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Bengals Week 11 rookie report: A somber farewell to Joe Burrow, for now

Recapping the events that led to Joe Burrow’s brutal injury, and the sheer inevitability of it becoming a reality.

Cincinnati Bengals v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

When you write about rookies playing for the Cincinnati Bengals, you usually don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to talk about major injuries. For that, the cynical and depraved Bengals fans can take some much-needed solace.

The shoe finally dropped for the Bengals’ beaten and bruised first-overall pick on Sunday against the Washington Football Team. For one last time in this year from another dimension, let’s recap a Joe Burrow game.

The Burrow Breakdown, Vol. 10

It was clear that the Bengals were deflated after Burrow went down, and to be quite honest, the feeling is contagious. It’s difficult putting this article together knowing it’s the last time we’ll get to talk about a Joe Burrow game for a while. That feeling was supposed to be saved until after Week 17, with Burrow still having two capable knees.

The idea of Burrow getting injured behind the Bengals’ disarranged and oft-changing offensive line wasn’t new; it had been a rational fear for a while. Hell, many believed it was destined to happen last week against the Steelers’ minacious defensive line. Burrow did in fact hurt his ankle in that game and came up limping late in the fourth quarter, and when asked about him risking further injury in a lost game, Burrow made the tough statement he was expected to make. He, nor his coaches, were afraid of him getting hurt, no matter how frequent the hits kept coming.

For the rest of us, the fear never really dissipated. The coaches’ misplaced faith and bullish behavior towards the offensive line didn’t fool anybody. Those in charge of the team spent more money in free agency this year than ever before and selected high-impact players in the draft to go along with Burrow. While the defense got an overhaul of personnel that it definitely could’ve used, the offensive line received what amounted to a software patch instead of a much-needed system update.

A career-backup guard and a sixth-round pick. That was the reinforcement, and it was exactly how much they wanted to send in for help.

We still haven’t seen much from that guard—Xavier Su’a-Filo—because he’s been on Injured Reserve. That sixth-round pick—Hakeem Adeniji—did play relatively well in his first two games, and got the chance to play at right tackle on Sunday for the first time since 2017 when he was a sophomore in college. It was his allowed pressure against edge defender Montez Sweat that made up one-half of the high-low hit on Burrow that has the entire city of Cincinnati depressed this week. The other half came from Jonathan Allen and was made possible by left guard Michael Jordan, whom the team believed was going to take an immense step forward in his second year after a mostly terrible rookie season.

Before Burrow was carted off the field with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, the rookie quarterback was putting together a much-needed game after a bad outing against Pittsburgh. The Bengals relied on Burrow’s arm for the entire first half, as seen by their 29 passes and 11 non-Burrow rushes, and the plan was producing successful offensive movement. Certain problems arose in the red zone, but Burrow made some high-quality plays in his last game as a rookie.

EPA/Play: 1.48

The connection Burrow had already made with Tyler Boyd and rookie Tee Higgins was evident, but his clear disconnect with A.J. Green for most of this season was puzzling. Green and Burrow were rarely on the same page in their first (and perhaps, only) season together, but we saw a vintage A.J. moment on arguably Burrow’s best throw of the day.

With roughly 40 true air yards under it, Burrow’s second completion to Green saw the 32-year old tap his toes along the left sideline with cornerback Kendall Fuller right on his tail. It was a perfectly thrown ball that had a 14% probability of being completed per Next Gen Stats. Only one completion from Week 11 was more improbable.

Green also hauled in his first touchdown in over two full years the next and final time Burrow and him connected through the air. With pressure in his face, Burrow made sure to place the ball to the outside of Green, who was breaking towards the left pylon.

The touchdown would make Burrow’s box score a pleasing sight, but he nearly threw two interceptions in this game. Those two close calls highlight his ugly plays before his untimely injury.

EPA/Play: -1.27

Both of those passes were dropped and neither became a turnover, but Burrow did fumble right before crossing the goal-line in the second quarter. The play would become a unique scenario for most football fans as a fumble, fumble, safety, overturned safety, just one fumble. Burrow was hit hard by fellow rookie and former Ohio State teammate Chase Young, and the ball popped out of Burrow’s hands and somehow stayed in bounds.

