The Bengals' three-game winning streak in the heart of a playoff run with Joe Burrow understudy Jake Browning has been a split-screen study of clever coaching and prodigious playmaking.
Take Saturday in overtime against the Vikings and one of the most spectacular and clutch pitch-and-catches of the Burrow Era. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd, fittingly the longest-tenured Bengal, seemingly used a Hogwarts apparition with the help of Browning's wand to transport himself from a third-and-nine to a 44-yard catch-and-run that made Evan McPherson's winning 29-yard field goal academic.
The wizardry conjured up a conversation Boyd had with wide receivers coach Troy Walters during the Bengals' surreal fourth quarter. At that point, four of Browning's throws had gone to Boyd for one catch and nine yards, but he had not been swallowed in the Paycor pandemonium.
"I kept reminding him on the sidelines that he's going to have to make a big play to win the game and he agreed," Walters says. "The thing I'm proud of T.B. the most is through the whole game he wasn't seeing a whole lot of action. He wasn't getting targeted a lot. We were in 12 personnel based on scheme and what we felt like would be more successful the way they play defense and he was a forgotten person for most of the game, but he kept his head in it and was ready when his number was called."
Here's an inside look at a play that kept a season alive. From Browning's astute trigger of the scramble drill, to Boyd's ice-cold concentration in a maze of bodies, to backup running back Trayveon Williams' barely noticed but key block:
Formation use reflects how the Bengals have adjusted to Browning. According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, coming into the Dec. 4 Jacksonville game the Bengals had used three receivers (11 personnel) 80% of the time. In the next two games, when Browning went off, the Bengals used 11 personnel 63.5% of the time while more than doubling their use of 12 personnel (two receivers, two tight ends) at 17%.
It was pretty much more of the same last Saturday as the Bengals opted to attack the Vikings' league-leading blitz by sacrificing a receiver in lieu of a blocking tight end. With Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase and the other starter, Tee Higgins, getting the bulk of the routes, Boyd has played his fewest snaps in the last two games (52 and 57%) in six years. (You can't count last year when he dislocated his finger on the second play against Cleveland, didn't miss a game after surgery, and then left when he re-aggravated it against New England.)
But one fact remains. With their talent, and on third-and-nine, 11 personnel is their go-to.
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who does a little bit of everything but majors in protections, says with the type of blitzes the Bengals have seen this month they would have done a lot of the same things if Burrow was in there. But it has helped.
"We've done a fantastic job giving Jake the time to go play quarterback and not have to worry about too much pressure," Callahan says. "Those guys have played really well up front and the backs and tight ends have all contributed at a really high level. It's really more of a necessity than us making a change. We're playing some teams with pretty healthy pressure packages that require it if you don't want to have free runners and not put a bunch of pressure on your quarterback to figure it out. They necessitate us doing more of those things in the third-and-seven-area.
"I don't know if we'd be doing it any differently if Joe was playing. I think that's just what the game plan required and we've had a lot of success with it. It's just a different part of the playbook. There's not been a crazy shift. We've sprinkled in a few things that Jake likes. But if you look at our tape, a lot of the core things we believe in we're still running and still executing."
With 5:31 left in the OT, the Bengals were probably facing their last decent shot to win it on that third-and-nine from their 43. Sure enough, the Vikings showed one of those funky blitz looks with edge Danielle Hunter standing up and shoved over center Ted Karras as the Vikes crowded the line. But, as they do, the Vikings dropped seven men back, leaving rookie linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. blitzing off the Bengals right edge and vet safety Harrison Smith blitzing outside of Pace.
The Bengals had seen that blitz for the first time earlier in the game and they adjusted. But during the week, running backs coach Justin Hill had also worked on the concept of the defenders trying to pick off the tackle. In this case, they were trying to set up Jonah Williams on the right side. Trayveon Williams played just four snaps on Saturday, but in his role as a blocking back, any one of those on third down could decide the game in a not-so-anonymous job.
"Trayveon does a great job delivering Harrison Smith to Jonah and then getting hands on Ivan Pace," Callahan says. "Not much. But enough to let Jake break contain."
Third down is important enough to have its own day in practice. The first day of the normal three-day week is first and second down. With a Saturday game in Pittsburgh this week, that's Tuesday. The last practice of the week, Thursday, is red zone. Usually the longest practice of the week is the middle day. This week, Third Down Wednesday. The quarterback's down. The money down.
