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Matchup Of The Game: AFC Arms Race Hits PBS As Bengals Try To Defuse Chargers' Air Defenses

How do Joe Mixon (28) and Joe Burrow play it Sunday? Run or pass?
How do Joe Mixon (28) and Joe Burrow play it Sunday? Run or pass?


Burrow, a gym rat football savant, can drop a snappy football term in conversation as well as a dime on a come-back route in a zone. As he prepped for Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) and the Chargers in another installment of the AFC arms race at Paul Brown Stadium, he uncorked the term "post-snap verification."

With the proliferation of young guns such as Burrow and the Chargers' Justin Herbert (not to mention the Bills' Josh Allen and the Patriots' Mac Jones), verification is good. It is Burrow's way of saying that the Chargers defense has a multiple array of looks that can change as late as the start of the play.

"Some teams have one thing that they do every snap and other teams mix it up more, so they tend to mix it up more than some of the teams we've seen this year," Burrow said. "They do a really good job of disguising coverages. I'm going to have to get my post-snap verification so that's just going to come with preparation.

"Going into every play every quarterback has their checklist that they go through and one is pre-snap read, what you think the coverage is going to be, leverage, position, all of that plays into that. Then when the ball is snapped things can change. So you get your pre-snap read and then you have to verify that post-snap and sometimes it's different than your pre-snap read."

There's no one better to run you through a post-snap verification than Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who went against Vic Fangio's Bears defense four times when he was the Lions quarterbacks coach a few years back and rookie Chargers head coach Brandon Staley was Fangio's linebackers coach.

"For a quarterback, your post-snap verification is really what's happening as soon as the ball is snapped and is the leverage the same it was pre-snap?" Callahan said. "Is the safety in the same location as he was pre-snap? So as the ball is snapped, they move into position, whether they're dropping in or widening out or whatever that may be … Every quarterback does it. But this is a week where you have to be pretty dialed in to the post-snap coverage rotations and changes. "

Staley has planted Fangio's defensive tree of multiplicity and why not? He's got one of the most versatile defenders in the game in James, one of these 21st century specimens so athletic that he's a positional amoeba morphing between both safeties, linebackers and everywhere else.

"He's a great player. He's physical. He's fast. You can tell he's a smart player," Callahan said. "They use him as a safety, as a linebacker in some of their dime packages. He's a great blitzer. He's hard for running backs to protect against. He's a really good player. And you always have to know where he is. They got a couple of guys that can wreck a game and he's one of them."

It's a different deal than the last two weeks, when the Raiders pretty much hung back in the deep zone of cover three two weeks ago and last week the Steelers stayed pretty much with their bread and-butter Cover Two zone spiced with some Cover Three.

"They mix it up a lot. They do six, four, two, man," said Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd. "Sometimes when we're in three receivers wide and they go man, (James will) play man with number three, which would be me, and that's a matchup I would love to take, but he does a lot of different things back there. So I mean, we typically just reading on him. "

No. 33 would seem to need a lot of verification with three forced fumbles, two interceptions and 1.5 sacks. The Chargers make no bones about shutting down the pass, where they are ranked fifth. But they are dead last against the run, where the Bengals have racked 357 yards the past two weeks for fifth most in the league.

It would seem cut-and-dried that the Bengals follow the script of the last two weeks and run the ball 38 times again. Here comes running back Joe Mixon with 58 carries in the last two games at five yards per pop, right?

But, it's the NFL and it's never that easy because it is multiple. Callahan says you can't assume they're not going to stop the run.

"They still have good players up front. I think obviously (Joey) Bosa is a problem no matter what he might not have 15 sacks but he is a really good player," Callahan said of Burrow's Buckeye buddy and his 7.5 sacks. And (tackle) Linval Joseph has been a really good interior run player for a long time. They have young backers who have played well. And in the meantime, Derwin James is down there in the box and you have to account for him. So the run statistics can be a little bit skewed but I do think they've done a good job."

Still, the Chargers are much stingier against the pass. They do get pressure, according to Next Gen Stats, on a third of drop-back passes they face, second best in the league. But Burrow can counter Bosa and his 40 pressures with 8.7 yards per attempt when under pressure, also second best in the league.

With defenses taking away the big play after Bengals rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chasse torched September and October (according to Next Gen Stats, Chase has averaged 0.8 yards of separation on seven deep targets in the last three games after averaging 1.4 on 14 deep targets in first seven games), Burrow leads the NFL with 7.7 yards per attempt on short passes, according to NGS.

But the Chargers allow 5.8 yards per attempt on short passes (seventh best in the NFL) and James has the 10th best coverage rating among safeties.

As he has since the bye, Burrow is going to take what they give him and he's got to keep away from James. He's not looking at those lack of deep ball stats (nothing over 40 yards since Halloween) or his two TD passes and 338 yards passing in the last eight quarters.

All he cares is he's negotiated a fifth seed in the AFC arms race in those last two games.

"You can tell they really want to take away big plays. That's kind of a common theme across the league this year when teams are playing us, they want to take away big plays, because of the guys we have on the outside," Burrow said. "So we're going to have to take our opportunities where we get them. We're not going to just run the ball and dink and dunk, we have to take some shots. We also have to be smart. Derwin is one of the best players in the league. He's fun to watch on tape. He makes a lot of plays and really impacts the game."

The Bengals offense hopes they can match the Chargers multiplicity with their own.

"You saw at the beginning of the year we hit a lot of big plays for touchdowns so then teams started to try to take that away and now Joe Mixon is running for 150 yards a game," Burrow said. "So you really have to pick your poison. People get all caught up in these numbers, 'Hey, we didn't throw for 200 yards in a couple of games,' but we're being really efficient and sometimes you have to take what the defense gives you and sometimes you're not going to throw for 300 yards and 200 yards. You're going to have run for 160-175 yards when teams allow that to happen and that's what we've been doing."

What they do on Sunday has yet to be verified.