Upgrading Joe Burrow protection will be Bengals' top offseason priority

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CINCINNATI -- Hearing Frank Pollack speak about the Cincinnati Bengals' top priority this offseason is like hearing an exasperated receptionist manning a busy phone line.

The go-to phrase for the new Bengals offensive line coach is "Line 1," a piece of throwback verbiage he repeated often in his first press conference. And that line is so loud it might as well be screaming through a megaphone.

This offseason, building an offensive line that can protect quarterback Joe Burrow is the most pressing priority. That's why Cincinnati brought Pollack back after a first coaching stint that ended in 2018.

And when it comes to keeping the franchise quarterback upright in 2021, it's going to take everyone from the front office to Burrow himself to making sure that unit improves.

"We've got a good, young quarterback," Pollack said on Jan. 11, shortly after he was hired. "We've got to do everything we can to protect him. That's Line 1."

Burrow's rookie year illustrated the worst-case scenario when the protection isn't sufficient.

On Nov. 22, months of wincing while watching Burrow in the pocket ended when he was sandwiched by two Washington defenders at the end of a pass. Burrow tore the ACL and MCL ligaments in his left knee and also suffered damage to his PCL and meniscus, sources told ESPN. The promising year for 2020's top overall draft pick was officially over.

By the end of the season, the Bengals' issues with pass protection were impossible to ignore.

Cincinnati finished 29th in Pass Block Win Rate, an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen Stats. It was a stark contrast from the their Run Block Win Rate, which ranked 11th.

Some of the issues stemmed from injuries over the course of the season, including the loss of starting left tackle Jonah Williams to a knee injury. And Burrow can also be faulted for some of the hits he took in a year filled with on-the-job training during a pandemic.

Take the Bengals' 27-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5, for example. Burrow was sacked seven times and Burrow finished with 183 passing yards, no touchdowns and one interception. After the game, Burrow acknowledged the need to balance between being a playmaker and hanging on to the ball for a little too long.

"There are always plays to be had and I consider myself a playmaker and I didn't make any today that brought us down the field," Burrow said. "I did hold the ball a little too long sometimes."

But the majority of the issues had little to do with Burrow. Even without the injuries, Cincinnati had limited stability with its offensive line.

After the injury, left guard Michael Jordan made one more start but was eliminated from the rotation. Guard Alex Redmond, who flirted with a stint at right guard, was benched in favor of Quinton Spain, a midseason signee.

And among the issues surrounding former offensive line coach Jim Turner, who was not retained after two seasons, was the inability to field a consistent five-man unit.

Cincinnati quickly pulled the plug on working seventh-round pick Hakeem Adeniji at tackle, a move that could hurt a rookie's confidence long term. Billy Price played three different positions either in practice or in games before returning as the backup center, where was projected to play as a first-round pick in 2018.

Even offseason addition Xavier Su'a-Filo went from being benched once he returned from a foot injury to playing left guard after being the Week 1 starter at right guard.

While no player was directly critical of Turner or the constant shuffling, any cohesiveness was usually cited as a key point for the unit's improvement at points in the season.

"Having to be put in a lot of situations guys have been put in at this point, it's unfortunate and it's not the best situation by far," starting center Trey Hopkins said on Dec. 10. "Everybody knows that. You'd rather have guys be set in one spot and play that spot and be comfortable, but that's not how it's played out for us."

Ultimately, Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor had no viable option aside from parting ways with Turner, whom he has known and worked with at several stops.

"I thought that (the offensive line) had some really good moments and I think Jim is a really good football coach," Taylor said of Turner. "When your record is what your record is nothing was ever good enough."

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Turner's tinkering also indicated what the Bengals might do with the No. 5 overall pick in the NFL draft. Cincinnati evaluated its options behind right tackle Bobby Hart, much as it did in 2019 at quarterback before drafting Burrow.

The Bengals will have a couple of intriguing options at tackle. Cincinnati could take Oregon's Penei Sewell, who ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. compared to Bengals legend Anthony Muñoz in his latest mock draft. Or the Bengals could snag Northwestern's Rashawn Slater, who is viewed as another strong prospect.

But no matter what the Bengals do in the draft or in free agency, "Line 1" will always be blinking until Cincinnati can prove it can protect Burrow, who is tasked with leading the franchise to its first playoff berth since 2015.

When Pollack met with Taylor about the job, that came up in their conversation. And he knows that no matter the team, there's nothing more important than protecting the guy behind center.

"You've got to protect your quarterback," Pollack said. "That's what everyone is trying to always constantly get better at and striving."