The Minnesota Vikings take on the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, hoping to get their season started on the right foot, and containing 2020 No.1-overall pick Joe Burrow will be key to victory. He returns for his first meaningful game since an ACL injury cut his rookie season short last November.
There will surely be some tentativeness from Burrow when he plays on Sunday. Quarterbacks often take time to feel comfortable in the pocket when returning from these injuries. Unfortunately for Burrow, he didn’t feel much comfort last season behind a porous Bengals line. This resulted in an inconsistent downfield passing attack that the Vikings can take advantage of on Sunday. To quantify this, I used Pro Football Focus’ Premium Stats.
When throwing less than 20 yards downfield, Burrow was one of the NFL’s more efficient passers. He was graded sixth in PFF’s overall passing grade on these passes. On passes behind the line of scrimmage, Burrow went 39/42 with one touchdown and an interception. Despite the high completion rate, these passes only resulted in a 4.7 yard-per-attempt average, tied for 25th in the league among passers with at least 200 total dropbacks.
On passes from 0-9 yards downfield, Burrow was again accurate, hitting on 80.1% of his passes here, good for tenth in the league. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was strong here as well, firing nine touchdowns to only two interceptions. His yards per attempt stacked up better here but still tied for 18th among qualifying passers at 6.5.
Passes in these two short areas play into the strength of Minnesota’s front-seven. Anthony Barr‘s status for Week 1 sounds more optimistic, and Eric Kendricks returns to the middle. Although Burrow found success in this area, it was moderate and far from unstoppable if the Vikings can start their top two linebackers.
Grading slightly above league-average, Burrow was at his best in the intermediate passing game between 10-19 yards. He completed 62.1% of his passes for 925 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. His 9.7 YPA was his highest among all passing depths, although this still only tied for 18th-overall in the league among qualifiers.
Once again, this still gets affected by Kendricks and Barr. Burrow’s passes only went for an average depth of target of 13.7 yards on intermediate passes, 20th in the league. This is prime Kendricks territory but will stress great coverage from the team’s new cornerbacks to break on the shorter routes.
Throwing deep was a different story. Burrow graded 32nd out of 36 qualifying passers on passes 20-plus yards downfield. His on-target average plummeted to 21%, lagging far below the NFL average of 42 percent. In total, Burrow completed only nine passes on 48 attempts for 290 yards when going deep, throwing only one touchdown and one interception. This resulted in only 6.1 YPA despite an average depth of target of 27.6 yards downfield. For comparison’s sake, Tua Tagovailoa went 10/32 for 259 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick. This was an 8.9 YPA average for a rookie who didn’t exactly light the world on fire. Adrian Peterson ran for 6.0 yards-per-carry in his 2012 MVP season if we really want to rub salt in the wound.
Last year, pressure affected Burrow more than anything. This is nothing new for rookie signal-callers, but when the pocket was kept clean, he threw 10 touchdowns, three interceptions, and had 7.5 YPA. Under pressure, this resulted in only three touchdowns, two picks, and his YPA dropped all the way to 6.4. The Vikings are likely to employ some new looks and blitz packages against the Bengals. If they can rattle him early, they’ll have control of a game that they should win.
Minnesota’s secondary still has to be ready for the Bengals, though. They return receiver Tee Higgins and drafted Ja’Marr Chase fifth-overall this spring. This will require the new secondary to communicate and make the right calls on assignments in the back end to avoid busted coverages and cheap yards. Communication was an issue during the preseason, but not every starter was playing. But with so many new faces back there, it is something to keep an eye on. If the Vikings’ secondary plays their game and can do enough to disrupt the short passing game, they should walk out with a victory on Sunday.