LOS ANGELES - Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who once painted a Super Bowl end zone the week his 49ers beat the Chargers, has an even more delicate task in his return to the big game 27 years later.
Pollack didn't even have time to savor how his much-maligned group took control of the AFC title game's overtime on the joyous plane ride back from Kansas City.
When word had been passed aboard the craft that they were meeting the Rams in Super Bowl LVI, Pollack's fellow coaches gave him some gentle jabs. Too bad, Frank. No rest for the weary. All that waited in Los Angeles were two of the greatest pass rushers of all-time. Mr. Inside, first ballot Hall-of-Famer Aaron Donald, and Mr. Outside, one-time Super Bowl MVP and active career sack leader Von Miller.
According to Pro Football Focus, Miller and Donald are the most prolific postseason passer rushers of the analytics era. PFF gives Miller a 91.5 pass rush grade, the highest of any postseason career with at least 200 pass rush snaps since 2006. Donald's 90.3 is second.
And we haven't even mentioned outside rusher Leonard Floyd's 9.5 sacks from this regular season.
So the narrative was struck even before the Bengals hauled the AFC trophy off the plane. The Bengals' Joe Burrow is the first quarterback to be sacked more than 50 times in a season (12 in the playoffs is the most since Donovan McNabb in '03) and his line faces a pass rush that has held opposing quarterbacks to completing 26.5 percent of their passes, no touchdowns and three interceptions when under pressure.
Pollack has responded with a painter's brightness. With a bow to the Bengals' home base this week on the campus of UCLA, Pollack invoked the Wizard of Westwood himself.
"John Wooden had the greatest quote of all-time about the pyramid of success," Pollack said of the legendary UCLA basketball coach. "Atop the pyramid is competitive greatness. And that is defined as being your best when your best is needed. Our guys have been at their best when their best was absolutely needed.
"At the end of the Tennessee game, in the final drive the pass protection was flawless. In overtime in Kansas City, it was real exciting to see our guys take over the trenches and run the ball. And let Joe Mixon carry the rock downhill and get close for the field goal. That was exciting."
Pollack wouldn't say what kind of shape right guard Jackson Carman's back is in (he didn't work a few days last week) or if the Bengals plan to do what they did in Kansas City and split the snaps 50-50 between the rookie and sophomore Hakeem Adeniji.
What we do know is Adeniji struggled during the nine-sack Divisional win in Tennessee. When they made the move against the Chiefs the next week, Carman, the second-rounder out of Clemson, helped spring running back Samaje Perine's 41-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Carman was on the field when Mixon capped off an 88-yard game with 28 yards on five carries in overtime.
"It keeps them fresh," Pollack said of a guard rotation it sounds like he'd like to nix when a guy emerges. "It's internal competition. They've been a little inconsistent. They're working hard to improve those things."
Complicating things is the right side of the line with second-year tackle Isaiah Prince is extremely young and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris loves to force teams into one-on-ones with a Bear front that jams up the run so he can then run confusing games.
"They try to single up guys and then when they lull you to sleep with one-on-ones, they pick off guys," Pollack said. "You have to play square. You can't turn your hips. You have to work within the protection system.
"It's all about us. Our technique and our fundamentals. The things we can control is how we set, how we strike and punch. You're going to want to have an understanding in film study of what these guys are trying to do and how they attack you so you (can counter it.). But it starts with you. Your technique and fundamentals."
Pollack can get real basic and tell his guys about the pomp-and- circumstance pressure this game brings because he was a backup guard the night 49ers quarterback Steve Young rifled a record six touchdown passes to beat the Chargers.
He wishes the players could experience the old fashioned pre-COVID media day circus at the stadium, where MTV's Downtown Julie Brown asked really weird questions and iconic groundskeeper George Toma saw Pollack standing around and asked him if he wanted to paint the end zone red.
"Hell yeah," Pollack said. "I gave my teammates the video camera and told them to film me painting the end zone in the Super Bowl."
Internally, the Bengals think they have something in several of these young linemen. Carman is a high pick with enormous upside. Left tackle Jonah Williams, although up and down, was immense against Vegas' elite rushers. The long 6-7 Prince looks to be improving every game. Adeniji hasn't been as consistent as he was as a rookie last year, but he's so athletic and smart. Another rookie, D'Ante Smith, was also on the field in that last drive as the third tackle.
They also look at last week's game and see the offensive line the Chiefs made one of the richest in the league give up four sacks. And Burrow got sacked just once a week after getting pummeled nine times in Nashville.
"Tennessee, no question, that was a rough outing for us," Pollack said. "For me, I just wanted be positive from it for the next week. It wasn't all negative. You carve out some of those big negative plays, some issues aren't always on the O-line. It's the ultimate team game.
"We had our fair share and I just took a positive approach with the guys and showed them the great success that we had that game. The previous game. Other big moments where they rose to the occasion."
And there have been plenty of moments that Pollack can find to endorse his O-line. There is Mixon's career 165-yard day against Pittsburgh. Burrow's historic 525-yard game against Baltimore. The last 6:01 to win the AFC North. Stoning Maxx Crosby in the Wild Card, holding the NFL pressure leader to three. The perfect pocket for the 19-yard bench route in Nashville that put them in KC.
Head coach Zac Taylor hired Pollack to fix the run game so they could protect Burrow and appointed him run game coordinator. With three great wide receivers and a quarterback coming off a historic stretch to get them here, this isn't a team built to pound the run. But with Mixon running Pollack's wide zone, it makes them dangerous and, as the last week's overtime showed, it gives Burrow lethal room and the ability to shorten the game.
Mixon had a career high 1,205 yards and was voted to his first Pro Bowl. So they had to be blocking somebody. And that is something to watch. When the 49ers went 6-0 the last three years against the Rams before a few Sundays ago, they averaged 124 rush yards per game.
"It's not where we want it to be," said Pollack, knowing such an overhaul takes more than a season. "But I like the way the running game is evolving. We've got a lot to build on."
Start with Mixon.
"Let Joe Mixon run the rock downhill, which he is one of the best if not the best in the league at doing," Pollack said. "He's got great vision running that stretch and putting his foot in the ground and seeing those back-door cuts when the running lanes are created. He's a lot of fun to be around. That was exciting to see our guys rise to the occasion in that moment when we needed to be at our best."
A stretch run away from Pauley Pavilion, Pollack is hoping to annex Wooden's pyramid for a spot to put a trophy.