Much has been made about the Cincinnati Bengals offensive line this season. Those issues have only gotten exacerbated with every pressure allowed in the playoffs. Joe Burrow was sacked a league-worst 51 times in 16 regular-season games and 12 times in three playoff games. For a young quarterback fresh off of an obliterated knee, he suffered the previous season, it is a miracle this team is in Super Bowl LVI. Brandon Allen was sacked four times in Week 18 to bring the season total to 55 allowed sacks. That is not exactly great.
However, Burrow is the truth. This season he has been able to get up after each and every hit. The issue is that he need not take this many hits. Naturally, the thought is, “imagine this team when they don’t give up sacks.” Well, with one game remaining, the Bengals offensive line will face its toughest test yet. The play of this unit will dictate whether or not the city of Cincinnati will be celebrating its first-ever Super Bowl victory on the evening of February 13th.
Cincinnati Bengals Offensive Line Will Determine Outcome of Super Bowl LVI
Jonah Williams, while not the greatest left tackle in the NFL, has played well, for the most part, this season. According to PFF, Williams has committed four penalties and allowed eight sacks for the 2021 season. Those eight sacks were easily the most allowed on this starting Bengals offensive line. However, where he may fail big, he wins big. Of the starting five that Cincinnati will throw out against LA, Williams was the highest-graded at 77.9.
The issue with how poorly the offensive line has played as a whole is any and all mistakes by an otherwise solid player get amplified. However, Williams has been the unsung hero on this offensive line. He has been able to minimize pass rushers on his side of the line like Odafe Oweh does for the Baltimore Ravens. Thus far in playoffs, Williams has committed one penalty and allowed a pair of sacks.
Another gaping hole is blasted open by Quinton Spain and Jonah Williams. Trey Hopkins sealing Heyward at NT is also a big key to this play. The Pollack wide zone is COOKING. pic.twitter.com/qHzNQzwtT4
— mike (@bengals_sans) November 29, 2021
Mr. Undrafted himself, Quinton Spain also put together a good season. PFF charged him with four penalties and five sacks on the year. The left side of the Bengals offensive line has not been the issue in 2021 as the tandem of Williams and Spain has been better than anticipated. Unfortunately for Spain, his mistakes get amplified, though the 2021 season was one of Spain’s best as a pro. In the Bengals three post-season games, Spain allowed a single sack.
Additionally, a positive spin on this offensive line is the fact that out of the 55 sacks allowed, only 27 were charged to the seven Bengals with the highest snap count. The other 28 sacks were the fault of running backs, tight ends, or Burrow, or they were coverage sacks. Burrow does have a tendency to try to keep plays alive with his legs and the Bengals do employ a number of route concepts that take a while to develop. For as bad as this Bengals offensive line has been, it could have been so much worse.
Of the seven linemen with significant playing time, it could be splitting hairs to decide between the “bad” and “ugly” tiers. But center Trey Hopkins has been bad but not quite ugly this year. The 2019 season was Hopkins’ best by far and he was in line to continue that high level of play in 2020 before his year was cut short by injury. The beginning of his 2021 was not unlike Burrow’s where they were both feeling out their newly-healed knees. Hopkins ended the regular season with a grade of 51.4, the second-worst among these seven. Additionally, Hopkins allowed four sacks to go with his four penalties during the regular season.
Honestly, Hopkins is teetering on the line of bad and ugly, but he didn’t have as many “all Hell breaking loose” type of plays that the ugly tier had. During the Super Bowl, he is going to have his hands full with the best defensive player in football, Aaron Donald. If there is going to be a play destroyer, it is going to be 99 barrelling through the middle. Expect the Bengals to use many double-teams to try to contain Donald. Although, Cincinnati could put all five linemen and a tight end on Donald and he could still end up getting pressure on Burrow.
The lone free agent “splash” in the off-season was the signing of Riley Reiff. After 12 weeks, Reiff allowed four sacks and committed a penalty. His season was cut short due to an ankle injury. While Reiff was not elite, he was serviceable and posted a 67.3 grade. Given the fact that Cincinnati faced nine of the top ten edge pass rushers in the league, Reiff allowing just four sacks is a feat in itself.
Riley Reiff with a thunderous pancake pic.twitter.com/HSaTpmSmsc
— mike (@bengals_sans) November 8, 2021
On the year, the Bengals faced each of the top four defenders atop the sack list: T.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, Myles Garrett (twice), and Nick Bosa. Watt was held without a sack and Quinn recorded two. Garrett had 2.5 between the two meetings, and Bosa had two. Could it have been better? Absolutely. Could it have been worse? Immeasurably so.
For every good or decent play the Bengals offensive line made, there was at least one other bad play. The right guard position has been a mess all year long. Second-round pick Jackson Carman has not yet developed as planned. While he is still very young and very raw, 2021 was fairly rough. He committed five penalties but was not charged with a single sack. However, injuries and mental lapses have plagued the rookie. Considering how poorly Hakeem Adeniji has played, there have been calls for the team to just roll with Carman, sink, or float. Carman was graded at 56.3. While that’s not great, it is something to build on.
Adeniji has been straight-up ugly. The largest issue has been communication. That nine sacks the Bengals allowed to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional round showed this. Adeniji often either passed off a rusher to Casper or failed to receive an edge who was looping inside. In the regular season, Adeniji allowed three sacks and committed three penalties. Thus far in the playoffs he has allowed an additional three sacks.
Along with Adeniji, the receiving end of the ire of Bengals faithful has been Isaiah Prince. While Reiff was okay, his replacement has not been. Far too often, the second Burrow hit his last step in his drop or turned his head up-field after a play-action, Prince’s assignment was in his face. Oddly enough, PFF graded Prince at 58.0 when he allowed three regular-season sacks to go with seven penalties in just four games started. In the three post-season games, Prince gave up pair of sacks and was flagged for three penalties.
The ultimate ugly, though, is the depth on this Bengals offensive line, or the lack thereof. There just is not much at all behind the starters. D’Ante Smith is a rookie and showed flashes but is nowhere near ready. Xavier Su’a-Filo dealt with injuries and will likely be a cap casualty after the 2021 season concludes. Fred Johnson was not good. Like Smith, Trey Hill is a rookie and is not close to being ready. Offensive line re-tooling and depth will likely be at the top of the Bengals off-season checklists following Super Bowl LVI.
Bengals Offensive Line Must Show Up in Order for Burrow Cook
Only 60 minutes remain in the Bengals season. All this offensive line needs to do is be decent and the Bengals have a legitimate shot to bring home their first title.
Of course, that is easier said than done when “all they have to do” is stop Leonard Floyd, Aaron Donald, and Von Miller from wreaking havoc. With two weeks to plan, expect Zac Taylor to attempt to slow down the Rams pass rush by utilizing screens and getting the ball out to the playmakers in space. Plus, and much to Bengals fans’ chagrin, Taylor will likely lean on Joe Mixon to keep the defense honest and get chunk plays even though LA’s defense is right up there with Cincinnati’s when it comes to stopping the run.
Either way, if the Bengals offensive line can allow Burrow enough time to get to even his second read, that could lead to a victory for Cincinnati. They have favorable matchups outside. The offensive line needs to give Burrow enough time to take advantage. If not, Donald could very well end up as Super Bowl LVI MVP and Los Angeles will be partying.