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Bengals Week 4 rookie report: Joe Burrow shows progression in first-career win

Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins continue to form chemistry while the rookie linebackers deal with growing pains.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The winning aspect of quarterbacking an NFL team was the one thing Joe Burrow couldn’t accomplish in his first month with the Cincinnati Bengals. He certainly got very close in Weeks 1 and 3, but too many points where left on the board to achieve victory in each matchup.

Mistakes and missed opportunities hurt teams who struggle to win close games the most. The Bengals are no exception to the rule, but sometimes, a bad team gets the chance to play an even worse team.

It was only a matter of time before Burrow and the Bengals capitalized on this opportunity, and it came in his second-career home game. Playing with his parents inside Paul Brown Stadium for the first time, Burrow led the Bengals to his first career victory in a 33-25 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Burrow Breakdown, Vol. 4

You probably know by now that with 300 yards on Sunday, Burrow became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 yards in three consecutive games. That’s undoubtedly impressive, but what’s more important is that his efficiency is gradually increasing week after week. In the last three games, he’s completing more passes down the field, threading even more needles, and the numbers back it up.

Joe Burrow’s Increased Efficiency Weeks 2-4

Week Yards Per Attempt Average Completed Air Yards Completion % Above Expectation
Week Yards Per Attempt Average Completed Air Yards Completion % Above Expectation
2 5.18 5.2 1.7
3 7.09 5.8 10.2
4 8.33 6.7 11.7

Burrow’s Expected Points Added per dropback of 0.22 was his second-highest of the young season. Against the Cleveland Browns in Week 2, his EPA per dropback was 0.24, but that was with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Despite throwing just one touchdown in addition to one interception against the Jaguars, Burrow nearly matched his Week 2 performance in terms of per play efficiency.

Touchdowns and interceptions are almost always the most impactful plays in affecting EPA numbers, so to come that close with only one score and one extra turnover is telling of how much more efficient he was throughout the rest of the game.

Part of it has to be attributed to Burrow throwing less throughout the game; as it’s hard to be overly-efficient with over 70 dropbacks. Burrow ended up doing less by moving the chains more often on first and second down. He converted 16 of his 34 first and second down passes into first downs, and that 47% early down first down rate is comfortably his highest on the year.

An effective running game also eased the pressure off of Burrow. 50% of their runs on early downs were successful, and as our own Matt Minich pointed out on Twitter, Zac Taylor finally realized running on second-and-long is bad for business.

Five of Burrow’s best plays from this week came on first and second down, and all of them were individual testaments to why Burrow was more successful on a per play basis than he has been so far this season.

EPA/Play: 1.58

The offensive line deserves credit for largely shutting down a lackluster Jaguars pass rushing unit, but as we can see, the pass protection wasn’t as spotless as it was advertised of being. Burrow continued to overcome pressure getting in the way of critical throws as well as immediately overcoming failed plays as well.

Right before the first play—a beautiful back shoulder throw to Tate—Burrow took a hard hit after waiting an extra second to throw the ball away on a failed second down call. Later in the first period, he missed his first deep ball of the game to Tee Higgins, but hit him in stride the very next play for a 30-yard gain. Early in the fourth quarter, Higgins dropped an easy back shoulder pass and came right back with the over-the-middle toss to Boyd for a first down, which set up Burrow going back to Higgins on the same drive for what may’ve been his best throw of the day.

Even Cethan Carter, of all options, got some action. The second-string tight end never sees targets down the field, but even when he was covered pretty tightly, Burrow put a perfect 19-yard lob right in his hands.

The most impressive play of all, to me, was the only one that wasn’t a throw. On the offense’s final drive, the worst thing they could’ve done is give the ball right back to Jacksonville. Taking a sack on a second-and-six is a sure fire way of doing that. Since he’s in an empty backfield with just five blockers, Burrow knows whatever decision he makes, it needs to be a quick one.

With linebacker Dakota Allen creeping up to blitz, Burrow’s innate sense of pressure triggers before he even hits the top of his drop. He spins away from a charging Allen and bursts ahead for the first down. Perhaps a lesser rookie misses the delayed blitz and puts his offense in a third-and-long. Not Burrow. The scramble continued the drive and a few minutes later, the Bengals had a two-score lead.

We’ve covered a lot of positives, and it’s time to address the first interception Burrow has thrown via a regular pass, along with another misfire to the same receiver.

EPA/Play: -3.45

There needs to be nuance when examining both of these plays. If we were to stop at “Drew Sample should’ve just caught both passes” we wouldn’t be equipped to address potential issues down the road.

