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Bengals Weekly Lineman: O-line’s stunt performance imperfect vs. Bears

Cincinnati’s pass protection issues stem beyond the sack numbers.

Cincinnati Bengals v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It did not take long for questions to arise, once again, about the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line. By the end of Week 2, the stigma against Joe Burrow’s protection was already in full strength. Four sacks and eight quarterback hits will get the ball rolling every time.

Despite ample amounts of optimism heading into their matchup with the Chicago Bears, negating the Bears’ front four was going to be the deciding factor between a win and a loss for the Bengals. It was seemingly the one advantage the Bears could exploit enough to secure a victory, and they accomplished just that.

So, after a disappointing road loss to one of the more talented pass-rushing units in the league, the Bengals’ o-line is now destined to remain useless.

I bet some of you took that seriously.

Let’s be real. Despite the personnel improvements, Cincinnati’s o-line is going to face more talented opponents for most of the season. That is a stark reality for most teams as the rate of pass-rushing development continues to increase more than o-line development around the league. There is no devastating shame in letting Khalil Mack and Co. penetrate the pocket at the rate they usually do so. High-level talent always has the advantage over scheme.

This was an outcome the Bengals had to be prepared for. It’s why the play-calling of Zac Taylor was in the forefront of most post-game analysis. The Bengals’ o-line could not get any better in time to face Mack, Robert Quinn, Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols. Taylor, on the other hand, should be aware of his personnel and the matchup they’re facing, and game-plan accordingly.

It’s felt like a long three days going over everything that happened in this game, and now that we’re in the middle of the week, attention is starting to shift towards the Pittsburgh Steelers. But before we go all into Steelers week, we can better manage expectations on the how the o-line will perform based off a theme from the Bears game.

Last year, the Bengals were simply abysmal at picking up stunts (and twists) in pass protection. Stunts are when pass-rushers cross behind adjacent rushers and exchange gap responsibilities in an attempt to confuse and achieve better angles against pass blockers. A stunt with the right timing and initial commitment can be disastrous for opposing linemen.

In their Week 10 matchup last season, the Steelers abused the Bengals with simple stunts throughout the game, leading to pressures and hits on Burrow. The clip below was just one example.

The Steelers’ pass rush—when fully healthy—is imposing enough to disrupt the Bengals’ offensive line on its own. Adding layers of intricacies to their attack can only compound on the potential issues the Bengals could be dealing with.

This was an area that should be improved under a better positional coach. O-line coach Frank Pollack is universally praised for being a great teacher of technique and corrector of mistakes. If anyone can get the unit more prepared and aware of picking up stunts, it’s him.

Considering how successful the Steelers were at deploying stunts last year against the Bengals, it shouldn’t be shocking to see them stick to the status quo in their upcoming meeting. And we just happen to have the freshest tape imaginable to see how this iteration of the Bengals’ o-line is handling them.

These seven examples from the Bears game should give us an idea of where they’re at.

So, like the o-line as whole from Sunday, some good, some bad. What does this mean going forward?

14 times did Cincinnati pass the ball out of true empty sets in Chicago, meaning they showed five in protection before the snap and used just those five in protection during the play.

From a philosophical standpoint, I understand why Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan want to utilize these plays as much as possible.

Spreading out the defense can allow the offense to diagnose matchups in the pre-snap phase and allow for quick decision-making to follow after the snap. It’s, theoretically, a great way to mitigate pass-rush, and also limit the amount of additional blitzers the defense can send.

But as anyone will tell you, it also decreases the margin of error for the line itself.

Execution needs to be borderline perfect the more often you leave the unit isolated as the tight end and running back are out wide. And when defenses can only send four rushers to avoid spacing issues in the back seven, they sometimes need to get creative in order to get home. This is where stunts and twists enter the equation.

In a nutshell, the Bengals’ willingness to go empty puts pressure on the o-line to communicate better and recognize different pressure packages. And pressure is what they should expect facing the Steelers in Heinz Field. Will they adjust and give the o-line additional help to start, or is there simply an expectation for performance to improve?

It could be the difference between 2-1 and 1-2.