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Bengals Week 1 rookie report: Joe Burrow’s ugly yet promising debut

We nearly saw another storybook win for the legend that is Joe Burrow. But the first 55 minutes of his first-ever game matter just as much as the last five minutes.

Los Angeles Chargers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

As the team that had the first pick in every round of the most recent NFL Draft, a ton of eyes will be on the Cincinnati Bengals and their rookie class. Most of that attention will naturally be centered around the first-overall pick, of course, but Joe Burrow wasn’t the only reason why the Bengals’ draft was graded very highly this offseason.

Now in year two of Zac Taylor’s tenure, it’s obvious how far removed we are of Marvin Lewis’ reluctance to play his first-year guys. The non-Burrow rookies deserve attention within this forum and they will receive it. But every week, we will be giving you an in-depth breakdown of how Burrow performed, including his most impactful plays, his passing chart via’s Next Gen Stats, and his advanced statistics via Ben Baldwin’s

You’ve waited months for this. Let’s get into it.

The Burrow Breakdown, Vol. 1

Burrow said it himself, he didn’t play well enough on Sunday. But the 23-year old quarterback, who gave his debut a “D” grade, knows that there were some positives to be taken away from it all.

The Bengals, Burrow, and pretty much every business ever only go as far as their results. That’s what occupies the bottom line. A three-point loss resulting from the second-worst offensive performance in the NFL on Sunday is still counted as a three-point loss. The process is usually what dictates the result, and that’s what we want to focus on when analyzing a Bengals team being led by a rookie quarterback. Because the results aren’t likely to be great most of the time, but there’s so much more to learn within the realm of the process.

Here’s what was obvious: Burrow’s offensive line didn’t do him any favors. A lot of his bad plays were the result of the Los Angeles Chargers generating quick pressure. The first sack on the second drive of the game was a combination of Burrow’s line outright failing him, and Burrow himself trying to make something out of nothing. Joey Bosa came screaming at him up the B-gap, so Burrow was forced to leave the pocket. This allowed Jerry Tillery to come off his block and get in Burrow’s face. Instead of throwing it away, Burrow tried to evade Tillery like he was back in college again, and facing pass-rushers that wouldn’t go on to become first-round picks. A second-and-10 gets turned into a second-and-24.

Burrow was sacked two other times on Sunday and both instances can be squarely blamed on the offensive linemen that allowed each pressure. These were the obvious instances when the pressure limited the offense, and it also showed on plays where Burrow escaped the pocket and turned a drop back into a scramble.

A third-and-six turned into a fourth-and-two after Burrow escaped a collapsed pocket and the Bengals punted midway through the second quarter. Later in the middle of the fourth quarter, Burrow scrambled on three-straight drop backs, racking up a total of 10 yards. Each decision to bail was a wise one considering he exhausted all the time he could in the pocket and the pressure was already arriving.

Those plays were impactful because they helped keep that drive alive, and the drive stayed alive until Burrow made his biggest mistake of the game. A backhanded toss to a screening Giovani Bernard was hauled in by Melvin Ingram III, who was in front of Bernard for the entire route.

Just because the Chargers didn’t score off that turnover doesn’t make it any less costly. That interception cost them potential points on the board and it affected the rest of the game.

By my account, his first career interception was really just one of six bad throws he made all game, and he threw the ball 36 times. 30/36 is pretty solid for a career debut, and considering his expected completion % was only slightly greater than his actual completion % (66% vs. 65.7%), he was accurate and making good decisions for the vast majority of the game.

For this season, I want to highlight the very best and the very worst of Burrow every week using Expected Points Added. More times that not, a quarterback’s best and worst plays are reflected via positive or negative EPA, but using the metric to quantify how great or tragic each play is gives us an objective window to examine through.

Here are six of Burrow’s most positive plays that were worth highlighting based on situation (reflected in EPA) and subjective difficulty.

EPA/Play: 1.53

It’s no surprise that half of these plays came in the last drive of the fourth quarter. Burrow said in his post game press conference that the last drive was the first time he felt like he was in a rhythm all day. For all the absurdity Burrow put on tape at LSU in 2019, it was rare for him to be faced with a final drive to win the game. He almost always commanded an offense that opposing teams couldn’t match for the first 95% of the game.

But the poise, decisiveness, and, for evaluation purposes, throwing an accurate and timely game-winning pass? That’s the Burrow we expected to see. As was this:

Most of Burrow’s throws at LSU were quick throws over the middle, but the plays that caught everybody’s eyes were the ones he created out of structure. This throw went incomplete because A.J. Green couldn’t quite get a second foot down, but this is the Burrow that made our jaws drop last year. No matter the pressure, throwing platform, or coverage, Burrow has the ability to thread the needle all over the field. This time, it was a millisecond too late.

Now, onto the negatives. There were six throws of Burrows that can be fairly graded as negative. These two were the most impactful from an EPA perspective, and also by just looking at it with your own eyes.

EPA/Play: -3.45

He can’t miss that throw. And he can’t attempt the other one. He just can’t.

Just like on his first career touchdown, Burrow audibled whilst the offense was in a 3x2 formation, or simply, empty. He had A.J. Green in the slot against a defense that was showing Cover 1 with a deep free safety. After making a pre-snap adjustment, Burrow looked off the deep safety as the Chargers show that they’re playing zone instead of man. He came back to Green, who was running even more free now that the safety was towards the other side.

Everything worked except the throw. We don’t even need to talk more about the interception.

Burrow would ultimately go 0-4 on throws beyond 15 yards, but this is the one that’s on him and him alone.

Passing Chart

There is more to Burrow than this game had to offer, we know this. What were the odds we would see it all during his first-ever NFL game? Not great.

Burrow got rattled, he misfired, and he cost his team definite points at times; his 42.3 under pressure grade from Pro Football Focus validates that. But remember, the process dictates the results more times than not. You saw Burrow manage broken pockets, make critical third down conversions, and stay steadily accurate for four-straight quarters. And he nearly won the damn game because of those things as much as he lost the game because of the other things.

He can keep his head up as high as our hopes remain for him.

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.

We can say this for multiple position groups on Cincinnati’s roster, but there was a clear rotation system for the linebackers. This allowed rookies Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither to see ample time on passing downs.

On the very first third down of the game, Wilson and Davis-Gaither came on for starters Josh Bynes and Germaine Pratt. Wilson played 22 snaps and Davis-Gaither played 20 snaps; each of them played 15 snaps against the pass.

For a more detailed breakdown of their performances, check out Matt Minich’s weekly film review dropping later this week!

Only two of other three rookies active for this game actually played. Defensive end Khalid Kareem saw 10 snaps as the left edge defender in the Bengals’ multiple front. On the first drive he was in, he helped create a Carl Lawson sack on Tyrod Taylor after both offensive tackles for the Chargers used the Catapult technique in pass protection even when Taylor took a three-step drop out of the shotgun and it wasn’t a quick screen or a QB draw.

As a part of an active rotation at wide receiver, Tee Higgins played 15 snaps, nine of them as a route runner. It should be noted that amongst the four reserves at receiver, Higgins was tied with Mike Thomas and Auden Tate for snaps played. But like Tate, Higgins did not receive a target in the passing game.

Hakeem Adeniji didn’t play despite Xavier Su’a-Filo leaving the game with an injury. Billy Price expectedly came in for Su’a-Filo, and should be expected to start on Thursday if Su’a-Filo can’t. But this does mean Adeniji is closer to being the next man up on the offensive line.