Written By Edward Sutelan
Joe Burrow and the Bengals have orchestrated an incredible turnaround and narrative change in the 2021 season, going from a team with the fifth-worst record in the NFL a year ago to a team that will play for the AFC championship next weekend.
One aspect hasn't changed in Cincinnati, however: quarterback protection.
Protecting Burrow has been a constant problem, even as the team has won the division and two playoff games and is now preparing to face the Bills or Chiefs in the AFC championship game. He was sacked nine times In the Bengals' 19-16 divisional round win over the Titans on Saturday, which tied an NFL playoff record.
"They had a great plan. They had a great rush plan," Burrow said after the game. "Made it tough on us, made it tough on me disguising coverages and blitzes and everything and they switched it up the whole game. They didn't stick to one thing. One thing didn't work, they moved on to the next thing. Kept us on our toes."
When Burrow arrived in Cincinnati, the major concern was how the team would protect the 2020 first overall pick. His rookie season ended early because of a knee injury that required surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL. At the time of his injury, he ranked third in the league with 32 times sacked.
Even after making improvements to the offensive line in the offseason, such as signing Riley Reiff and drafting Jackson Carman, the team finished the 2021 season giving up a league-high 51 sacks.
But Saturday was the worst the offensive line had been all season in protecting Burrow. During the regular season, he was sacked six times in one game and five times in four other games. Never before had he been sacked nine times.
Three of Tennessee's defensive linemen were, on average, within 4.5 yards of Burrow at the end of passing plays (4.53 yards is the league average), according to NFL Next Gen Stats, showing that they were a constant threat in the backfield. Some of those sacks came fast, like Harold Landry's first-quarter takedown, that took just 2.6 seconds to happen.
Perhaps most impressively, most of that pressure came with just a four-man rush, with Next Gen Stats noting that seven of the nine sacks were with just four rushers.
The Titans defense forces its 9th sack of the game on Joe Burrow, and 7th sack with a 4-man rush, tied for the most sacks with four rushers in a game since the start of 2020.
The Titans were among the best in the league at getting after the quarterback during the regular season. They were graded just 27th in the league in rushing the passer, according to Pro Football Focus, but they ranked 10th in sacks (43), ninth in pressures (169) and seventh in hurries (79) despite blitzing at the fifth-lowest rate (19.9 percent), per Pro Football Reference.
And yet, despite the protection issues, the Bengals still had success on offense. Burrow completed 28 of 37 passes for 348 yards with one interception, which came on a tipped pass to running back Samaje Perine. Those 348 yards were the fourth-most in NFL history by a quarterback who was sacked nine times in a game, according to Stathead.
Burrow was often able to fire quick passes to the outside, which allowed Ja'Marr Chase and other receivers to go to work. In the first quarter, Chase caught a screen pass at the line of scrimmage and took it 57 yards, hitting the second-fastest speed of his NFL career (21.66 mph, per Next Gen Stats), to help put Cincinnati in position to score.
And when Burrow wasn't under pressure, he picked apart Tennessee's defense. Next Gen Stats reported that he completed 25 of 31 passes for 325 yards when he didn't face pressure, accounting for 93 percent of his total passing yards.
And in many of those instances when he had time to throw, Burrow focused on shorter distances and allowing his fast receivers to run after the catch. He completed 21 of 25 passes thrown less than 10 yards downfield.
Improving the pass protection will remain a point of emphasis as Cincinnati heads to the AFC championship. But for now, Burrow can take a much-needed rest.