Ball protection key emphasis for Burrow, Bengals

Second-year QB led NFL with 11 interceptions the first half of the season

Credit: Aaron Doster

Credit: Aaron Doster

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow tried to use the bye week to get away from football as much as possible, though he continued to work out and watched other games around the league.

After leading the NFL with 11 interceptions the first half of the season, Burrow found it helpful to step back and mentally reset a bit. As the Bengals (5-4) prepare for Sunday’s game against the Raiders (5-4) in Las Vegas, Burrow says he is refreshed and knows he needs to help get the offense back on track to make a push for the playoffs in a wide-open AFC.

“Just gotta protect the ball better, that’s the main thing,” Burrow said Wednesday. “If we start protecting the ball better, myself included, then we’re gonna win more games down the stretch.”

Six of the Bengals’ final eight games are against teams with winning records, Las Vegas included. Both the Bengals and Raiders have suffered back-to-back losses.

Burrow played one of the worst games of his career his last outing, throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns while passing for 282 yards in a 41-16 loss to Cleveland in Week 9. The Bengals had three turnovers in all, forcing none on defense, and dropped several passes while the Browns took advantage to score 13 points off those miscues.

“We took a step back and talked about things we did well, things we haven’t done well and implemented some new things,” Burrow said. “We are gonna do things that we’ve been good at. That’s going to continue.”

Bengals coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan have talked about two additional things that could help in the second half of the season besides cutting down the turnovers: Getting the ball to Tyler Boyd more often and improving on third-and-short.

As for targeting Boyd more, Burrow would like to get all of his receivers more involved, but said the defenses often dictate where he throws it. Boyd had just two targets against Cleveland and another game at Detroit he had just three; however, there are some games where he is targeted more, others where Ja’Marr Chase is featured more and times when Tee Higgins gets hot.

“That’s just the way it works,” Burrow said. “Teams come in expecting to take one guy away and we’ve got other guys that can make it happen so I just throw it to where the defense tells me to.”

Tight end C.J. Uzomah said the third-and-short situations need to be a “huge emphasis” and that’s something the Bengals are harping on this week. Cincinnati ranks 20th in the league on third-down conversions at 38.0 percent, including just 32.4 percent over the last three games. Most of the struggles have come in short yardage situations.

“Mentality-wise, we have to flip a switch,” Uzomah said. “That’s what it comes down to. Joe (Mixon) will get us at least a yard, right? If we give him a gap, he will give us a yard. I think mentality-wise, offensive line and tight ends, guys that are blocking, we need to buckle our chinstraps and get after it and get our pad level down. .... We should be able to run the ball 1to2 yards every single time ... It’s power football. We’ve got to be able to move the ball. We’re looking forward to righting that ship.”

Las Vegas allows a respectable 360.1 yards per game but has struggled in the red zone defense and against the run this season. They are among the bottom half of the league in third-down defense (41.0 percent). The Raiders rank second to last in redzone defense, surrendering touchdowns on 18 of 22 attempts inside the 20-yard line, and they are 27th in run defense, allowing 129.1 yards rushing per game.

Defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby anchor the front end of the Raiders’ defense, combining for 11 sacks and 33 quarterback hits. Safeties Jonathan Abram and Trevon Moehrig have been the most consistent contributors in the secondary, each accounting for an interception.

“They really limit the big plays,” Burrow said. “They’re good at that. They understand the scheme that they’re playing in and you can tell because they keep it so simple that they really don’t have a lot to think about and they can just focus on playing fast, playing with speed and a physicality. We’re gonna have to take what they give us and take the big opportunities when they’re there.”


Bengals at Raiders, 4:05 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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