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Matchup Of The Game: Bengals Look To Protect Burrow To The Maxx

Isaiah Prince lines up in another big game.
Isaiah Prince lines up in another big game.


Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan shook his head Tuesday. He's trying to get his arms around the impact of Crosby, one of the many Raiders whose all-out play Sunday night in Vegas put his team in Saturday's Wild Card Game (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) at Paul Brown Stadium.

They've seen all the elite rushers you want to see. Just in the last month, ranging from Joe Burrow's Buckeye buddies the Bosa brothers, to the man who now holds the NFL season sack record in Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt, to Cleveland's crafty bookends of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.

On Sunday against Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, Pro Football Focus had Crosby for a ridiculous 11 pressures.

"Maxx Crosby might the best of all of them," Callahan says. "To me, he and T.J. Watt are similar in that they're both relentless rushers. They never stop. Crosby has those long, huge werewolf arms and he's got a great pass rush repertoire with spins, dips, speed and power. He doesn't have pure sack numbers, but you see how he affects the quarterback."

And that's Saturday's No. 1 question. Can the Bengals do close to what they did back in Las Vegas on Nov. 21 in the 32-13 win (when PFF had Crosby for three pressures) and keep Crosby and tag team partner Yannick Ngakoue, from taking over the game? Crosby comes in with just eight sacks, but with far more pressures than anyone else in the league.

(It will be recalled that it was Ngakoue who wreaked havoc on the game's first series with a sack-strip working against left tackle Jonah Williams, the only sack the duo got that day.)

"He's a great player, too," Williams says. "That's one of the strengths of their defense, and probably their team as a whole, is their edge guys. Between those two, lot of talent, lot of ability, play with high motors. It's going to be a challenge for us tackles to contain them and make sure our offense runs smoothly."

On the flip side, the Bengals like what they've got in Prince's quick, jackhammer feet, too, as he duels Crosby's outrageous athleticism for the first time in his seventh NFL start. He'll get Ngakoue, too, sometimes.

In his second NFL season Prince has gone from training camp enigma to playoff starter as the most consistent of what the Bengals believe is an emerging, promising que of young offensive linemen.

Prince is looking to get a foothold against the elites like Crosby and Ngakoue as he makes his fourth straight start of the season and fifth in the last seven games in place of the injured Riley Reiff. Coming out of Ohio State at 6-7, 305 pounds, Prince was on the radar screen early and often in 2019 for Mike Potts, the Bengals director of college scouting.

When the Dolphins took Prince in the sixth round, the Bengals kept their eye on him when he made two starts before Miami cut him Dec. 5. The next day, the Bengals made a no-brain waiver claim. At 1-12, they didn't have to wait long and he wouldn't have been there much longer.

"It was a good opportunity to add a depth guy with athleticism and talent," Potts says. "You don't know what to expect. It was late in the year. He didn't get in a game. We only saw him on the practice field. At that point you're betting on talent and getting a chance to develop in a system."

After Prince, an asthmatic, opted out last season. He solved the mystery this past August with such a solid preseason of games under first-year offensive line Frank Pollack that he went from unknown to the Opening Day third tackle swinging into both spots as well as the big tight end in the Jumbo package.

"You don't waive young offensive line talent. They get gobbled up," Potts say. "The coaches did a good job getting him real-game reps as the third tackle. He wasn't coming in cold. He's got quickness and length. He can move people in the run game. He opened some people's eyes with strength and power in the run game. An ascending player."

Although there have been some tough, isolated moments as there always are for young tackles, Callahan says Prince is getting better every time out. "But he's held up out there," such as what he did in his first Bengals' start last month when he allowed four pressures and a sack against Joey Bosa's Chargers. Then in Burrow's record games against the Ravens and Chiefs, on 106 passes PFF had Prince allowing no sacks, a hit and seven pressures.

"You look at his length and he's just got so many NFL traits for that position," Callahan says. "I think he's done well for us and he's improving every game he goes out there. When you look at what we've got for young depth on the offensive line, it's impressive."

The Bengals love how their rookie linemen played last week in Cleveland, left tackle D'Ante Smith and left guard Jackson Carman in their first NFL starts at those spots and center Trey Hill in his second.

But they won't be out there Saturday and Callahan knows that the tackles that will be, Prince and Jonah Williams, are going to need help in the form of tight ends and backs chipping.

"Very few tackles in the league can block these guys one-on-one. They'll need help and we have to be able to run the ball like we did last time against these guys. You can't drop back 40 times against them," Callahan says. "You have to run at them, you have to run away from them. What you have to do is mix it up and not make it easy on them. You're not going to be able to shut them down every snap. They're going to make plays on you, but you have to make it hard."

That sounds like a heavy dose of double tight ends for a team that thrives on their three wide-receiver sets. One of the problems Callahan and head coach Zac Taylor have to solve is protecting Burrow while keeping their playmakers on the field.

They solved the problem on Nov. 21 in a large way by making running back Joe Mixon a playmaker with a career-high 30 carries for 123 yards on a day Burrow's longest completion was 17 yards.

Still, they seemed to find a personnel balance. Wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, who has played 85 percent of the snaps this season, played 92 against the Raiders. Wide receiver Tee Higgins, who played 85 percent in the Baltimore and Kansas City games, played 80, and slot receiver Tyler Boyd, who has taken 73 percent of the snaps on the year, played 70 in the desert.

"All pieces of the puzzle," Callahan says.

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