Bengals gamble on a Joe Burrow protection plan in 2021

CINCINNATI -- One of the most pivotal dynamics to the Cincinnati Bengals' 2021 season was spotted on the edge of the field at Paul Brown Stadium last week.

New assistant coach Frank Pollack peered down at rookie guard Jackson Carman during rookie minicamp, with Carman hunched over taking instructions from his position coach.

On most teams, this interaction isn’t necessarily noteworthy. But for the Bengals, Pollack and Carman represent two key pieces of a parlay bet in Cincinnati’s big offseason gamble.

In 2020, fears regarding Cincinnati’s ability to protect quarterback Joe Burrow were justified when the top overall draft pick suffered a knee injury that prematurely ended his rookie season. The Bengals are banking on their moves to improve the offensive line will be enough to keep Burrow upright and successful in 2021.

“We’ve continued to add guys who have a great understanding and love for the game of football, on top of the guys we already have in the mix,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said after drafting Carman. “We’re starting to feel really good about that group and who we have in there to compete.”

The Bengals’ decision to draft LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase over Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell with the fifth overall draft pick reflected the confidence they had in their offseason approach after a rough 2020.

Last year, the Bengals were tied for 29th in pass-block win rate, an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen. Cincinnati was also eighth in quarterback pressures allowed, according to NFL Next Gen.

Even before Burrow tore multiple ligaments in a Week 11 game at Washington, there were several questions about the offensive linemen and assistant coach Jim Turner.

Quietly, the Bengals admitted the critics were correct.

Left guard Michael Jordan, a fourth-round pick in 2019, was benched after Burrow’s injury. Right tackle Bobby Hart, who appeared to have an improved year but still finished with poor metrics, was cut for cap space. And perhaps most importantly, Turner was not retained at the end of the season.

The Bengals drafted Carman in the second round to immediately contend for a starting guard spot and signed veteran Riley Reiff to be the projected starting right tackle. But any source of optimism about the offensive line’s improvement revolves around Pollack, who is in his second stint as a Bengals assistant.

“I think we’re moving in a great direction,” Taylor said during the draft. “I’m anxious for Frank to get on the field and work with these guys.”

Pollack’s hire was the most significant move the Bengals made toward improving the offensive line. Reiff, a nine-year veteran who spent the past four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, gives Cincinnati an improved starting right tackle. However, Reiff ranked 37th in pass-block win rate among tackles at 86.9%, which is just under the NFL average.

Carman will shift from left tackle to one of the guard positions in the NFL. Aside from Reiff and Carman, the other three projected starters on the offensive line were on the roster last season.

During last week’s rookie minicamp, Pollack worked with Carman, as the rookie took the early steps of learning his new role.

“We were working on me getting more comfortable in my guard stance and critiquing the nuances and different weight shifting and where my feet exactly should be,” Carman said. “Different weight angles and things like that. Just fine-tuning some things.”

The other aspect of Cincinnati’s big gamble involves Burrow and the passing attack. Burrow continues to be on track for the season opener against the Vikings on Sept. 12. If Burrow can get the ball out of his hands quickly and Chase and the rest of the receivers can create swift separation, the offensive line won’t need to hold blocks for very long.

It’s a calculated risk the Bengals hope can push them into contention for their first playoff spot since 2015. Cincinnati’s front office has no choice but for this strategy to succeed.

The Bengals can’t have Burrow sustain unnecessary punishment. If he goes down again, second-guessing about this year’s protection plan will be the least of the Bengals’ long-term concerns.