notable how many deep attempts have come outside of structure with Burrow moving out of the pocket and looking for something downfield. It hasn’t always worked and can lead to overthrows like it did to Green against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But in Cincinnati’s most recent game against the Tennessee Titans, Burrow converted a deep toss on the run that hit Higgins perfectly on the sideline with little room for error that went for a gain of 26 yards.
It’s certainly plays like that which showcase Burrow’s general accuracy that lessens concerns about if the rookie can eventually find more consistency on deep passes.
Right now it can be seen as an issue that, if not holding the offense back, at least has capped a bit of the ceiling. There’s a lack of big plays that could help lift an offense. Currently, only the Jets have a lower explosive pass rate than the Bengals’ 6%.
According to SIS, 23% of Burrow’s passing plays have been considered a Boom play, one that creates over 1.0 Expected Points Added. That Boom% is below the likes of league-leader Patrick Mahomes (28%) but also players such as Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, and Ryan Tannehill (all at 25%). Burrow’s profile is currently similar to that of Derek Carr, who has a Boom% of 22% but raises the floor with a Bust% (percentage of plays under -1.0 EPA) of 11%. Burrow’s current Bust% is 13%.
Circling back to the older quarterbacks who may have lost some arm strength, Ben Roethlisberger has a 23%/11% split. Drew Brees has worked his way up to the 25% Boom% with a 13% Bust%.
But unlike those older quarterbacks, there is hope that a young quarterback like Burrow can improve in this area. If Burrow’s struggles with the deep ball were part of an overwhelming lack of proficiency in an NFL offense, it would be one thing, but that’s not the case. Burrow has already become one of the league’s most productive intermediate throwers. Through Week 9, Burrow ranks fourth in both EPA per attempt and positive play rate (percentage of play with positive EPA) on throws between 11-19 air yards among 31 quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts in that range per SIS.
Cincinnati’s offense has relied on Burrow to get the ball out quickly in order to make up for an offensive line that has both struggled and been injured (27th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate), but it’s not as if Burrow has led a dink and dunk offense, like say the Steelers have so far this season. Burrow’s 8.6 average depth of target is 14th-highest among quarterbacks, per NFL Next Gen Stats, and tied with Josh Allen.
There are positive signs for improvement and Burrow could get a chance to continue to build with his upcoming game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. For as dominant as that pass rush has been, the Steelers rank 32nd in DVOA against deep passes according to Football Outsiders.
The Bengals might not click into a high-powered air raid offense overnight and some more receiving help with a legitimate deep threat in the offseason could be a massive factor in further progression but both Burrow and the Bengals have started to figure out how to get what they can out of a vertical attack. How much that can click and how quickly could set the ceiling for what this team can become in the near future.