It’s hard to blame Burrow for trying to make something out of a broken play, especially with how well Washington reacted and turned it into a best-case scenario for themselves. Still, that was one of two unsuccessful red zone trips for the Burrow-led offense in the first half, and it made the game a lot closer when Burrow went down.

Passing Chart

As you could’ve predicted, Ryan Finley was terrible as Burrow’s replacement and finished the game with only two more completions than interceptions. Luckily, we don’t have to talk about Finley here because he’s not a rookie anymore; he’s actually closer to 30 than he is to 20 now. All you need to know is that he’s simply not capable of replicating the mental processing and timely decision-making the Bengals got from Burrow in his first 10 career starts.

And that’s what really hurts when thinking about this injury. The Bengals lucked into a quarterback with a truly gifted mind for the game and an arm that matched his precise playing style. For them to act so grossly negligent in evaluating his offensive line to be when he was pegged to carry this franchise deserves as much scrutiny as you could fit between the seven hills of Cincinnati.

It is football, yes. Players, and quarterbacks, do get hit. This perspective would be more applicable if Burrow wasn’t already one of the two most-hit rookie quarterbacks of the last 20 years. The odds of just one of the hits being catastrophic only increases as the hits kept coming.

We don’t know when Burrow will be back. He could be ready for Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. He may even be good to go in August. Whenever he does come back, the Bengals need to be more equipped to protect him, like they should’ve been this year.

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.

With Burrow out of the picture, the rookie spotlight will shift more to Tee Higgins. First-year receivers don’t normally produce very highly, but Higgins was one of 14 receivers in the NFL to average over two yards per route run from the time he became a starter in Week 2 through Week 10.

Sustaining that level of production will be vastly more difficult with a backup throwing him the ball for the remaining six weeks of the season. Even in this game with Burrow, Higgins had an off day. He finished with just 26 receiving yards on 10 total targets from both Burrow and Finley, and 25 of those yards came on one play!

As seen in the video depicting Burrow’s negative EPA plays, Burrow missed Higgins on a deep shot when Higgins had inside leverage on a go route with ample space towards the middle of the end zone. Burrow was also late on another deep ball to Higgins later in the game.

Higgins’ final target resulted in Finley’s interception, as Finley vastly under-threw him or simply didn’t know what route he was running. It almost seems like foreshadowing for the remainder of Higgins’ season. Hopefully the two will be on the same page with more reps together.

Most everyone can agree that Hakeem Adeniji’s first two starts at left tackle were promising. Left tackle is where Adeniji started 90% of his games at Kansas, but Adeniji has been practicing at every position for the Bengals sans center. He even practiced at right tackle leading up to the Steelers game before having to go back to left tackle just an hour before kickoff.

Adeniji’s debut as the right bookend was coming eventually, but the rookie still did not look ready for it.

After 59 snaps, four pressures, two sacks, and many more unpromising reps, Adeniji was pulled for incumbent starter Bobby Hart for the final nine snaps. That doesn’t bode well for Adeniji getting another opportunity at the position.

As long as Jonah Williams is healthy this season, he’s sticking at left tackle. And based on this week, Hart is the better option at right tackle over him. Adeniji might just have to stick to the left side for this season, and that could be a good thing for him because the team should be looking to get Michael Jordan out of the left guard spot as soon as possible.

But, maybe Adeniji is just Williams’ backup for now. And as a sixth-round pick, that’s okay.

Logan Wilson didn’t see the field until late in the first quarter, but he started to eat into Germaine Pratt’s snaps as the linebacker next to Josh Bynes after that. This has been a theme for the last few weeks and wasn’t too surprising to see. What should be noted is that Akeem Davis-Gaither is being phased out of the Bengals’ nickel defense for Brandon Wilson, so the Bengals are now deploying more of a big nickel defense with three safeties and one linebacker. Davis-Gaither played just one snap to Wilson’s 35.

Khalid Kareem has also seen his playing time decrease in recent weeks. He’s played just 34 snaps since Sam Hubbard has returned from I.R., but despite rushing the passer just three times on Sunday, Kareem recorded his first-career sack after hustling towards the near sideline and pushing Alex Smith out of bounds at the line of scrimmage.