Bengals' plan to protect Joe Burrow faces stiff test vs. Steelers

Joe Burrow has been sacked more times per dropback than any other quarterback in the NFL. Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

CINCINNATI -- The last storyline the Cincinnati Bengals wanted to hear this season is the one that can’t go away.

During the offseason, the biggest talking point was how the franchise planned to protect Joe Burrow after the 2020 top overall pick suffered a season-ending knee injury last November.

Through two games, the pressure hasn’t been relieved. Burrow has been sacked more times per dropback than any other quarterback in the NFL.

Not all of the sacks can be blamed on the offensive line. However, Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (1 p.m. ET on CBS) could give the Bengals their first look at all of the major offseason changes designed to protect Burrow.

Second-round pick Jackson Carman could make his first NFL start in place of Xavier Su'a-Filo, the starting right guard dealing with a knee injury. Carman, right tackle Riley Reiff and assistant coach Frank Pollack were all added this offseason to make improvements with blocking the Steelers and the rest of the AFC North in mind.

“That’s where you’ve got to start -- with the (defenses) you’re going to face six times,” Taylor said on Wednesday.

Carman’s potential insertion comes when the Bengals are looking for answers to improve its pass protection and overall offense. Defenses have sacked Burrow nine times, the second-highest total in the league. Cincinnati leads the NFL in sacks allowed per dropback (13.8%), which might be the more troubling number.

Pinning the issue squarely on the offensive line is unfair at best and perhaps incorrect at worst. The Bengals rank seventh in the NFL in Pass Block Win Rate (an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen) after being tied for 29th a year ago. Taylor suggested various members of the offense are responsible for Burrow’s nine sacks. Burrow more or less agreed with that sentiment.

“I can be better, (running) backs can be better, O-line can be better, receivers can be better, coaches can be better,” Burrow said. “We can all be better. That's what you try to do each week.”

But because of the discourse surrounding the Bengals, the offensive line will bear the brunt of that pressure. Cincinnati re-hired Pollack, who was with the team in 2018, to replace Jim Turner, the former offensive line coach who wasn’t retained after two seasons.

The early returns, chiefly the improved Pass Block Win Rate, indicate improvement. But after a game like the Week 2 loss at Chicago -- which included four sacks and nine quarterback hits -- it’s easy to know what people will be talking about.

“I know there's gonna be a lot of talking,” said Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams. “There always is, there's always a lot of noise. But for us, our job is simple. It's not easy, but the actual responsibilities of what we have to do is simple.”

Carman and the Bengals (1-1) will have to contend with a potent Steelers defensive front. T.J. Watt leads the league in Pass Rush Win Rate as an edge rusher, while Alex Hightower ranks seventh. There’s a chance the Bengals catch a break this weekend as both Watt and Hightower are dealing with groin injuries.

“Hopefully we get lucky and he doesn’t play,” Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said with a grin.

But the Bengals will be prepared to face a full-strength version of the Steelers (1-1). Pittsburgh currently ranks sixth in team Pass Rush Win Rate. It won’t get any easier for the Bengals, either. Cleveland, another AFC North rival, is fifth and has yet to face Cincinnati this season.

If Carman indeed gets the start at right guard, which seems likely, there will be a lot of eyes watching to see how he fares against Pittsburgh.

This week will be the first of many tests of the team’s quarterback protection overhaul. The Bengals know Burrow can’t get continually pummeled. The second-year quarterback is aware of that, too.

And everyone inside the building knows what the Steelers will bring on Sunday.

“They hit the quarterback,” Taylor said. “We’re going to be ready for it.”