The Bengals are 17 for 38 on third down in the winning streak, 45%, compared to 37% for the season. A lot of it is Callahan finding success with six- and seven-man protections, as well as Browning's cool trying to find his plethora of playmakers.
On this third-and-nine, Browning adroitly used his legs and arm the way he caught the Bengals' eye in the first place.
"The way the Vikings play," Walters says, "a lot of times they drop more guys than you have receivers. Jake knew he was going to have to extend plays and wait for guys to get open."
Browning took off to his right and stared into what amounted to former Bengals defensive coordinator Charles Richard LeBeau's 1980s invention. A deep zone behind a blitz. The biggest third down of the year had become a scramble drill.
"We make sure we practice that all the time," Walters says. "We make sure we try to get friendly to the quarterback and work back to him."
With Chase out of the game, Boyd lined up on the left side with rookie receiver Andrei Iosivas inside him. He went across the middle of the field and got inside Vikings cornerback Byron Murphy Jr., Browning's college teammate at Washington, right away. But with pressure coming, Browning didn't see them. So Boyd's alarm for a scramble drill went off and he kept running over the middle so Browning could see him.
"T.B. is the master of the middle of the field," Callahan says. "He knows how to feel a void in there as well as anybody."
Meanwhile, Higgins ran on the right sideline what Walters calls "a glance route," or skinny post. The Vikings clouded Higgins with cornerback Akayleb Evans in front of him and safety Camyrn Bynum behind him.
"Then Tee got in scramble mode," Walters says. "He's working back and T.B. is working over."
Boyd looked up just in time to see Higgins a couple of yards from him. All that work during the week and it doesn't always go like it's drawn up. Browning escaped Pace, got outside him, and put just enough on the throw so Boyd was not involved in an NFL unlimited train wreck with Murphy, Evans, and the ball all approaching.
Somehow Boyd not only saw the ball through the flying bodies of Murphy and Evans in front of him, but he held on to it at the outermost field goal line on the 40-yard line and had the presence of mind to turn up field, where he immediately shook Bynum and got another 25 yards or so to pretty much end it.
"You've got Tee within two yards of him and three defenders pretty much all over him," Callahan says. "That's a pretty miraculous catch. He doesn't get enough credit for the degree difficulty."
It stands as the 505th catch of Boyd's tough, gutty, reliable Bengals career that began in the middle of Pro Bowler A.J. Green's run and has kept percolating through the reign of Chase and Higgins. This one is maybe bigger than his 56-yard touchdown that broke up the 15-10 win in Denver two years ago to the week when this nine-game December winning streak began.
Saturday's catch was so much tougher than the third down go-ahead touchdown Boyd dropped in the end zone last month from Burrow with 1:37 left in a game Houston ended up winning by three at the gun. Burrow threw it from the same yard line Boyd ran the ball to on Saturday.
The Texans 13.
But he didn't shrink away when they needed him Saturday.
"That day he was hurt. He felt like he let the team down," says Walters, an NFL receiver for eight seasons. "But we met the next day on a short week, so he didn't have time to feel sorry for himself. The next day he was back and he understood that's not who he is. Just a moment. All the greats have that one moment they don't make a play. But that doesn't define him or the career he's had. Out of ten times, he makes that play nine and a half. He's responded well. He understands he's got great hands and we're going to need him and depend on him down the stretch."
Saturday's 44-yarder has to rank with the biggest plays of the Burrow Era. Crunch-time plays like Burrow's third-and-27 loft to Chase in the last moments of the 2021 AFC North clincher over the Chiefs. Or Burrow's third-and-11 seed last year on the first play after the two-minute warning as Higgins hung on in a congested middle to keep the ball one last time from the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes.
Or even that play from moments before Saturday, when Browning back-pedaled from the Vikings' rush before rainbowing it off his back foot to Higgins at the goal line. Then Higgins coming back to the 1 to launch himself over the beleaguered Akayleb Evans for one of those Bill Russell Game Seven rebounds before making that remarkable mid-air reverse pivot as he took the ball in his right hand and swept it over the pylon for the Bengals' most famous sweep since going 6-0 in the 2009 AFC North.
"That's the great thing about our offense," Callahan says. "We've got a bunch of guys who have played a lot of football step up in big moments. They really have over the last two and a half seasons. Our guys have made a lot of game-changing plays and they've got a lot of confidence when that moment comes. They want the ball."
Even when it's not drawn up that way.