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Coming Up Empty: The Bengals Might Want to Avoid Empty Sets Against the Steelers

Cincinnati struggled on offense last week against Chicago.

Joe Burrow is a fan of the empty formation. Last season, the Bengals ran five wide more than any other team in the NFL. It allows Burrow to get the ball out quickly and is a good formation against a blitz when the quarterback can get the ball out before the pass rush arrives.

The Bengals went to empty sets often in Week 2 against the Bears. They struggled to get much going and the offensive line couldn’t hold on to blocks long enough for Burrow to make the right decisions/throws. 

The Bengals might need to stay away from empty sets this week in Pittsburgh. In Week 1, the Bills ran 23 plays out of empty sets against the Steelers, a formation that usually works out well for quarterback Josh Allen. The Steelers defense was overwhelming and Allen completed just 3-of-7 passes for nine yards with a total net gain of -4 yards.

T.J. Watt will play a big part in the Steelers pass rush. He's dealing with a groin injury, but he's expected to play. With Cam Heyward and Watt could wreck the Bengals' offense if they rely on empty sets. 

Burrow has been sacked nine times already this season, and the matchup on empty sets with Watt or Heyward going one-on-one with a Bengals lineman isn’t something that leans in Cincinnati’s favor.

It’s no secret that against the Bears, the Bengals wanted to get the ball out quick, running empty and throwing short passes. Ultimately, Chicago sat on the short routes and the Bengals' offense struggled

“You’ve got to throw the ball over their head," Burrow said. "At least make them feel like you are going to be able to do that and call some plays that go over their head.”

Ja’Marr Chase had similar thoughts about the Bengals playcalling, stating that they waited too long to take shots downfield. 

Last week, five of the Steelers lowest graded defensive players were members of their secondary, including safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. It’s imperative that the Bengals' offense pushes the ball downfield this week. 

With the talent in Cincinnati’s receiver room, it’s not likely that the Steelers will stack the box, even if Joe Mixon gets going in the run game. They have to take shots downfield to open up the middle of the field and really allow Burrow to work in the mid-range passing game.

Last week, there was no threat of the Bengals going deep, which allowed the Bears to focus their coverage in the middle of the field and not allow Burrow to pick them apart from empty sets. They shouldn’t totally abandon the empty sets, but they must establish their willingness to take shots downfield and open up the coverage.

Another thing we haven’t seen much of yet is Tyler Boyd catches the ball in the middle of the field. Last season, this was a common occurrence for the Bengals offense. Out of empty, Boyd should be able to find space and get open quickly. This is something that could benefit the Bengals as long as they don’t overdo it.

This week, the emphasis should be on keeping Burrow protected and letting him work the ball down the field. The Bengals have a chance to win this game, but the offense must bounce back after last week's performance. In terms of empty sets this week, it won’t be abandoned, but expect to see it less frequently. 

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