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Bengals Weekly Lineman: How the offensive line has handled an uptick in empty protections

The return of Cordy Glenn has seen the Bengals’ offensive line less dependent on additional blockers in pass protection.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

From the unkno-o-o-o-own

I ran away, I don’t think I’m coming back home


Like a crawlspace, it’s a dark place I roam

These are the first four lines of the late Jarad Higgins’ “Empty”, the opening song in his 2019 album “Death Race For Love”. Higgins, more commonly known as Juice WRLD, passed away Monday morning from convulsions that led to a seizure and him going into cardiac arrest.

This article will not go into the details of how and why this happened. Higgins was dealing with a Percocet addiction and also consumed codeine regularly. This doesn’t make him any less of a human being and doesn’t extinguish any remorse that should be directed towards his spirit.

Higgins’ struggles were easily discernible when listening to his music. You didn’t even have to get lost in his discography, it was right there for your ears to consume it.

His infectious melodies would often express opioid usage and a palpable sense of melancholy. And while his own symphonic flair did allude to depressive behavior, his flow and the samples he used provided an uplifting balance to perfectly counter it.

Empty was no exception. It’s not viewed as one of his more notable hits, but it’s special in my own heart. It was the first song in an album that helped me push through a potentially destructive period in my life. The feeling of emptiness conflicting with sudden lifestyle changes with an uncertain future ahead of it all. Empty is a joyous—yet heart-rending—representation of all of these clashing realities that portrays perspective in the midst of discord.

My problems weren’t unique to anybody else that has ever been in the position that I was. Relieving anxiety and dejection through the medium of music isn’t special either, but it was a catalyst that helped me press on.

Whenever the chorus came on, I would let it carry me.

Empty, I feel so goddamn empty!

I may go rogue

Don’t tempt me, big bullet holes

Tote semiiiii-auutooooos

In all honesty, I didn’t plan on using a personal tribute to Juice WRLD as the intro to this week’s linemen piece, but Empty is not just a song, it’s something that I noticed when watching the Bengals this past Sunday against the Browns.

Sunday marked the third week since Cordy Glenn returned to the Bengals’ offensive line at left tackle. In the three weeks since his return, the Bengals’ passing game has gotten more usage out of its’ running backs and tight ends as potential pass-catchers instead of pass-protectors.

When looking at the difference in pass blocking snaps per game since Glenn’s debut in Week 12, a clear split can be made:

RB and TE Pass Blocking Snaps per Game

Player Pass Block Snaps/Game Weeks 1-11 Pass Block Snaps/Game Weeks 12-14
Player Pass Block Snaps/Game Weeks 1-11 Pass Block Snaps/Game Weeks 12-14
Giovani Bernard 7.7 2.67
Joe Mixon 5.8 4
C.J. Uzomah 5.3 3.67
Tyler Eifert 2.1 1
Drew Sample 2.33 0
Cethan Carter 0 1
Total 23.23 12.34

With more passing concepts involving five receiving options, this has inherently put more pressure on the offensive line to handle the entire bulk of pass protection. This is important for the kind of offense the Bengals like to run.

Andy Dalton has been Cincinnati’s starting quarterback for 10 weeks this season and no team in the NFL has passes more while deploying 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) than them at 84% with Dalton on the field. 11 personnel gives you flexibility in pass protection with the options to keep either the running back, the tight end, or both in the protection scheme. Keeping these players in the backfield or in an inline position also keeps the defense honest by accounting for extra gaps.

Releasing these players downfield as route runners from those pre-snap alignments can also provide for quick and easy completions. If the defense is sending extra blitzers to account for the running back blocking but then the running back releases out of the backfield, it’s a simple hot read throw and it usually results in a completion.

This was what the Bengals were doing for most of the game in Cleveland as well as the two weeks beforehand. They kept their tight ends and running backs in traditional alignments, but didn’t have them help out in pass protection that much, ultimately utilizing empty protection.

Empty protection is simply a five-man protection with no one in the backfield except for the quarterback. The accepted philosophy is when deploying empty protection, getting the ball out quickly is ideal because you sacrifice extra blockers for extra receivers. Defenses have to chose between taking advantage of attacking just a five-man protection or keeping seven men in coverage to counter a five-pattern concept.

Pre-snap deception helps when you keep the tight end and running back close to formation’s center, but what about when the quarterback and offensive line is truly isolated before the snap? This is truly empty protection, and something the Bengals did six times in the passing game against the Browns.

As you can see, every aspect in a play-call involving a quarterback alone in the backfield works off of each other. Having five routes creates space for the primary reads, allowing the quarterback to get rid of the ball before just one pass rusher breaks into the pocket, which is an assumed fate. Protection will rarely be perfect, and offenses have set contingencies when the line is at its most vulnerable without help from running backs, tight ends and slot receivers.

It’s also worth nothing that the Bengals have been fortunate enough to face two-straight defenses who didn’t have a reliable edge rusher, which could attribute to their increased confidence in using more empty protections. If the Browns had both Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon for this game, they probably wouldn’t be as comfortable letting Glenn and Bobby Hart operate in isolation so much.

This trend will be put to the test this upcoming week when the Bengals face the Patriots, who posses the league’s best defense. New England’s secondary is the true asset of that unit, but it allows their pass rush to get home regularly. Zac Taylor will have to decide if spreading out that defense is more important than keeping Dalton protected at all costs.