So, we’ve never done this before. I wasn’t even sure what to do.
This was usually the time for year-end reviews of the Cincinnati Bengals. Four years ago I did a complete recap of the 2017 offensive line, a form of punishment I probably deserved but definitely didn’t anticipate.
The 2021 version has not been spectacular by any means, but they make that group and others of recent memory look absolutely horrifying in comparison.
In truth, Joe Burrow has a lot to do with this. He’s taken a franchise-high 51 sacks this year, and it would’ve been a lot more if he wasn’t the escape artist he was when fully healthy.
Burrow doesn’t just elevate his offensive line, he elevates the entire team and everything that comes with that. It’s why fans feel a bit different about entering the playoffs this time around. And no quarterback finished the season hotter than No. 9, so it’s only fitting that he’ll face a defense that gave him as much trouble as any this past year.
The Las Vegas Raiders’ defensive line carry all the hopes and dreams of the team. If they have a dominant showing in Paul Brown Stadium, it’ll probably be curtains for a promising Bengals season. Here are a few keys to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Tight end chip and release
Bengals fans have already talked so much about Maxx Crosby this week and how the Bengals need to key in on stopping him from wrecking Saturday’s game. Crosby is deserving of all the fear he instills, but the guy on the other side of the defensive line, Yannick Ngakoue, is no slouch in comparison.
It was the second time Joe Burrow dropped back on third down in Las Vegas. The Bengals weren’t in empty like the first time. They kept running back Samaje Perine in the backfield to help out in pass protection. At least that was the intent.
Perine, standing to the left of Burrow, saw Ngakoue cross-chopping his way to the outside of left tackle Jonah Williams. This was expected from Williams’ perspective. He’s as cerebral as they come for 24-year-old offensive linemen. He knows this is Ngakoue’s signature move, and he’s working on meeting him at the top of the arc to run him out of the pocket. What he didn’t expect was Perine to barge in late and chip Ngakoue in the middle of his pass set.
What was supposed to be helpful for Williams turned to disaster as Ngakoue followed his momentum to the inside and beat Williams in that direction. He arrived at an unsuspecting Burrow and hit him so hard, the ball came free.
You can ask potential Hall of Fame right tackle Willie Anderson what he thinks about delayed chips from running backs, and he’ll tell you how he’s not a fan. Plays like this are why that’s the case for the former Bengals All-Pro.
The end goal is to disrupt the pass-rushers’ plan when engaging the tackle. But if the chip happens late enough in the rep when the tackle has created space, and he’s on an island by himself, this can actually benefit the edge, like we saw with Ngakoue and Williams.
Crosby and Ngakoue love to threaten the outside edge as pass-rushers because both are athletic enough to utilize bend on the outside, and Crosby specifically can unload counters to cross the face of the tackle back inside. Using delayed chips from running backs may not be the best way to provide help against Crosby and Ngakoue if Cincinnati’s tackles are selling out to the edge most of the time.
A better alternative would be for tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Drew Sample, whoever’s on the field at the time, staying at the line of scrimmage and chipping before releasing out to the field. This happens much quicker than the running back coming down and having to live up his chip, which means it’s the edge whose rhythm is off, not the tackle’s. The Bengals had success doing this against T.J. Watt the week after they played the Raiders.
Even when the tight end is tight with the formation and immediately releases out for his route, if he’s tighter than the edge is, his presence makes the edge’s path wider and more space is created for the tackle.
That the second Steelers game came right after the Raiders game bodes well for the Bengals formulating a better plan to handle Crosby and Ngakoue.
Head coach Zac Taylor said this week that this is game is similar to that of a divisional matchup because they’ve played the Raiders before this year. When the Bengals normally prepare for AFC North battles, their protection schemes usually involve split-gun shotgun sets with a running back and tight end each adjacent to Burrow. This has been a counter to blitz packages the Baltimore Ravens and Steelers like to deploy.
The Raiders don’t blitz like an AFC North opponent. Their Cover 3 scheme rarely features anything beyond five rushers at a time, and most of time they stick to their front four. Having Crosby and Ngakoue on the edge gives them the luxury of getting home often without having to blitz, but they still need some creativity every now and then to keep the offensive line on its heels.
In their first meeting, Cincinnati allowed some early pressures thanks to a few delayed twists from Las Vegas’ d-line. Twists have been an Achilles heel for Cincinnati, but they’ve gotten better at communicating upon recognizing them when they’re traditionally deployed right off the snap. In cases when the defenders attack their gaps first and the looper(s) wait an extra second longer to work around the engaged blockers, it can get confusing for the o-line and quarterback.
The Raiders aren’t the team to have their edge stunt inside their tackles constantly. They are one-gapping rushing in obvious passing situations, and they do not apologize for it. But their defense is designed to make the quarterback hold the ball and throw in front of them.
If they catch Burrow surveying his options for too long, Cincinnati needs to maintain depth with each other up front and pass off rushers accordingly so Burrow doesn’t have to scramble outside if he doesn’t have to.
Second level awareness
Offensively, the Bengals will want to ride the hot hand of Joe Burrow, despite their lack of success passing the ball against the Raiders back in November. They hadn’t yet found consistency in that part of the offense at the time, and sustaining drives with their pass blocking was difficult to come by.
When they do run the ball, they need to stay ahead of MIKE linebacker Denzel Perryman, who’s second in the league in run stop percentage among starting linebackers (per Pro Football Focus). Perryman caught Cincinnati sleeping a few times when they were committed to running Joe Mixon into the dirt.
In general, Las Vegas has really improved its run defense during their four-game winning streak to close out the regular season. They ranked fifth in success rate allowed from weeks 15-18, and that’s with just one defensive lineman with a PFF run defense grade above 60. They get a lot of production from their linebackers and cornerbacks crashing down on the run, which makes up for their middling d-line.
Say what you want about this Raiders team who’re 5.5-point underdogs playing in the freezing cold. What you can’t say is they don’t play hard on defense. They’ve proven that over the last month just to get here, and beating that unit is no small task, even for the Bengals’ explosive offense.