Seven months later, Burrow is preparing to take the field for the start of his third season behind a completely overhauled offensive line. Sunday’s opener against Pittsburgh will be the first time four new starters line up alongside left tackle Jonah Williams.
That’s been the focus since the offseason: Protect the franchise quarterback, who already has sustained several injuries in two seasons, including an ACL tear to end his rookie season and multiple ailments he played through last year.
“We put in a lot of work preparing for the fronts we think we’re going to see going against ourselves, going against the Rams and exploring some tweaks we have in the system as well,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “You’re just excited to see how it all takes shape when you go out there week one. It takes all 11 guys, we know that. It’s not just about the offensive line or the running back. Everyone has got to understand their part and all of the things that come off of the runs as well to help generate the run game. We’ve got to spend a lot of time and effort that it all matches together and that we as coaches do a good job putting our guys in position to be successful Week 1.”
New center Ted Karras, who protected Tom Brady for four seasons in New England, came in and already won over the locker room with his leadership qualities. He was one of the three offensive players named as captains, despite this being his first year with the Bengals.\
Former Bucs guard Alex Cappa, who also played with Brady the past two seasons in Tampa, solidified the right guard spot that was never settled last year, while rookie fourth-round draft pick Cordell Volson won the left guard job over Jackson Carman.
Right tackle La’el Collins was the big headline addition in free agency after the Cowboys released him to save cap space, but he remains a bit of a question mark after a back issue slowed his start to training camp. He already has a history of injuries, and his first full week in team training he was at the center of a brawl with the L.A. Rams that ended their final joint practice early.
“I like the progress they’ve made together,” Taylor said. “Some of those are unknowns until you get into the season. I like the leadership these guys have shown, these veterans have come into the room and helped Cordell and I fell really good about where they’re at. We’ll just see when we roll the ball out there and they get to block these guys, we’ll see how it goes. I’ve got a lot of confidence in in them that they’ve done everything they can to prepare. They’ve listened to Frank (Pollack), they feel like they’re in really good position to be successful.”
Collins and Taylor have both said Collins would be ready for the opener, but the group was missing pieces all throughout camp so the five starters will only have had three weeks of practices together and no game reps beside one another.
Cappa was slow to join the group after a core muscle injury during OTAs required surgery, and Carman got most of the first-team reps through the offseason workout program and first few weeks of camp. The left guard spot wasn’t settled until Volson had two strong showings in the preseason and started getting the first-team reps ahead of the practices with the Rams.
Burrow believes the new group will make an impact.
“I knew what we were going to get when we came into camp,” Burrow said. “I knew what kind of guys we got in free agency and the guys we drafted so I’m excited about them. They are tough, physical smart players that are going to help us.”
There’s perhaps no bigger test coming out of the gate than a matchup against Pittsburgh’s defense, which recorded the most sacks in the league each of the past five seasons. Cam Heyward added 10 sacks to the total last year, which was amplified by NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt’s 22.5 sacks, and Pittsburgh added former Bengals tackle Larry Ogunjobi (7.0 sacks in 2021) and former Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack (6.5 sacks in 2021) this offseason.
Karras said the task at hand is one the offensive line embraces with the first chance to show Cincinnati what the new starters can do together.
“I think we have phenomenal talent across the board on this team, especially in the back end, and you know, obviously our quarterback, running back, wide receivers are incredible, so we’re gonna have to hold up our end of the bargain,” Karras said. “If we do our job, our guys are going to make us look good, so we’re practicing really hard to be in the right place at the right time and doing everything right and you know when the dust settles, hopefully we’re victorious.”
Steelers at Bengals, 1 p.m., Ch. 7, Ch. 12, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7