The first five games of Joe Burrow’s NFL career have gone about as expected. He hasn’t quite wowed anyone but the 23-year-old has mostly looked like he belongs in an NFL starting lineup, which is an accomplishment for a rookie quarterback.
Bengals fans are surely happy with what they’ve seen from the first-overall pick, but there is a dark cloud hanging over things right now: Burrow is taking a lot of sacks. In a blowout loss in Baltimore, the Ravens sacked the rookie seven times, bringing his season total up to 22, which puts him on pace for 70 this season. That would be the third-highest single-season total in NFL history.
When we see sack numbers like that, the first instinct is to blame the offensive line, so it’s not a surprise the Bengals’ line — which didn’t have the most sterling reputation to begin with — has been blamed for the beating Burrow has taken this season. But we’re in a more enlightened age of football discourse. We now know quarterbacks have more ownership over their sack numbers than we may have realized in the past, so Burrow shares at least some blame, right? But how much blame does he deserve and who (or what) is really to blame for the Bengals’ protection problems?
I set out to answer that question and after reviewing the film and pouring over the numbers, my answer might be a surprising one: The line certainly hasn’t been good and Burrow has run himself into a lot of pressure, but I’d put most of the Bengals’ issues in pass protection on Zac Taylor’s coaching staff.
First, let’s talk about the line and what the numbers are saying about its performance. The Bengals rank 28th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate. They’re 27th in both Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking grading and its Pass Block Efficiency metric. The advanced metrics seem to agree: The line is bad but there are a handful of units that have been worse, so it doesn’t fully explain the historic sack numbers we’re seeing.
The weak links aren’t hard to find on tape. Right tackle Bobby Hart is clearly the biggest one. PFF has him responsible for three sacks, but in my own charting of the 22 sacks the Bengals have surrendered this season (which you can find here), I have him playing a role in five of them.
The rotation of right guards hasn’t fared much better. Fred Johnson started the season but was benched at halftime of the Eagles game. PFF has him marked down for only one sack, but I had him partly responsible for three. Johnson was replaced by Billy Price, who came in and allowed this to happen…
Alex Redmond, who was promoted from the practice squad last month, has taken over the starting job and has yet to give up a sack, but he has allowed six pressures and earned a pass-blocking grade of 45.4 from PFF, so he hasn’t protected Burrow all that well, either.
The left side of the line hasn’t been nearly as bad. Jonah Williams, who’s basically a rookie, has been beaten a few times for sacks but has mostly played well. Left guard Michael Jordan has been a liability but has yet to give up a sack. Center Trey Hopkins hasn’t been very good in the run game but has protected Burrow for the most part.
According to PFF, Bengals linemen have allowed only six sacks total. That aligns perfectly with my own charting. It’s also the same number of sacks PFF and I put on Burrow, who ranks second amongst quarterbacks in “sacks allowed.” Most of those can be chalked up to Burrow being a rookie who had just enough athleticism to escape college pass rushers and still needs time to figure out what he can get away with against pros.
There are some other issues contributing to his problems. On this sack, for instance, Burrow just has to trust his guy to get open (and he does get open!) and make this throw with anticipation:
Here, Burrow has to know where the potential problems are in protection might be. The nickel is not accounted for in the protection, so when he comes, it’s on Burrow to throw “hot.”
Again, this looks like what you’d expect from a rookie quarterback playing behind a bad line. Some of the sacks are on him, some of them are on the line and there are more than a few instances where both are to blame.
But there are also a concerning number of sacks that can’t be blamed on either and those fall on the coaching staff. Even some of the sacks we can blame on Burrow or his line can be put on a coaching staff that hasn’t put its players in a position to succeed and hasn’t adjusted after it’s become clear that the team just isn’t cut out to run certain concepts.
For instance, Taylor’s usage of Empty formations on third-and-long. Only the Ravens have used Empty in those situations more than the Bengals have this season. But Baltimore has a good line and a quarterback capable of creating his own escape route if pressure gets home. Cincinnati has neither and asking a bad line to protect without extra help in a situation that forces the quarterback to hold the ball is just coaching negligence.
The numbers back me up here, too. The success rate on third-and-long (7+ yards to go) is 38.7% across the NFL, according to Sports Info Solutions. That number drops to 33.5% when any team passes out of an Empty formation. When the Bengals do it? It plummets to 15.7% and the team’s sack rate jumps to 23.1%.
I recently commended Taylor for implementing more Empty formations to make Burrow more comfortable … but I didn’t mean on third-and-long, when defenses can exploit the lack of protection options and create blocking mismatches. Here’s an example from the Eagles game…
With six pass rushers on the line of scrimmage, the Bengals are forced to bring a tight end in to protect and he ends up on a defensive end who easily beats him for a sack. Drew Sample gets pinned with the sack allowed but that’s on the coaches.
Taylor is from the Sean McVay coaching tree so, of course, he loves him some play-action from under center. There’s just one problem: The Bengals haven’t been very good when running those plays, losing -2.2 Expected Points on the season. More importantly, Burrow is getting wrecked when Taylor calls them. Play-action generally drives down sack rates, but the Bengals are allowing a sack on 21.4% of those dropbacks.
I’m not really qualified to diagnose what’s going wrong on those plays protection-wise, but I do know that asking a tight end to block Brandon Graham on a long-developing play is likely to end badly.
By my count, 10 of Cincinnati’s sacks allowed have come on those Empty-on-third-down and under-center-play-action plays. The Bengals are getting sacked once every five times they call them! That’s obviously a concern considering how much of the offense is made up of those two concepts alone.
If Taylor is looking for a way to better protect his rookie quarterback, dialing back on those calls would be a good first step. It’s the one thing he can control. The offensive line isn’t going to be upgraded before the next offseason. Burrow needs time and reps to grow out of those bad rookie habits. That’s not going to happen if the Bengals can’t keep him healthy.