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Bengals Week 2 rookie report: Joe Burrow’s first road game-turned-odyssey

Amidst all the turmoil, the Burrow-to-Higgins connection began to sprout against the Browns.

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

No OTAs, no minicamps, no preseason. Now here’s two football games in less than one week.

There have been less extreme instances that have exemplified the phrase “Welcome to the NFL.”

That was the reality for Joe Burrow and the five other rookie Bengals that suited up with him on Thursday night against the Browns. Let’s get into where they’re at.

The Burrow Breakdown, Vol. 2

I thought it. You thought it. Pretty much any sentient life-form that is aware of the Bengals’ recent history with primetime games thought it.

If Andy Dalton was Cincinnati’s quarterback when Cleveland went up 14-3, there was no point in watching the rest of the game.

Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s the truth.

Any minuscule chance the Bengals were going to go to the playoffs this year has been decimated after Thursday night now that the team is 0-2. But the NFL world saw that even though this team remains not very good, the kid playing the most important position is an undeniable beacon of hope.

Everyone seems to be talking about the fact that Joe Burrow threw the ball 61 times. Let’s go ahead and clarify real quickly that he dropped back to pass a total of 71 times. Our collective knowledge of the game tells us that this is only a bad way to go about things, specifically in Burrow’s case because his offensive line is loathsome. Hell, someone on Instagram sent me a direct message of a post stating that Burrow threw more in this game than Jimmy Garoppolo did in the San Francisco 49ers’ entire postseason run this past January.

Every drop back is another opportunity for the franchise’s first-overall draft pick to get buried under the turf. And man oh man, did the Browns nearly succeed in that task so many times during the night.

Of course, if they didn’t pass the ball as much as they did, there’s no way they ever make the game interesting.

As far as games with 60+ attempts go, Burrow was pretty damn efficient. His 64.4% completion percentage was 1.4% better than expectation. How impressive was his 51% success rate? Only six quarterbacks achieved that for the entire 2019 season. When both of these metrics end up looking positive, the Expected Points Added per play usually does as well. Burrow’s 0.24 EPA per play is the biggest piece of evidence as to why the Bengals somehow stuck around when it seemed like they had no business doing so.

0.24 EPA per play. 51% success rate. How’d the run game do?

-0.45 EPA per play. 35% success rate.

Similar to what transpired on Sunday, run plays on first and second down ended up putting even more pressure on Burrow. An EPA per play of -0.31 and just a 33% success rate led to unnecessarily long second and third down situations for Burrow to mitigate. A handful of times he simply couldn’t, and the best course of action was to let Burrow try on fourth down.

Five times he did. Five times he converted. 2.54 EPA per play.

One fourth down conversion stood out more than the other four, and it found its way into Burrow’s most impactful and impressive plays of the week:

EPA/Play: 2.4

Burrow’s 61st and final throw ended in his third touchdown of the night and the third of his career. In all honesty, it may be the perfect foreshadowing for how the 2020 season will unfold.

On a third-and-long, needing a score due to his defense getting overwhelmed, Burrow steps up in a broken pocket thanks to at least three failed blocks by his offensive line. He’s got five receivers down field after aligning them in a 3x2 empty formation, but he wants one of them in particular. His latest creation out of structure becomes a perfect on-the-run toss to Tyler Boyd.

Literally every single aspect of that play is going to repeat itself again this year. Several times.

Burrow anticipated pressure on that fourth-and-five conversion near midfield as he brought in Giovani Bernard to help out protection inside. The Browns showed blitz pre-snap and ended up dropping seven back into coverage. With only four potential targets against seven defenders and only three of them going past the sticks, Burrow stood tall in the pocket and connected with Boyd where only he could get it with three defenders within five yards of him.

At least his throwing platform was untouched on that throw. For his biggest completion to A.J. Green, Burrow had Fred Johnson being bull-rushed into him as he had to follow through on his throwing motion fading away from his starting point. Green may’ve been wide open over the middle, but again, his pocket endurance is hard to ignore.

It was hard to not replay the throw to Tee Higgins over and over again. Mind you, this was the first time Burrow has ever thrown to Higgins in his career. Talk about a heck of a first catch. But Burrow exiting the pocket with clairvoyance and resolve continues to appear as the work of a 10-year veteran. There was no more catchable ball that could’ve been thrown, either.

Of course there was Burrow’s first career touchdown as well. Motioning Joe Mixon out wide to keep the play-side corner from gaining depth in his zone to carry tight end C.J. Uzomah’s route was just one aspect that made the play effective. Burrow’s throw was accurate and timed perfectly with the route.

Aside from about 10 throws, Burrow was swift to make the throws he needed to make and precise in doing so. Most of his bad plays weren’t actually throws, but there was at least one that we can guess he’d like to have back.

