Bengals’ offensive line finds its footing in nick of time

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) battles Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Isaiah Prince (75) as he tries to rush the passer during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

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Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) battles Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Isaiah Prince (75) as he tries to rush the passer during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Questions remain, but personnel moves, fixes seem to have paid off.

After Joe Burrow suffered a major knee injury last season when his pocket collapsed on him, Cincinnati Bengals fans were clamoring for the team to address the offensive line with the No. 5 pick in the draft.

Instead, they selected wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, and Bengals coach Zac Taylor said that decision is one of the reasons they are now playing for a Super Bowl.

But the offensive line still remains a question as the Bengals prepare for Aaron Donald, Von Miller and the rest of the L.A. Rams pass rush in Super Bowl LVI. Burrow was sacked more than any quarterback in the league this season The Bengals allowed nine sacks in a second-round playoff win over Tennessee.

Members of the offensive line say they’ve been fueled by those numbers all season. They allowed just one sack in the AFC Championship win over the Chiefs and need one more performance like that Feb. 13.

“I’m pretty sure we’ve played with a chip on our shoulders all season,” right tackle Isaiah Prince said Friday. “That’s what brought us to this point. Tennessee, it happened. We get back to film, we get back to the drawing board, we make the corrections and we move forward. It’s not something we hang our heads about. I think we play with a chip on our shoulder every single game.”

Burrow plays a role in his sack total to some extent. He was sacked a league-most 51 times in the regular season and another 12 times in the playoffs, but some of those are on him, by his own admission, because he holds onto the ball too long trying to make a play.

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Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) scrambles out of the pocket under pressure from Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Jarran Reed (90) during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Credit: Eric Gay

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) scrambles out of the pocket under pressure from Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Jarran Reed (90) during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Credit: Eric Gay

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Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) scrambles out of the pocket under pressure from Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Jarran Reed (90) during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Credit: Eric Gay

Credit: Eric Gay

The second-year quarterback said it’s a balancing act he walkson every play, weighing the situation and where the offense is on the field and what a possible sack might mean.

“You’ve got to be able to protect yourself, but sometimes you’ve got to sit in the pocket and you know a route’s gonna come open and you’ve got a defensive lineman like Chris Jones or Jeffery Simmons bearing down on you, and you have to stand in there and make the throw,” Burrow said. “That’s part of playing the quarterback position. Not only just doing that, but when you get up, you don’t complain, you don’t have bad body language. You just get up and go on to the next play, and I think people appreciate that.”

Burrow said the Bengals organization “did a really good job” of making him feel like he was in the loop as they were running through their options ahead of the draft and he was comfortable with their decision. Chase was a player he had developed a good rhythm with at LSU in 2019 and added a deep threat he could rely on this season, but Burrow said he didn’t tell the team what to do. Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin would come in while Burrow was doing rehab at Paul Brown Stadium and ask him to “watch this guy” and provide input, or Tobin would tell him who they were meeting with and how it was going.

That line of communication in those processes is important for quarterbacks across the league, Burrow said.

“For me personally, I don’t need to feel like I made the decision,” Burrow said. “You could go with my opinion or go without my opinion. Doesn’t matter to me as long as I feel like I’m involved in the process, and I think the organization did a great job of that.”

Cincinnati did address the offensive line in some form during the offseason, releasing right tackle Bobby Hart and replacing him with Vikings tackle Riley Reiff in free agency. Reiff played 12 games before an ankle injury sidelined him for the rest of the season in Week 14, paving the way for Prince to step in a year after opting out as a second-year player because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan credited Prince for the role he’s played down the stretch, adding length and athleticism to the right side of the line after serving as a swingman prior to Reiff’s injury. The team also inserted Quinton Spain at left guard this year, after he joined midway through last season and played multiple roles, and Jonah Williams is in his first full healthy season at left tackle.

After taking Chase in the first round of the draft, the Bengals then selected Fairfield High School graduate and former Clemson left tackle Jackson Carman in the second round. And although he’s been through some ups and downs as a rookie, he proved to be part of the solution in the clean-up after the nine sacks allowed at Tennessee. The coaching staff elected to rotate second-year player Hakeem Adeniji and Carman at right guard throughout the AFC Championship – an unorthodox way to handle a championship game, but a plan that worked well enough to advance.

The two players also could split time in Super Bowl LVI.

“They finished the game well,” Callahan said. “Rotating those guards was something we planned on going into the game. Just two young players who have played a lot of football for us over the course of the season. We were facing a good interior front, KC, trying to see if they could help us handle those guys a little bit. They both have different skillsets that were good for us in that game. Both guys made good plays and bad plays like every game goes for those guys up front. It’s not like you’re ever expecting perfection but they played admirably. We’ll see what we’re going to do moving forward. … They played well against Kansas City. Chris Jones was a hard player to block. We’re going to arguably have to block the best player in football in a couple weeks here in Aaron Donald. There’s really no words to describe how good he is, so we’ve got our hands full.”

SUPER BOWL LVI

Sunday, Feb. 13

Bengals vs. Rams, 6:30 p.m., NBC, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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