Cincinnati Bengals Training Camp is less than two weeks away, which means the 2021 season is almost here.
Joe Burrow and the Bengals offense are the two hottest topics in Cincinnati for a reason. This team and their quarterback have high expectations for 2021, and to reach them, this offense has to be elite.
In the first of a multi-part Three Down Look before camp gets underway, let's take a peek at what to watch for offensively when the 90-man roster steps onto the practice field for day one.
First Down: Joe Burrow's Reps
The Bengals franchise cornerstone has gone through hours of grueling rehab to be ready for day one of training camp, but how ready is he? Burrow noted to reporters in June that the rest of his summer is focused on getting that knee from 85% to 100%.
"I'll continue the program we were on and get back to 100% before camp," Burrow said. "Get better and better. Add some more weight [to get to 220 pounds]. Continue to do what I was doing before OTAs started."
This offseason is the first "normal" one of Burrow's NFL career, but he's had to spend the heavy lifting on rehabbing his knee. In typical Burrow fashion, he still found ways to build his game. Multiple receivers raved about the velocity on his throws. He's found ways to keep building his overall strength despite the burden of knee rehab.
There are no reps to waste in the NFL, and Burrow isn't ready to fall in that trap after making sure he was there for minicamp. Don't be shocked if Burrow rolls out on the practice field as QB1 in all drills at the start of training camp, but until we hear "100%" as his answer surrounding the knee, we'll have to keep asking the question.
Second Down: The Guards
Two factors rank higher than any other for the Bengals' offensive success: Burrow's health and interior offensive line play.
The hogs in the middle have to be much better than the turnstile group that completed last season. Before Michael Jordan's assignment shredded Burrow's knee against Washington, the rookie was getting pummeled. He took 32 sacks (t-2nd most) and 42 quarterback hits (t-5th most) over the first 11 weeks of the season.
Defenses focused that pressure up the middle of the offensive line. In a year where Jonah Williams (75.8 PFF pass-blocking grade) and Bobby Hart (66.9 PFF Grade) played decent football, the weak links resided next to them.
Ten different Bengals played at least 200 snaps along the offensive front. Unfortunate injury luck forced them to sign Quinton Spain off the street and play him less than three days later, but that can't be a crutch every season.
Offensive line coach Frank Pollack's number one job is to fortify the interior of this offensive line. Jackson Carman and Spain appear to be the frontrunners for the right and left guard spots, respectively. Pollack is ratcheting up the competition level to get the best out of this group.
Trey Hopkins is one of the many players excited about Pollack's return. The veteran center is rehabbing his own torn ACL alongside Burrow.
"Footwork. Making sure you're making your feet go where they don't want to go," Hopkins told Bengals.com. "What I love about Frank, everything he does, you may not like it, you might be tired, you might be uncomfortable. But there's never a point where you can be like, 'This is a waste of time.' Just because everything he's doing is directly correlated to football. You can see we're doing that drill because of this play."
There isn't confirmation on a return date for Hopkins, but it would be a blessing for the group to reinsert a leader and longest-tenured offensive linemen in the room.
This group has a fine line to dance. The Bengals already tasted the injury bug with Hakeem Adeniji's potential season-ending injury. Pollack's tasked with finding the best combination on the inside; while trying to keep 10 guys from playing 200 snaps again in 2021.
Third Down: Mr. Three Down Back
Giovani Bernard isn't walking through that door.
The time is now for Joe Mixon and this Bengals rushing attack to reach its true potential. Mixon is being paid, treated, and talked about like an elite running back in this league.
The catch? Elite running backs don't come off the field very often. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan is ready to make that a reality.
“I don’t want Joe (Mixon) to leave the field, personally," Callahan said in May. "I think he’s up to that challenge. He has some things he has to improve pass-protection-wise. Joe shouldn’t come off the field, he should be on the field every down. He’s aware of that... Ultimately I see Joe as the primary guy to start in all facets of the running game.”
Mixon had his best season rushing the ball under Pollack in 2018, totaling 1,168 yards on 4.9 yards per carry. The Oklahoma product led all AFC rushers that year and was on a nice pace last season as a receiver before missing the final 10 games due to a foot injury. Mixon saw a decent uptick in receptions, averaging 3.5 per game, including 14 in his last three games. In 2019, he averaged just 2.1 receptions per game.
Extrapolating that six-game sample out to the whole season, he would have finished with 56 catches in 16 games, which would've been tied for the fifth-most among running backs.
The receiving and rushing talent is there; now it comes down to pass blocking and the improvements he's made in that area since entering the league. Last year the trust just wasn't there.
In Mixon's six games, he was on the field for 24 third downs, which ranked tied for 18th among qualifying running backs according to ESPN's Ben Baby. Of the six running backs making $10-plus million per year, Mixon ranked fifth ahead of just Derrick Henry.
With Bernard in Tampa Bay, Pollack back in the fold, and an offseason to get healthy, 2021 could be the year of Mixon.
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