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Bengals Week 3 rookie report: Tee Higgins, Logan Wilson achieve first-year milestones

Cincinnati’s day two draft picks proved their worth during Sunday’s game.

Cincinnati Bengals v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

One advantage college football has over the NFL as a product? No ties.

It’s only fitting that in a game where multiple rookies made the biggest plays of the game that the final result was something first-year players have never experienced before.

Joe Burrow continued his impressive rookie campaign and set a new record in the process, but he wasn’t the only rookie making marks in his personal historical stat sheet.

The Burrow Breakdown, Vol. 3

Late last week I grew curious to see how Joe Burrow’s first two weeks compared to how Cam Newton and Kyler Murray’s first two weeks in the NFL were. Why those two? Well, they each started at quarterback for the first two weeks of their rookie season after being the first pick in the NFL Draft, and they each took at least 100 drop backs during their first two games. Burrow passed all three qualifications as well.

The numbers were interesting. Burrow wasn’t responsible for as many explosive plays as Newton, but he took less sacks and didn’t turn the ball over as much as Newton. The traditional numbers of Burrow and Murray’s look a bit closer, and both of them now share something that has to be incredibly rare.

They achieved their first-career tie before their first-career win in the NFL.

Yes, Burrow’s third-ever game ended in the most anti-climatic way possible. It was a performance that gave evaluators a lot of factors to consider.

For starters, he didn’t make a lot of bad decisions. Bad throws? He made more than a handful. But bad decisions? Not really. That explains why his grade from Pro Football Focus was an elite 86.5, which put him in the top five for quarterbacks in Week 3. His Expected Points Added per play on the other hand ended up at 0.089, which put him at 19th out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks from the week of games.

We can comprehend that number simply by understanding what the offense is asking Burrow to do. Just like from the first two weeks, he’s hitting all the simple stuff like half-field/single read throws and pretty much everything short of 20 yards down the field. But on plays designed to go further down the field, he’s still barely missing the mark. And not having those to counter all the negative plays from sacks and plays killed by pressure hurts his per-play efficiency.

But it’s hard to dwell too much on that when he put on another gutsy performance without an effective running game. Hell, some people thought he straight-up died after one of his best plays. Speaking of which, here are the five most difficult positive plays from Burrow’s Sunday afternoon.

EPA/Play: 1.22

That hit was brutal, man. But what gets lost is how he ended up in that situation.

When you reverse course on a naked bootleg, you assume the danger of meeting an unblocked rusher head on. Burrow had no interest in bracing for a potential hit, he was too focused on creating a broken play with Tyler Boyd. And that’s exactly what he did. You don’t see throws like that very often within the confines of that play design.

Boyd was locked in with Burrow, as evident by his 125 receiving yards on 10 receptions. The accuracy Burrow displayed on those over-the-middle throws, each one placed just over linebacker Nathan Gerry, was sublime. And while we’ll remember the miraculous scramble and throw to Tee Higgins that didn’t count, the improvisation and on-the-run throw to Auden Tate deserves recognition as well.

On the subject of Higgins, who caught Burrow’s first two red zone touchdowns as his own first career touchdowns, he would’ve had a much more productive day had Burrow not under-thrown him twice on vertical routes where he stacked the cornerback. These were the throws that hurt Burrow the most.

EPA/Play: -0.55

Just because the throws were catchable doesn’t mean they’re above criticism. The cornerbacks each had opportunities to play the ball because of where Burrow placed each throw. If he puts more air on both of them, Higgins is the recipient of two 20+ air yard completions. The second one hurts even more considering the Bengals would’ve been just a first down away from field goal range late in overtime.

Instead, Burrow is now 1/16 on throws 20 yards down the field. Points were left on the board, again.

Passing Chart

What can’t be forgotten of course is Burrow getting bludgeoned all afternoon. He was pressured on 23 of his 52 real drop backs and ended up getting sacked on eight of them. Head coach Zac Taylor clarified in his press conference on Monday that he counted only four of them against the offensive line because two of them were off of naked bootlegs, one was on Drew Sample and he told Burrow to take the sack at the end of the first half.

So that leaves them with these beauties.

