May 20, 2024

CINCINNATI — The lasting image of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow from Super Bowl LVI happened behind a long, black curtain.

Several minutes after the Bengals lost to the Los Angeles Rams 23-20, Burrow took a slow walk from the team’s locker room to the dais for his final news conference of the 2021 postseason. He had been sacked seven times, tied for the most ever in a Super Bowl, and hit 11 times in the loss.

“We expected that they were going to get some pressure,” Burrow said. “They did a good job.”

After that postseason run, the Bengals were determined to improve an offensive line that struggled so mightily to protect their franchise quarterback. They signed three new starters in free agency and drafted another for the 2022 season. That overhaul continued into the 2023 season, when Cincinnati signed Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown Jr.

But the impact of those additions has yet to be seen. In 2022, the Bengals ranked 30th in pass block win rate, an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen Stats. Burrow was sacked 38 times while in the pocket, the eighth-highest total in the league.

Getting better play from the offensive line will be paramount if the Bengals want a crack at winning a Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.

“[They’ve] clearly poured resources into that unit, but there seems to be some type of disconnect as to why [they’ve] ‘upgraded,’ but the production as far as protecting the quarterback is not at a premium,” former Pro Bowl lineman Damien Woody told ESPN.

MONDAY NIGHT’S GAME against the Rams (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC/ESPN+) will mark the first meeting between the two teams since that Super Bowl. Burrow is listed as questionable for the game after aggravating a right calf injury against the Baltimore Ravens last week. But whoever is at quarterback against Los Angeles will be behind a line that effectively features four new starters since the February 2022 loss.

Right guard Alex Cappa was the first one to sign with the Bengals. The former third-round pick in 2018 joined Cincinnati after four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Next, the Bengals signed former New England Patriots center Ted Karras and ex-Dallas Cowboys right tackle La’el Collins in free agency. Then they went to the draft and selected Cordell Volson in the fourth round. Volson eventually won the job at left guard, giving the Bengals four new starters to join left tackle Jonah Williams, the team’s first-round pick in 2019.

Despite the overhaul on the line, Cincinnati’s pass blocking didn’t make any marked improvements. The Bengals ranked 30th in pass block win rate in 2021 — the Super Bowl year — and again in 2022, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Over the past four seasons, 11 of the 16 teams that reached the conference championship game had a pass block win rate of 60% or higher during the regular season. That group includes three of the past four Super Bowl winners: the 2019 and 2022 Kansas City Chiefs and the 2021 Rams. The 2021 and 2022 Bengals — which both reached the AFC Championship Game — had the worst pass blocking rates of any team to reach the conference championship at 48.8% and 50.1%, respectively.

Woody, a former first-round pick who played 12 seasons with the Patriots, Lions and Jets, knows that evaluating an offensive line requires context.

He said the Bengals’ tape from last season backed up the metrics.

“You just saw individuals breaking down, not using great technique in their pass protection,” Woody said.

None of the Bengals’ starting tackles or guards ranked in the top 50 in pass block win rate at their respective positions. Karras, the team’s center, ranked 23rd out of 33 players.

Last season, Burrow had the fourth-most sacks (38) when inside the pocket, per ESPN Stats & Information. This was despite the fact that Burrow led the NFL in fastest average release time when in the pocket (2.39 seconds).

Cincinnati is off to a rocky start to 2023 as well. In Week 1, the Bengals posted a 30.4% pass block win rate in a 24-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns, the second-lowest percentage of any game this season. In last week’s loss to Baltimore, the Bengals were at 47.6%.

It’s no secret the Bengals’ offense revolves around Burrow, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick who signed a record-breaking contract extension on Sept. 9. But that could also be a factor that contributes to his sack total. In 2022, he ranked sixth in sacks taken and fifth in total dropbacks, but was just 18th in sacks per dropback (6.1%).

Burrow and the coaching staff have acknowledged his responsibility in reducing the amount of hits he takes. Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said that’s one of the areas where he has grown over the first three years of his career.

“[There is] the acknowledgment and understanding of how sacks can negatively affect an offense, especially on early downs,” Callahan said on March 1 at the annual NFL scouting combine. “[Burrow] did a really good job of avoiding those as much as possible.”

BURROW HAS BEEN proactive in recruiting his protection as well. In 2022, he hosted Collins during his visit to Cincinnati before Collins signed. Collins started 16 games for the Bengals before he tore ligaments in his left knee. He was released in September.

This offseason, Burrow met with Brown while both players were in New York for promotional events. They met in a hotel room and chatted over cheeseburgers.

In March, Brown signed a four-year deal worth more than $64 million that included $31.1 million in guaranteed money. That was the highest amount of guaranteed money the Bengals had ever given out until Burrow signed his extension with $219.01 million guaranteed.

Burrow said playing a role in the recruitment process comes with the territory.

“That’s part of the job of the quarterback,” Burrow said. “You want to be involved in those decisions and the organization. You have to put forth an effort to make that happen. I always try to be available when I can in those things.”

The Bengals are hopeful that Brown, along with moving Williams to right tackle, will finally bring an improved offensive line in 2023.

Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said the unit made progress over the course of last season, despite what the numbers showed. He also said that the high sack total, particularly early in the season, was due to a number of factors.

“Some of those sacks early in the year were [because of running] backs, tight ends, holding onto the ball, [a] bad playcall,” Taylor said.

There is the likelihood that the Bengals could keep making tweaks to the unit next year. Williams, who had his fifth-year option on his rookie deal exercised by the team, is in the final year of his contract. That means the Bengals will either need to re-sign him or get a new starting right tackle.

But the Bengals are hopeful that this year’s group will be good enough to help get the team over the Super Bowl hump. And Williams said it is the most talented offensive line he has played with since being drafted in 2019.

“Ton of talent, veteran guys, really smart,” Williams said. “Good group.”

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