On Sept. 28, 2020, before the Cincinnati Bengals had won a game, head coach Zac Taylor was asked what he needed to do better as a play caller.
At the time, the Bengals were averaging 23 points per game. They had just tied the Philadelphia Eagles in a game where the offense stalled on a few potential game-winning drives.
Taylor answered the question quickly.
“We have to do a better job on some of these explosive (plays),” he said.
Since the start of the 2020 season, Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan or a member of the offense has used the word “explosive” 27 times in a press conference. Since the start of training camp in 2021, the concept of creating more explosive plays has come up 15 separate times.
Entering Taylor’s second season with quarterback Joe Burrow, creating more explosive plays is clearly one of the biggest points of emphasis for the entire offense. But according to Taylor, that’s not as simple as having Burrow attempt five deep passes down the field per game to rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
“We’re going to play better complementary football as a team,” Taylor said. “Then you’re in a position to call games in all three phases like you want to. If you’re not playing from behind, you’re not losing the turnover battle, all the things we’ve done to ourselves – you name it, we’ve done it.”
Last season, Burrow didn’t connect on any of his first five deep passing attempts. Those early challenges connecting on deep passes had a negative impact on Joe Mixon and the running game.
In the middle of the season, Taylor admitted the Bengals inability to stretch the field with deep passes was limiting the ceiling of the entire offense. Heading into 2021, Taylor said the team needs to take a step forward so the offense can have more opportunities to take shots down the field.
“When you get an early lead, you can be a little more aggressive down the field,” Taylor said. “They’ve got to play the run and the pass and all the stuff that comes with it and not just sit on a lead and know we’ve got to start pushing the ball down the field.”
During the offseason, Burrow made mechanical changes to improve his accuracy and velocity on deep passes. And the Bengals drafted wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase with the idea that he could immediately become their best deep threat.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Burrow was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in the short and intermediate game. He was elite on passes 10 yards or shorter, and he was well above average on throws between 10 and 20 yards.
But on deep passes, Burrow’s passer rating was significantly below average. The mean passer rating on passes 20-or-more yards over the middle of the field is 86.1. Burrow’s passer rating on deep passes over the middle of the field was 51.6.
That was part of the reason the Bengals drafted Chase, who was Burrow’s best deep target at LSU. His ability to create separation and his speed down the field gave the Bengals coaching staff the confidence that Chase could be a part of explosive plays from the first game of the season.
“Those are the reasons he’s a top 5 pick,” Taylor said. “He makes those plays down the field, he’s explosive after the catch, he has a strong lower body and strong hands. Those are expectations we have for him as he continues to develop, to contribute in all those areas.”
Despite Chase’s slow start to the preseason, the coaching staff still expects him to bring two new elements to the Bengals offense. His athleticism can make him a threat for yards after catch on screens and slants. And his burst off the line of scrimmage could make him Burrow’s best target on a 40-yard deep ball down the sideline.
While Chase dropped his last four passes of the preseason, his expectations for his role in the Bengals offense hasn’t changed.
“I’ve got to catch it down the field whenever my time is called to make the play,” Chase said. “That’s how it works. It doesn’t matter what route it is, flat route, slant route, whatever it is, we try to get the ball in my hands and make it work. That’s the opportunity, and I’ve got to take it.”
LINEUP CHANGE: On Monday, Trae Waynes (hamstring) was the only player on the active roster who missed practice. On Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, Waynes is expected to be the only Bengals starter who doesn’t dress for the game.
Waynes injured his hamstring in an 11-on-11 session in one of the final training camp practices before the preseason finale. Waynes also dealt with a hamstring injury earlier in camp. He will miss the first game of the season due to his hamstring injury, but Taylor said the injury isn’t significant enough to place him on the injured reserve.
Cornerback Eli Apple will start in place of Waynes.
ROSTER MOVE: The Bengals released veteran defensive tackle Mike Daniels after trading for B.J. Hill from the New York Giants. But the Bengals were able to keep Daniels in the organization.
The Bengals added Daniels to the practice squad on Monday, and he was at practice with the team. He adds depth to the defensive tackle room as the only three-technique defensive tackle on the practice squad.