CINCINNATI — Even after rebuilding the offensive line, the Cincinnati Bengals’ season ended in similar fashion to last year. While driving down the field on what could have been a game-winning drive, the Bengals couldn’t contain the opponent’s best pass rusher while Joe Burrow was looking for an open receiver.
Kansas City defensive tackle Chris Jones beat Hakeem Adeniji in a one-on-one matchup and sacked Burrow on the last offensive play for the Bengals with 44 seconds left, and the Chiefs won the AFC Championship on Harrison Butker’s 45-yard field goal to advance to their third Super Bowl in four years.
In the Super Bowl last year, it was Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald applying pressure with a near-sack before Burrow threw a desperation pass the fell incomplete to end the game with another 23-20 loss.
The difference Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium was that the rebuilt offensive line was missing three starters because of injury and the backups who performed remarkably the week prior at Buffalo had no answers for Jones.
Jones had two of his team’s five sacks on Burrow and was in his face most of the night. Perhaps the story would have been different with Alex Cappa, Jonah Williams and La’el Collins, but Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he still feels good about the offensive line depth going into the offseason. The entire unit, except fill-in right guard Max Scharping, is set to return.
“All of those guys have continued to improve,” Taylor said. “We’ve invested a lot of resources in that room. I think it’s served us really well. ... Those guys have, to a man, each of them, improved. And I think they’ve played well together as a group as the season progressed, the cohesiveness and chemistry there. That matters. That puts you beyond your potential with the five guys that have stepped up as backups. Really proud of the job those guys did this year.”
Jackson Carman, starting at left tackle in place of Williams, did fairly well in the second game at his natural position after playing right guard as a rookie, allowing no sacks and just three pressures, but Scharping and Adeniji struggled. Scharping gave up two sacks, two hits, five hurries and nine pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and Adeniji was charged with three sacks, one hit, three hurries and seven pressures.
Rookie left guard Cordell Volson, for comparison, allowed just two pressures, one hit and one hurry.
Asked if there was anything he wished he did differently to try to limit Jones’ impact, Taylor pointed back at how difficult it is to prepare for a versatile guy like Jones.
“He’s a challenge because they move him around, so you never know on a given play where he’s going to be,” Taylor said. “The guys that are able to do that, those interior players that can turn into exterior players and line up over all your guys present real challenges. He’s a great player. I thought our guys really fought hard to keep those guys at bay and certainly they got us a couple times, but I was proud of the way our offensive line fought to keep them home so Joe could have some time to make some big time throws, which he did.”
A hard pill to swallow was the fact that had the Bengals won, they likely would have gotten Williams and Cappa back for the Super Bowl.
Cappa, one of three free agent additions on the offensive line last offseason, was no longer wearing a boot to protect his injured ankle in the days leading up to the AFC Championship. Williams, who had dislocated his knee cap in the first round of the playoffs, was getting around without the assistance of crutches. A week off between the conference championship and Super Bowl could have opened the door for their return.
“Of course, you want to be out there but it’s part of the game, and I’m not the only one that had injuries,” Cappa said Monday, noting he was close to returning. “It was frustrating and disappointing. It sucks but it’s part of the game. Injuries happen, and all you can do is rehab to get back.”
Both Cappa and center Ted Karras said they enjoyed their first season with the Bengals. Cappa noted the results matched the expectations going in and said he remains confident in the group going forward.
Karras called it an “amazing culture, fun offense, fun team to be a part of.”
“Reflecting, what I need to do personally, you look back at the season and you think about the little things you could do in a game,” Karras said. “I’m not gonna let it fester; the game went how it was. I’m just really grateful to be here. It was a great opportunity, hopefully made the most of it and hopefully we get another shot to get back to a championship game in 2023.”
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