Joe Burrow and the Bengals have orchestrated an incredible twist and narrative shift in the 2021 season, going from a team with the fifth-worst record in the NFL a year ago to a team that will play for the AFC championship next weekend. .
One aspect hasn’t changed in Cincinnati, though: quarterback protection.
Protecting Burrow has been a constant problem, even as the team won the division and two playoff games and now prepares to face the Bills or Chiefs in the AFC championship game. He was sacked nine times in the Bengals’ 19-16 divisional-round victory over the Titans on Saturday, which tied an NFL playoff record.
“They had a great plan. They had a great plan fast,” Burrow said after the game. “They made it hard for us, they made it hard for me to disguise covers and blitzes and everything, and they changed the whole game. They didn’t stick to one thing. One thing didn’t work, they moved on to the next.” . It kept us on our toes.”
When Burrow arrived in Cincinnati, the main concern was how the team would protect the 2020 No. 1 overall pick. His rookie season ended early due to a knee injury that required surgery to repair an ACL and ACL. torn. At the time of his injury, he was ranked third in the league with 32 sacks.
Even after making improvements to the offensive line in the offseason, such as signing Riley Reiff and drafting Jackson Carman, the team finished the 2021 season allowing a league-high 51 sacks.
But Saturday was the worst the offensive line had had all season to protect Burrow. During the regular season, he was sacked six times in one game and five times in four other games. He had never been fired nine times before.
Three of Tennessee’s defensive linemen were, on average, within 4.5 yards of Burrow at the end of passing plays (4.53 yards is league average), according to NFL Next Gen Stats, showing that they were a constant threat in the backfield. Some of those sacks came fast, like Harold Landry’s first-quarter takedown that took just 2.6 seconds to happen.
Perhaps most impressively, most of that pressure came with just four running backs, with Next Gen Stats noting that seven of the nine sacks came with just four running backs.
The Titans defense forces its ninth sack of the game on Joe Burrow, and seventh sack with a 4-man career, tied for the most sacks with four running backs in a game since the start of 2020.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 23, 2022
The Titans were among the best in the league at chasing the quarterback during the regular season. They were rated 27th in the league in rushing the passer, according to Pro Football Focus, but ranked 10th in sacks (43), ninth in rushing (169) and seventh in rushing (79) despite the fifth-lowest rate (19.9 percent), by professional soccer reference.
And yet, despite the protection issues, the Bengals were still successful on offense. Burrow completed 28 of 37 passes for 348 yards with one interception, which came on a deflection to running back Samaje Perine. Those 348 yards were the fourth-most in NFL history for a quarterback who was sacked nine times in a game. according to Stathead.
Burrow was often able to throw quick passes to the outside, allowing Ja’Marr Chase and other receivers to get to work. In the first quarter, Chase caught a screen pass at the line of scrimmage and carried it 57 yards, posting the second-fastest speed of his NFL career (21.66 mph, according to next generation statistics), to help put Cincinnati in scoring position.
And when Burrow wasn’t under pressure, he was tearing up Tennessee’s defense. Next Gen Stats reported that he completed 25 of 31 passes for 325 yards when not facing pressure, accounting for 93 percent of his total passing yards.
And in many of those instances where he did have time to shoot, Burrow focused on shorter distances and allowed his fast receivers to run after the catch. He completed 21 of 25 passes thrown less than 10 yards downfield.
Improving pass protection will continue to be a point of emphasis as Cincinnati heads to the AFC championship. But for now, Burrow can take a much-needed break.