It’s fair to say that Burrow isn’t faultless on either play. There’s no reason for Sample to turn back to the ball when he has a step on linebacker Myles Jack going towards the corner of the end zone. A throw that lands closer to the back pylon and Sample makes an uncontested over-the-shoulder grab for six points. Instead, Jack gets a chance to impede Sample from making a clean grab, and the absolute best case scenario happens for him. Sample lets the ball go through his hands and Jack comes away with it.

An underwhelming throw, and a bad drop. The same can be said about the second one as well.

The play design has Sample gaining outside leverage from the safety Josh Jones and spacing from cornerback Chris Claybrooks. But once again, Burrow fails to lead Sample and forces him to turn back to the ball, which gives Jones a chance to make the perfect play on it. The ball goes right through Sample’s hands, but Jones’ presence undoubtedly impacted his attempt to catch it. Jones probably would’ve knocked the ball out of Sample’s grasp even if he did get his hands on it.

Interestingly enough, both of those throws were the only two that Burrow missed inside of 15 air yards. He was also a clean four-for-five in the 15-20 yard range, but came up short on his throws beyond that distance once more.

Passing Chart

The deep ball issues are well documented at this point, and without John Ross III on the field and A.J. Green looking legitimately cooked, it’s difficult to see it improving soon. So how is Burrow comfortably one of Pro Football Focus’ top 10 highest-graded quarterbacks so far? He’s been the most lethal passer in the league when it comes to intermediate throws.

It still feels like the big plays are closer to hitting than the numbers indicate, but with a brutal schedule at their doorstep, they’re really going to need Burrow to start hitting on those plays. Burrow is second in the league in total air yards, and they’ll need to maintain that aggressiveness if they hope to keep with some of the best teams in the league.

If that’s the only justified worry that exists through four games of Burrow’s career, the Bengals should be as confident as they clearly are in their rookie quarterback.

Advanced Stats and QB Comparison

*The EPA/play 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.

How often do the Bengals have not one, but two rookies keeping up with the other first-year players at their position? Much of Burrow’s success from these last three weeks have been because of Tee Higgins, and while he didn’t find the end zone like he did twice last week, Higgins’ 77 yards is a lot considering how many he left on the field.

Burrow did throw Higgins out of bounds on that first deep shot near the front-right pylon, but Higgins’ damning drop in the fourth quarter cost him about 21 additional yards. The only other time Burrow failed to connect with Higgins was on a broken play. After seeing Burrow break the pocket just outside the red zone, Higgins ran upfield towards the back corner of the end zone and prepared himself for another jump ball situation. The throw from Burrow was excellent considering he was basically running full speed to his right, but Higgins was nearly positioned out of bounds due to the coverage by Chase Claybrooks.

Higgins was extremely close to having a false start included in this report, but thanks to straight negligence from the referees, we got to see Higgins on a fun end around-reverse toss hybrid for a first down.

To reiterate: the offense has a lot to compensate for with Ross and Green both being non-factors right now. This has placed Higgins into the forefront of stretching the field while also being aligned in a tight split for most of his receiving snaps. The offense is asking a lot from the 21-year old, and he’s answering the bell more times than not.

The predicted benefactor of Logan Wilson missing Sunday’s game with a concussion was fellow rookie linebacker Markus Bailey, but that didn’t end up being the case. Bailey only played four snaps on defense in his rookie debut while Jordan Evans essentially filled Wilson’s role as Akeem Davis-Gaither’s running mate on passing downs.

There’s not much to report in regards to Bailey, but Davis-Gaither ended up with a severe blemish on film. The Jaguars had wide receiver Chris Conley run a simple drag route over the middle and right in front of Davis-Gaither, who’s responsibility was to carry Conley’s route since the side of the defense Conley was entering was in man coverage.

In short, Davis-Gaither got roasted. If it wasn’t for a great hustle play by Jessie Bates III, the Jaguars would’ve scored a touchdown on the play instead of doing so two plays later.

This is the second time in two weeks that Davis-Gaither was beaten cleanly in coverage. He got lucky last week after a poor throw by Carson Wentz bailed him out of getting torched by a Miles Sanders wheel route. This time, he truly paid the price.

On the season, Davis-Gaither has an abysmal coverage grade of 29.6 courtesy of PFF. It’s obviously still early, but he’s got ways to go in terms of getting comfortable reading NFL route concepts and quarterbacks. He’s a long way from Appalachian State.

Khalid Kareem got on the field for 12 snaps this week as he continues to be used mainly as the left edge defender. Like the guy he’s rotating with, Carlos Dunlap, he’s just not making much of an impact as a pass rusher yet. But he’s holding a decent edge and showing some athleticism in the run game.