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Bengals Week 6 rookie report: Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins finally connect downfield

Burrow and the Bengals experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows against the Colts.

Cincinnati Bengals v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The last time it was this obvious that the Cincinnati Bengals hit on their first and second-round draft picks, the team was 4-2 through six games. The players in question played quarterback and wide receiver, and their Week 6 opponent that year was none other than the Indianapolis Colts.

That was all the way back in 2011, and the Bengals beat the Colts during that week nearly a decade ago. Dalton and his partner in crime A.J. Green took the league by surprise as rookies that year, and while Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins are doing their best to do the same, they simply don’t have the record to validate it. Their latest loss has shaken any and all faith in a possible turnaround for this season, but we can still recognize what these two did in an effort to hold onto a victory.

The Burrow Breakdown, Vol. 6

It nearly took 21 quarters, but Joe Burrow finally popped his cherry with the deep ball. Had the Bengals held on to win in Indianapolis, the play itself would’ve been properly viewed as a clear turning point.

Let’s go back to the situation at hand. The Bengals have already scored twice in the first quarter. Burrow had just led a 78-yard touchdown drive that ended with him sneaking the pigskin in from two yards out. Both the offense and defense were feeling themselves and after the Colts’ third-straight drive without a first down, Burrow and the gang got the ball back again with the chance to go up three scores. Cries for the proverbial foot to be placed on the gas pedal could be heard all the way from Cincinnati.

Suddenly, mistakes started to be made. Michael Jordan false started and turned a second-and-four into a second-and-nine. The very next play featured a Michael Thomas drop in part because Burrow threw the ball lower than he expected it to be. Momentum was hanging in the balance as Burrow faced a third-and-nine and an inevitable blitz from the Colts.

The first encounter of adversity was upon him, and he nullified it with a perfect pass to Higgins running down the right sideline.

Just a week after Burrow was eaten alive by the Baltimore Ravens’ many blitzes, Burrow stood tall in the face of pressure and finally delivered a successful pass to the receiver he’s been trying to connect with all season down the field.

Higgins’ 67-yard catch-and-run, which had an official 29 air yards behind it, was the 10th target of 20 air yards or more Higgins has received this season. It was the first of a few impressive completions on the day from Burrow as we can see from Burrow’s best plays of the week.

EPA/Play: 2.62

For those who are still learning what expected points added is, a play that generates 6.3 expected points is hard to beat. The maximum points you can score on one play is 7.0, which is a touchdown, but the expected point value before the play will never be 0.0, so no play can really add 7.0 points.

That third-and-nine from the Bengals’ own 31-yard line had an expected point value of 0.1. Getting the ball down the the Colts’ two-yard line added 6.3 expected points on the next play. That’s how huge it really was.

The deep bomb was awesome, but was it more impressive than the second time they connected? Burrow rifled in a pass over the middle right into Higgins’ hands while he was being swarmed by two defenders with a third coming in hot. The concentration displayed by Higgins was only matched by the pinpoint precision from Burrow.

The flea flicker, for how fast it had to develop, was fun too. Burrow had to rush the throw with pressure coming from his left and he made the adjustment. All he had to do was just get the ball down there to a wide open Higgins.

Higgins finished the day with 125 receiving yards on six catches. With 339 receiving yards on the year, Higgins is now third amongst rookie receivers in that category only behind CeeDee Lamb (433) and Justin Jefferson (537!).

It was a great day for Higgins, but he wasn’t the only receiver on the same page with Burrow.

Half of A.J. Green’s eight catches on Sunday came in the fourth quarter alone, including his two biggest ones. Burrow released a dart to Green running a 10-yard out towards the near sideline and the 10th year veteran extended his arms to the ground, plucked the ball and dragged both feet while securing it next to his torso.

Of course the offense wouldn’t score on that drive, so Burrow needed to find Green again on the last drive of the game. In the middle of a collapsing fourth quarter pocket, Burrow found Green boxing out his defender at the sticks for what would be the last first down of the game.

What happened after that, well, it’s one of the bad plays for sure.

EPA/Play: -1.4

Through his first five games, Burrow threw a modest three interceptions. None of the three looked quite like the one he threw at the end of game six.

The Colts were showing a single-high look before the snap but rotated into a quarters (Burrow called it palms after the game) coverage after the snap. Burrow had to get the ball out and saw Tyler Boyd running in front of the field-side safety, but the safety that was in the middle of the field pre-snap, Julian Blackmon, read Burrow’s eyes the whole way and stepped in front of the throw.

That’s an interception you see from rookie quarterbacks all the time; it just happened to be the first of its kind we’ve seen from Burrow. Earlier in the afternoon, he definitely got away with another one when he tried to throw over the 34” arms of linebacker Bobby Okereke. The Colts had great coverage all over the field on that play, but it’s no doubt a turnover-worthy throw.

Passing Chart

Those plays haven’t been common for Burrow. He’s not only consistently making tight-window throws, he’s also done well avoiding the blatant misses, those two notwithstanding. According to Pro Football Focus, only Burrow, Russell Wilson, and Ryan Tannehill are amongst the 10 best in making good throws and avoiding bad throws.

That’s a six-week snapshot of Burrow’s progress, what does progress in just two weeks look like?

  • Against Baltimore, Burrow averaged 4.9 yards per attempt against the blitz (16 attempts).
  • Against Indianapolis, Burrow averaged 15.4 yards per attempt against the blitz (six attempts).

Burrow turned in another solid performance this week, but while a lot of the attention is on the defense, Burrow’s offense only mustered three points in the second half. The game-sealing interception absolutely hurts, and it’s just another lesson Burrow must learn on the run.

Advanced Stats and QB Comparison

*The Total EPA from the top figure will only factor in non-running plays. The Total EPA from the bottom figure will factor in all plays.

**SR from the top figure stands for Success Rate, which is the percentage of plays that achieved a positive EPA outcome.

Much has been said about the Bengals’ defense this week, and the rookies that have been most featured in the group are Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither. But the player that is in the spotlight now is Khalid Kareem.

Kareem played a season-high 25 snaps against the Colts. In just 19 pass-rushing snaps, Kareem had as many pressures as Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins did combined. Even on reps where he did not pressure Colts quarterback Philip Rivers, Kareem was at least winning early and getting off blocks.

The situation with Dunlap doesn’t seem to be getting better, which means that Kareem is only going to see more of the field with Sam Hubbard still on injured reserve for at least a couple more weeks.

Going back to the linebackers, Davis-Gaither was actually one of the handful of defenders who turned in a grade of 70+ from PFF this week. Per usual, he was used only on passing downs, and 20 of his 26 snaps came in coverage. He was targeted just once on a pass to running back Nyheim Hines out of the backfield and stuffed the play for a gain of one yard.

Wilson was picked on a bit more. He was targeted four times in his 20 coverage snaps and was responsible for Rivers’ third touchdown of the day. Rivers lofted a beautiful pass to tight end Jack Doyle, whom Wilson was running stride for stride with in fairness. Wilson was just a little late getting his hands up on the play and the Colts took a lead they would not give up for the remainder of the game.

A bounce-back game from Wilson is needed in many ways this week. The Cleveland Browns are coming to town just a month after they embarrassed Wilson and the rest of the Bengals’ defense.