Ja’Marr Chase is a star, but the Bengals’ blocking problems remain

In the regular season, only two teams allowed more sacks than the Bengals’ 55. One of them is the Bears, who gave up a league-high 58. Rookie quarterback Justin Fields was sacked on 11.8 percent of his dropbacks.

SHARE Ja’Marr Chase is a star, but the Bengals’ blocking problems remain
Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase takes a video with fans in the background after the team’s win over the Ravens on Dec. 26 in Cincinnati.

Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase takes a video with fans in the background after the team’s win over the Ravens on Dec. 26 in Cincinnati.

Emilee Chinn/AP

The debate about whom the Bengals should draft fifth overall last spring was the perfect test of football philosophy about how a roster should be built.

They had their choice of the two best offensive tackles in the draft — but also the three best receivers.

The argument for taking a tackle was simple: to protect quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020 who had been sacked 32 times in only 10 starts as a rookie, for the next decade. A standout receiver, however, could be Burrow’s running mate for just as long.

The receiver never touches the ball if Burrow is on his backside. But all the protection in the world doesn’t matter if the receiver can’t get open.

The man they wound up choosing — receiver Ja’Marr Chase — laughed when he was reminded of the debate this week. Would the Bengals be playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday had they drafted Oregon tackle Penei Sewell instead?

‘‘I ain’t here to answer that,’’ Chase said. ‘‘That’s not my job. They picked me, and that’s what we got here. They must have made the right decision.’’

They did. Chase’s 1,455 receiving yards were the most in NFL history by a rookie. The only players with more this season were the Rams’ Cooper Kupp, the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson and the Packers’ Davante Adams.

Credit chemistry. Before sitting out the 2020 college season because ofcoronavirus concerns, Chase had a ridiculous 1,780 receiving yards for LSU’s title-winning team in 2019. His quarterback: Burrow.

‘‘No matter what team drafted Ja’Marr, Ja’Marr would have had a ton of success this year,’’ Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. ‘‘But I do think him being able to hit the ground running from a chemistry standpoint and the relationship with Joe has probably allowed him to maximize his opportunities in Year 1.

‘‘You don’t go through the getting-to-know-you process. . . . They’ve already gotten that out of the way years ago.’’

The Bengals’ blocking problem, however, hasn’t gone away. Rather, their success has come in spite of it.

Burrow has been sacked 12 times this postseason, seven more times than Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford in the same number of games. The Titans sacked him nine times in the divisional round alone.

During the regular season, only two teams allowed more sacks than the Bengals’ 55. One of them was the Bears, who gave up a league-high 58.

Rookie quarterback Justin Fields was sacked on 11.8% of his dropbacks, the most in the NFL and the fifth-most in the league in the last 15 seasons among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts.

None of this is lost on new Bears general manager Ryan Poles, a former offensive lineman who has vowed to bring nastiness back to the blocking scheme.

‘‘If we need one of those enforcers, maybe that’s something we do, installing that guy that can establish that toughness of what’s acceptable and not acceptable,’’ he told the Sun-Times last month.

Left tackle Teven Jenkins was the rare Bears player who did, drawing a personal-foul penalty in December for scrapping with the Vikings after a play. Fields said after the game that he ‘‘love[d] the mindset,’’ even though it drew a flag.

‘‘When your quarterback gets hit and he’s laying on the ground, I should see more guys running to pick him up and defend him on a consistent basis,’’ Poles said. ‘‘That’s your guy; you’re his security guard. If anyone touches him, you should really have an attitude about it.

‘‘I need to see more of that.’’

The Bears’ offensive line is full of question marks, except for possibly guard Cody Whitehair. Jenkins, a second-round pick last year, was limited to two starts because of back surgery and then-coach Matt Nagy’s refusal to bench veteran Jason Peters. Fellow rookie Larry Borom was serviceable in his eight starts at right tackle. Pro Football Focus ranked Sam Mustipher 36th among NFL centers. Guard James Daniels, who was drafted to play center, is a free agent this offseason.

Poles won’t have the luxury of a premium draft pick, either, after predecessor Ryan Pace traded the Bears’ first-round pick to the Giants in a package for Fields.

The Bengals had the chance to draft a blocker and passed. They’re glad they did.

What would have happened had Chase gone somewhere else?

‘‘It probably wouldn’t have been this outcome,’’ Chase said with a smile.

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