Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor called him “ferocious.” Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan went with “phenomenal.”
Those are words that haven’t often — if ever — been associated with tight end Drew Sample since the Bengals drafted him in the second round in 2019, but Sample’s role in the offense never looked like what it has morphed into this year.
With the Bengals looking for a third-down running back they could trust with pass protection ever since Samaje Perine departed for Denver in free agency, the Bengals settled on putting their 265-pound tight end in the backfield.
Drew Sample Thriving in New Role in Cincinnati Offense
And Sample, quietly but physically, has flourished.
“He has been absolutely fantastic in the role that we have asked him to play,” Callahan said. “The thing that really separates him from any tight end I’ve been around is his capacity to handle the third-down pass protection part of the game. I mean, you want to talk about locked into everything that he needs to do as a protecting back, he’s phenomenal.”
Sample’s growth was on display Monday night when he had key blocks on two of the biggest plays in a 34-31 overtime victory in Jacksonville, Fla.
The first one was the 76-yard touchdown to Ja’Marr Chase on 3rd-and-2 early in the second half. Lined up next to quarterback and AFC Offensive Player of the Week Jake Browning in the shotgun formation, Sample takes on blitzing linebacker Foyesade Oluokun to allow enough time for the throw.
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) December 5, 2023
“It’s something I did in college,” Sample said of his days playing alongside Browning at the University of Washington. “We had a protection where I was basically a running back with Jake. Since I’ve been in the NFL, it’s something I’ve ways kind of been ready for.”
The other big play where his block played key a role was in more of the familiar H-back role slightly behind the offensive line.
It was 3rd-and-10 in overtime with the Bengals still outside of Evan McPherson’s field goal range, and Sample again was tasked with taking on a blitzing Oluokun while running back Trayveon Williams picked up blitzing safety Rayshawn Jenkins, enabling Browning to hit Tee Higgins on an 11-yard out route for a first down.
“That’s one of the many important reasons to get Drew back was because of our confidence in him and his toughness, his mental awareness to be able to help in so many phases,” Taylor said, referring to the offseason re-signing of Sample in free agency after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in last year’s Week 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“He does not get the praise he deserves because he does all those dirty jobs,” Taylor added. “What he did in pass protection the other night is ferocious. I mean he’s putting his face on people and making them pay for doing that.
“When he’s gotten his opportunities in the pass game. He has maximized all of those. So you can’t really say enough positive things about Drew Sample and the role he plays on our team, the confidence everyone has in him. When he’s in a meaningful position in the game, he’s gonna make it work.”
Sample played a season-high 42 snaps on Monday night as the Bengals leaned heavily into the run game after handing the ball off just eight times for 16 yards in the previous week’s loss to the Steelers.
The 31 rushing attempts against the Jacksonville Jaguars were a season-high and the most by the Bengals since Week 13 last year against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Sample’s run-blocking ability was the main reason the Bengals took him so highly in the 2019 NFL Draft, making him the second pick of the Taylor era behind tackle Jonah Williams.
But the pass protection element isn’t the only role that increased for Sample this year. His 14 receptions are the second most of his career, and his two touchdown receptions have doubled his career total of one before this season.
Let’s take a look back at Drew Sample's TD ⬇️
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) November 7, 2023
His usage as a receiver especially has increased of late, with 11 of his catches coming in the last five games. Part of that is a result of not being too predictable when they put them in the backfield on third downs, and part of it is attributed to him getting more comfortable with it.
“He’s learned there’s a timing and a rhythm, particularly with [Joe] Burrow that, when you don’t have a pass-protection responsibility, to get out, get your eyes around, be where he expects you to be,” Callahan said.
“That’s exactly what happened on that [touchdown] against Buffalo. That’s always been the concern, that if he gets the ball in space, can he get you the first down? And he’s proven that he’s capable of getting yards after the catch and getting us in a good spot.
“So I can’t say enough good things about what Drew’s brought and how well he’s played for us this year,” Callahan continued. “He deserves a lot of credit for a very underrated role in our offense.”
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