Bengals’ struggles on offense start with protecting Joe Burrow

By Geoff Schwartz
FOX Sports NFL Analyst

Through two weeks of the NFL season, the Bengals seem to be pretending that their pass protection isn’t an issue. It was an issue for much of last season, and it clearly has not been fixed. 

It looks as though they believed their late-season success that led them to a Super Bowl appearance would roll over to this new year because they are wearing Bengals uniforms and added a few offensive line pieces.

As is usually the case in football, there is rarely just one reason why a specific play, scheme or anything else that happens throughout the course of a game does or doesn’t work. The Bengals’ lack of offensive success (24th in expected points added) is the result of poor offensive line pass protection, both individually and as a whole group.

Quarterback Joe Burrow, who famously said that “there are good sacks,” shares some of the blame for the times he is brought down behind the line. Pro Football Focus has charged five of the 13 Bengals’ sacks to him. He holds the ball too long looking for a home run pass, which was very successful for him last season. 

This is something young quarterbacks who have seen success with waiting just a tad longer to throw the ball down the field can struggle with (Patrick Mahomes is another recent example). Burrow never wants to take the easy throw — the short pass that could lead to a longer run.

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Cincinnati’s offensive staff hasn’t acknowledged these issues are present, either. When you watch the Bengals’ offense, far too many throwing options are down the field, requiring Burrow to stay in the pocket longer than needed. However, when the Bengals do call pass concept with shorter routes, they hit on them. Ja’Marr Chase was outstanding in the slot against the Cowboys or when he was running routes over the ball. The offense just does not do that often enough.

There’s very little moving the pocket, which can get Burrow moving without threat of being hit — almost no bootlegs. There isn’t near enough play-action pass, which is a way to neutralize a pass rush and find easy completions. It seems the Bengals’ coaching staff underestimated the preparation teams would take this offseason to slow down Cincinnati’s offense. The Bengals won the AFC conference, which means that everyone was going to spend extra time preparing for them.

Also contributing to the lack of offensive success is the quarterback. He’s not playing with confidence in the pocket, which can be expected when you’re getting hit so often. Even when there’s a clean pocket, Burrow is looking to unload the ball quickly, and when it’s not there, he’s tucking to run or find a way to escape.

Burrow’s eyes often drop at the top of his drop when he gets a whiff of pressure, and he’s not looking to reset to find an open receiving option. This all stems from his belief he’s going to find a defender’s helmet in his chest if he doesn’t leave the pocket soon.

The most difficult aspect of getting out of an offensive slump is not knowing where the breakdown will occur next. When you have a single offensive lineman who is struggling, you can scheme that up with tight end help, running back chips, sliding the offensive line — and the quarterback knows he has to keep an extra eye on that rush.

But when it’s both tackles — who are far better than they’ve played — switching off and getting beat, it’s difficult to find creative solutions to fix it other than getting the ball out quickly of giving both help. 

If the tackles hold up well, a guard gets beat. How do you find a solution for that? Maybe all five of the lineman hold up well, but now the tight end is getting beat. Burrow is given plenty of time one snap but won’t pull the trigger. It just goes on and on. The acknowledgment of these issues needs to be reflected in the game plan and a sense of urgency from the quarterback.

Let’s get to reviewing Dallas’ sacks. We are going to start with the final sack because it best describes all the Bengals’ issues.

First, the Bengals have an individual pass protection breakdown at right tackle. La’el Collins is late off the ball against Micah Parsons, then attempts to strike with his inside hand across his body. That’s bad technique, and Parsons is able to use that arm to spin off and gather steam to get a pressure on Burrow.

Burrow has an open option in a tight end but turns it down. After he starts to scramble, he has time to reset his feet and find an open Tyler Boyd breaking inside, but Burrow’s process is sped up. Of course it is — he’s been getting crushed all game. This rep ends with him getting sacked. Please turn up the volume to learn more.

The first sack of the game looks similar to the last. Burrow is very uncomfortable in the pocket the second he senses pressure and gets off his read. Once again, Collins at right tackle has an awful pass set against Parsons. 

The second sack can be pinned on the coaching staff. It’s a choice to keep a tight end blocking a defensive end. In an ideal world, the tight end holds off the defensive end long enough for the left tackle to sell run and then pop back out to help. That does not happen.

While the offensive line is good here, it’s worth pointing out some poor techniques that go to the bigger picture. This is a play-action pass. The right guard and right tackle are at the forefront of selling the action. Both of them are taking normal pass protection sets. This is not good for two veterans to use this technique in this situation.

Sack three is on the right guard; he just gets beat. However, you can see Burrow start to speed up his process when he feels pressure from his blind side.

Sack four is a coverage sack but once again highlights the quick feet in the pocket for Burrow.

And finally, the fifth sack is on a “three-step drop” out of shotgun. The ball should be gone almost immediately. It’s a good example of either Burrow or the coaching staff not stressing getting rid of the ball quickly when it’s called! Just throw into the flat and take the yards. 

If the Bengals are to have anywhere near the success they had last season, their pass protection must improve. The sooner the better.

Geoff Schwartz played eight seasons in the NFL for five different teams. He started at right tackle for the University of Oregon for three seasons and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection his senior year. He is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffSchwartz.

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