Three weeks into what already feels like the beginning of a long season, we’re left with a simple conclusion. These sacks will continue to hurt even more when Burrow and his receivers can’t connect down the field. We can conclude this because we’ve seen it plain and simple for three weeks in a row. Despite Burrow making good decisions and throws 95% of the time, the offense needs him to counter the ultra-negative plays with the explosive plays we’re still not yet seeing. Because, unlike the offensive line, this is something that can change for the better in the short term.

It is unfair, because it’s asking him to do even more than what he’s doing, but that’s the reality they’re facing. And I think it’s a reasonable explanation as to why sometimes the better quarterback in a game doesn’t always win. The plays you don’t make can hurt you more than all the other plays you do make.

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.

There was more to Higgins’ day than just two incompletions down the field. How about not one, but two touchdowns? Both of which are the first touchdowns of his career.

As the primary option on two solid play-calls, Higgins capped off two impressive drives for the offense. Before that first touchdown, Burrow and Higgins connected on a deep comeback route that had Burrow taking a five-step drop out of shotgun and Higgins starting his break 15 yards down the field.

This signals growth in the timing and chemistry between Burrow and Higgins considering they were off on much more simpler route last week against the Cleveland Browns.

For good measure, let’s take one final look at that crazy play that didn’t happen.

With Burrow at quarterback, it’s important for his receivers to not give up on these plays. Higgins’ momentum may’ve sealed his fate to step out of bounds, but let it be a lesson to stay in the play as long as Burrow is as well. For Higgins to recognize it immediately after coming back into play is a positive for evaluation purposes, but a missed play is a missed play.

John Ross being a healthy scratch gave way to headlines of Higgins being more involved; as Higgins’ nine targets were a clear indication of that increased involvement. But Ross playing or not was just a minor factor into it all. Higgins actually made his first start against the Browns. This time, there was just one-less high profile receiver to get in his way.

Higgins looks like the second-best receiver on the team right now. His stock is only going up.

A lot of players needed a good bounce back game on Sunday. Logan Wilson was one of them, and he sure as Hell did just that.

On the defense’s first drive of the game, Wilson and fellow rookie linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither were facing a mesh concept by the Eagles on a third-and-short. The two backers played it perfectly as Davis-Gaither trailed the receiver crossing towards the play-side of the field, and Wilson stayed home in his zone over the middle. Carson Wentz and all of his 2020 self somehow lost sight of Wilson and tried to rifle a throw past his face. The ball was tipped by D.J. Reader at the line, and the wobbled football landed in Wilson’s bread basket.

It’s rare to call batted balls bad for the defense, but if Wentz throws a clean ball, it’s perfectly conceivable that Wilson picks it off cleanly and gets some decent return yardage. Regardless, it was a great job of Wilson trusting his eyes and being in the right position to make a play. His first career interception was well earned.

Wilson wasn’t done after that. He played like a completely different player against the run in this game compared to two Thursday nights ago.

Three great plays. And he was only on the field for nine run plays in total.

Davis-Gaither only played three snaps against the run, but played 19 against the pass. Late in the game, he matched up with running back Miles Sanders out wide when the Eagles went into an empty set. Sanders beat Davis-Gaither on a double move that set him up for an easy touchdown had Wentz not overthrown him.

Daivs-Gaither came back later and ran with Sanders on a delayed wheel route; completely erasing the route and forcing what was essentially a throwaway by Wentz.

The duo of Wilson and Davis-Gaither have played 129 snaps through three weeks; Wilson with 65, and Davis-Gaither with 64. They’ve almost exclusively been paired together on the field, and, as you can guess, it’s been a mixed bag for both of them. It’s good that Wilson used this week to clean up the mess he made in Cleveland. With more games like this, he might just take Josh Bynes’ starting job before the season ends.

After getting fined for his personal foul against Baker Mayfield last week, Khalid Kareem only played seven snaps on defense. That was four more snaps than Hakeem Adeniji played on offense. Adeniji was used three times as an extra tight end. You could hear his No. 77 being reported as eligible when the Bengals were on the goal-line for the first time on Sunday.

When does Adeniji get a shot at right guard? Your guess is as good as mine. The Bengals are running out of options at that spot with Xavier Su’a-Filo out for at least a couple more weeks. If Adeniji isn’t there this week and the results remain as bleak as they are, Week 5 could be the time.