Balance spurs offensive resurgence for Bengals

CINCINNATI -- A little balance has gone a long way for the Cincinnati Bengals in a two-game winning streak that has rebuilt the team's playoff hopes.

Over the past two seasons, the Bengals have leaned on a pass-heavy approach with quarterback Joe Burrow. But with Burrow sidelined with a torn wrist ligament for the remainder of the season, Cincinnati has changed its approach with Jake Browning at quarterback.

A shift that has included more designed runs, screen plays and even more snaps under center has helped the offense thrive. They played a major role in the team's 34-14 win over the Indianapolis Colts to push the Bengals (7-6) over the .500 mark with four games remaining.

"I feel very comfortable with how everything is going -- (coach Zac Taylor) calling the game, feeling like we're staying a step ahead as far as run-pass, having everything kind of look the same, mixing in some screens," Browning said. "It makes my job easy."

Six days after Browning became the first undrafted player in the common era to throw for more than 350 yards and complete 85% or more of his passes, he was efficient against the Colts. In his third career start, he was 18-of-24 passing for 275 yards, three total touchdowns and one interception.

But the usage of the running backs, both on the ground and in the air, is what makes the past couple of weeks notable for the Bengals.

In 2022, when Burrow played all but the last game of the regular season, Cincinnati was fourth in the league in designed pass plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Between Weeks 5 and Week 10 of this season, when Burrow was fully healthy after he strained his right calf at the beginning of training camp, the Bengals were second in the NFL in designed pass plays at 70.4%.

That number has dropped significantly the past two weeks with Browning -- a career practice squad player and backup -- behind center. Cincinnati is 20th in the league in that category after its Sunday win. In that span, the offense has yielded 34 points in back-to-back games and has scored touchdowns on 34.7% of their drives, per ESPN Stats & Information.

Bengals running backs Joe Mixon and Chase Brown, a rookie, combined for 29 carries for 104 yards and a rushing touchdown. Offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said the balanced approach is what keeps defensive lines confused.

"I use the [phrase] 'Make them play us honest,'" Brown said. "When games are called the way they are and we're able to be physical at the line of scrimmage in the run game and take them out of certain coverages, you can't cover our playmakers one-on-one."

But Brown and Mixon were most effective on screen passes. Brown, a fifth-round pick out of Illinois, scored his first career touchdown with a 54-yard reception on a screen that gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. He finished with three catches for a team-high 80 yards. Mixon was behind him after he gained 45 of his 46 receiving yards on a screen.

Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin said the screens were among the most frustrating things for Indianapolis' defense on Sunday. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said the screens were a factor.

"It takes some relief off the quarterback and slows our pass rush," Buckner said as the Bengals did not surrender a sack for the first time since Week 3 of the 2021 season.

Over the past two weeks, opposing defenses have also had to face a Bengals team that has changed how it has lined up. During that span, Browning ranks 16th among qualifying quarterbacks in snaps under center. When Burrow's calf went back to full strength, Cincinnati lined up under center more often than previously in the season. Still, Burrow ranked 27th in that category in the five weeks before his wrist injury.

"I think the more you can do, the more looks you present to the defense and the more that all those looks have multiple things you can run out of those formations or those sets, I think it makes it difficult," Browning said of the tendency shift. "I feel like we're doing a good job of that."

Even the wide receivers have benefited from the balanced offense. Browning credited the run game for loosening up the Jacksonville Jaguars defense for a 76-yard touchdown pass to Ja'Marr Chase in the Bengals' Week 13 win.

After the Week 14 victory over the Colts, Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins said it's fun when the ground game is clicking.

"It's good to see our running backs with a big smile on their face the whole game," Higgins said. "As long as we complement each other, we'll be all right."