Let’s look at that and a couple other plays that reflected poorly on the stat sheet and to the eyes.

EPA/Play: -1.33

In his defense, his nine-yard sacking from Sheldon Richardson came off the most lazily-executed play action from an offensive line in NFL history. But still, he’s not playing Oklahoma’s defense anymore. He needs to throw that ball away instead of pressing the circle button to spin.

It’s a bit tough to analyze his miss to Green on second-and-13. The timing of the throw after uncorking his hips at the top of the drop seems correct. The final placement was on line with Green’s route as well, but unless he expects Green to stack Denzel Ward that quickly just 25 yards down the field, this is likely just an overthrow.

Burrow made some misguided checks to run plays, but the read-option keeper takes the cake as the most damaging result for sure. No reason why that ball doesn’t end up in Mixon’s gut with Browns’ edge defender Porter Gustin staying home to contain.

The miss to Green was just one of over 10 incomplete passes of 20 yards or more Burrow has thrown through two weeks. He’s 1-12 on such targets, but hey, at least the one was worth six points.

Passing Chart

We’re entering a crossroads where Burrow’s adeptness in front of the microphone becomes more predictable and just downright diplomatic. For him to say anything that even remotely resembles criticism towards his offensive line—the group that got him pressured over 20 times on Thursday—would become instant clickbait material for pundits everywhere.

The line stinks, even if Burrow would never publicly admit it. How many more games like this one have to happen before the decision makers of the organization realize it too.

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.

Jay Morrison of The Athletic said right before the season that it was only a matter of time before Tee Higgins became a starter in this offense. Well, it took one week to make that happen.

With Auden Tate a surprise inactive, the Bengals played Higgins a whopping 60 snaps compared to veterans John Ross III (28) and Mike Thomas (32) and Higgins was the first of those three on the field to start the game.

In just his second career game, Higgins hauled in three catches for 35 yards on six targets; all in the final 32 minutes of the game. Two of those catches moved the chains for first downs as well.

We analyzed Higgins’ first career target and catch through the eyes of Burrow. His second target showed that there’s plenty of room to grow between the two rookies.

Timing on a route as simple as a hitch will come with, well, time. Burrow has got to get the ball there on time so Higgins doesn’t have to plead for pass interference on a perfectly legal pass breakup.

The two nearly connected later in the game over the middle on a second-and-10, but Higgins appeared shaken up after going to the ground in trying to reel in the catch. He would return to the game soon after, thankfully.

For how badly Josh Bynes and Germaine Pratt were struggling, it would’ve been nice if wither Logan Wilson or Akeem Davis-Gaither were ready to take over for them. They weren’t.

Wilson was on the field for eight run plays. He received a run defense grade of 26.6 from Pro Football Focus. Not a great example of achieving run fits or getting off of blocks.

Wilson played a total of 14 snaps to Davis-Gaither’s 19, though 10 of Davis-Gaither’s snaps came against the pass. He was not one of the many Bengals defenders to get utterly exposed in this contest.

Through two weeks, Davis-Gaither has been used like the versatile defender he was in college. He’s taken 17 coverage snaps, 14 run defense snaps, and eight pass-rushing snaps. 26 snaps have come at linebacker, eight have been as an edge defender, and five have had him in the slot.

A promising beginning of the season for Bynes and Pratt instilled comfort that these two won’t be needed as much early on. But Wilson especially needs to play a lot better with the chances he’s getting. Any more games like this and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Markus Bailey get his chance for once. Bailey was inactive for the second straight week, by the way.

Khalid Kareem played as many snaps as Wilson, 14, but most people only remember one of them.

Right before William Jackson III intercepted Baker Mayfield early in the fourth quarter, Kareem had reacted to Mayfield’s boot action perfectly. He stayed home as the unblocked read defender and bolted towards Mayfield at the top of his drop back. Mayfield saw him and stepped up, causing Kareem to go flying past him, and threw the ball right into Jackson’s hands.

Why Kareem then decided to hit stick Mayfield mere seconds afterwards is beyond any of us, but it sure did earn a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness. Imagine if Myles Garrett did that to Burrow?

Luckily for Kareem, the Bengals still need him in their defensive line rotation for how battered it is. He’s going to get chances to redeem himself out of pure necessity.

It seems like Hakeem Adeniji’s starting debut is just a few weeks away at this point. The sixth-round pick got onto the field for one snap as an extra tight end, but they probably could’ve used him at three spots along the offensive line.

No one knows if Adeniji’s ready for all of that yet, but the Bengals can say he was a second or third-round talent so many times without having him compete for a spot that desperately needs competition.

We may be talking about this subject with more urgency after Week 3.