BENGALS C TED KARRAS VS. FALCONS DT GRADY JARRETT
Call the Bengals' assault on the NFL's third-down stats The Revenge of the Nerds as they prep for Sunday's assignment against the Falcons (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's FOX 19) at Paycor Stadium.
Third down is a crucible against an economical Atlanta team coached by the brainy Arthur Smith that doesn't let you get the ball much. They have the NFL's fourth best turnover margin (plus-2) matched with the third best rushing attack. But their defense, ranked 30th on third down, faces a Bengals quarterback in Joe Burrow who leads the league in passing on third down and Ja'Marr Chase, who leads all wide receivers in third-down catches on an offense that is itself third in time of possession.
And then there is Karras, called admiringly "a football nerd," by one of his coaches, keeping it all together on the defense's most exotic down. Their new center who likes to speak things into existence has brought the Bengals offseason agenda to life as his offensive line begins to rustle with production.
"Those guys up front are doing an unbelievable job for us and in my opinion," Burrow says, "the last three weeks they've been one of the top offensive lines in the league."
Back in the day, old Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, one of the league's craftiest quarterbacks before becoming one of its best analysts, called third down the quarterback's down. In this day and age of algebraic defenses and Olympian pass rushers, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan still calls the center "the second quarterback."
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor keeps saying the effervescent and efficient Karras is going to become a coach when he's done playing. After last Saturday night's conversation in New Orleans, he's even more convinced.
He overhead Karras effusing about something called "Okey Double Bugs." A protection possibly needed the next noon against the Saints.
"That's the highest level of passion you could imagine about Okey Double Bugs and different looks he saw," Taylor says. "He wanted to make sure he got his points across. I walked away. Those are player moments where he clearly wanted to take it over. He made me feel really good about how we would handle those looks the next day. The meeting ended. It was over. He decided to have another meeting. It's 8:30 p.m. Probably, right before the team meeting Saturday night."
When the Bengals re-did their offensive line in that first week of free agency in March by signing Karras, right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La'el Collins, the 29-year-old Karras' intelligence and intensity meant as much as anything.
"It's really impressive. I mean, it's kind of like football, football nerd stuff," Callahan says. "But if you listen to Ted talk about offensive line play and what he's going to see every play, it's really impressive. He's one of the best I've been around mentally in my career and he's he's been a really, really nice addition, leadership-wise and all that. He's been awesome."
Karras isn't sure what he'll end up doing. All he knows is he wants to keep playing and when he's not he wants to stay involved.
"Hopefully he gives me a job in five years. I want to stay in Cincy. I'd love to stick around," Karras says of Taylor with an easy locker-room banter smile . "I know it's a cliché, but I'm really focused on the Falcons. It's one week at a time. Ultimately it boils down to one play at a time, but I think I have lot of great football ahead of me … Football is very fickle, very unpredictable. That's why you have to have a certain routine on how to carry yourself every day."
Karras and Cappa are used to banging heads with the 6-foot, 305-pound Jarrett, a two-time Pro Bowler in the Geno Atkins mold. He doesn't have the sack numbers of the former Bengal, but 30 in his eight years and 3.5 this season qualify him as a game-wrecker. When Karras' Patriots beat the Saints last season, 25-0, he didn't allow a pressure during 32 pass-blocking snaps.
"He's one of the premier defensive tackles in the league," Karras says. "He's a guy we have to be dialed in on all week. He's their guy on defense we have to find a way to neutralize. He's got some Geno in him. I played against Geno a few times. Their height, explosiveness and strength. Need great technique and help when we can.
"He has the ability to jump around, penetrate and he's a quite a talent. You can't just throw fundamentals to the side. It's one of the biggest problems I had in my early career and a lot of guys have it early in their careers. When you play a premier guy like that, all of a sudden your technique goes out the window. You need to be crisp, fundamentally sound and that usually can get a win on the O-line."
Burrow and Karras, the quarterbacks, are the key guys sorting out the third-down looks. The big thing last Sunday in converting six of ten third downs, as it is in any game, was what they did on first and second down. Karras calls anything from third-and-six and beyond "the danger zone in the NFL." Four of Sunday's 10 third-down snaps were less than third-and-six and they hit three of them.
"Keeping it third-and-three. Those are very convertible and you can use anything in the playbook really," Karras says. "When it comes to third-and-eight, we have to be at our best against exotic pressure. This line has done a great job with communication. It comes down to winning one-on-ones and passing off twisters and stunts together and Joe on our back end has been phenomenal."
Third down has been good for a variety of reasons. It starts with Burrow, one of the league's great escape artists, while also completing nearly 75 percent of his third-down passes. Chase has ridiculous hands and made two huge third-down catches last Sunday despite being enveloped while the two other receivers, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, were also found on third down.
And the line.
When it was in the danger zone, it was all summarized by two third-down touchdowns.
First, there was running back Joe Mixon's third-and-goal receiving touchdown from the Saints 9 where they left him wide open underneath.
"They were focused on Ja'Marr in the slot and the linebacker was trying to get a redirect on him," Burrow says, "and Joe ran a great route, perfect timing and he went and made a play in the end zone."
Also on that play on the line's right side, Cappa and Collins were able to pass off a stunt.
But even when they know Chase is going to get attention, they've still been able to find him 13 times on third down.
"We just feel like we can utilize our resources this way so people can't lock on one," Taylor says. "We don't have plays which say he's the only option. Oftentimes when Ja'Marr gets one on one the ball tends to find him. He makes those plays. We've seen teams play double-double, we've seen teams play triple-double. We've seen all the different look.s, you just have to be ready for the next man to step up when it happens."
Or, as Burrow says, "third down tends to change the defensive structure. They get a little more aggressive. They don't want to give the underneath stuff, so that opens up some opportunities for (Chase), and then I think, you know, when the going gets tough, that's the kind of guy that I like to lean on and go find because I know he's going to make a play for me."
It's as simple as that, too. Take that second third-down touchdown when a blitz helped collapse the pocket and Burrow took off for a 19-yard touchdown run.
"We got loose on a few and Joe saved us, which is what he does," Karras says. "He's a phenomenal athlete, which I don't think he gets credit for. The touchdown on third down was unbelievable in a pocket ultimately about to collapse. It probably wasn't our best protection of the day and it goes for a (19-yard) touchdown, which is quite a luxury as an offensive lineman."
The Bengals certainly have a luxury in Karras.
"Energy and enthusiasm, in any organization, you have a better shot of success," Karras says. "I like to speak things into existence. I like to exude a level of confidence for my guys that can feed off energy that can be transferred. We need to be at our best with high energy and high enthusiasm trying to smack those in the face when that's what they're trying to do to us."
The Nerds hope to avenge again Sunday in a high-stakes game of keep-away.