If you were to watch snaps from Joe Burrow’s second career NFL game with no knowledge of who he was, you would be unlikely to guess he was just a rookie. That’s the confidence that radiated off of him when asked to throw a league-high 61 times while being hit from all directions against the Cleveland Browns. The Cincinnati Bengals have their franchise guy, and now they have to hope his offensive line can keep him afloat.
Burrow looked fear in the eyes during a 35-30 loss Thursday night and scoffed back. He scrambled. He took hits. More importantly, he got up just as fast as he fell to the ground. And when the scoreboard reached zero, people on social media talked about his efforts in defeat rather than perhaps the best of Baker Mayfield in a victory.
That’s what you’ll get with Burrow. Faced with adversity since his days in Columbus, Ohio, he’s never wavered from a challenge. Now, starting the year off 0-2 instead of 2-0, every game’s a lesson in the life of the budding superstar. Then again, what if it isn’t enough? What if, despite his efforts, Cincinnati is doomed to struggle in 2020 and eventually call it a season before he ever finds a rhythm?
It’s simple when you think about it: Burrow the player is a winner. The team, more specifically, his offensive line, will keep him in the winless column despite his best efforts.
Can the Bengals offense help Joe Burrow succeed?
Pressure builds for the offensive line
One could only keep their eyes open for a split second as the highlights showed hit after hit. That was all some could watch as the television flashed with takedowns coming left and right from the Browns. Some, like the Sheldon Richardson slam, was rookie jitters getting the best of him. Others, like Myles Garrett’s strip fumble, were caused by insufficient protection.
A body can only withstand so much pressure. Burrow, being humble, chose to embrace the pain after a three-sack night.
“It makes me feel like a football player,” Burrow said on the offensive line’s lack of protection. “I kind of like getting hit sometimes. It doesn’t disrupt me.”
According to the stat line, he’s right. Going 37-of-61 for 316 yards with 3 touchdowns and no turnovers certainly justifies his belief of getting tossed around.
How long will that last before one hit sends him to the injured reserve?
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The right side of the Bengals offensive line consistently allowed pressure from Richardson and Garrett. Bobby Hart struggled in Week 1 but actually performed better against Cleveland’s front seven. However, better is all relative when Week 1 was that bad. The two turnstiles on that side of the line transformed into a revolving problem all four quarters, leading to highlights from Joe Woods’ defensive front.
In 64 dropbacks, Burrow was hit 10 times from behind. That’s not including the moments where he was forced to sprint to safety only to take a shot to the helmet. Hits to the ribs would soon follow. In total, 17 hits were compiled on No.9 due to poor protection from either side.
“The guy is tough,” Garrett said on Burrow’s outing. “He took a lot of shots, and he bounced right back up. He was still putting deep ones on the money and he always kept his eyes downfield. He was never really worried about the rush unless it was really on him. That is better than some veteran quarterbacks.”
Poor plays from wide receivers
Burrow said after the game, it was a new feeling. Down and out, being defeated is something that hasn’t factored into his daily life.
“Losing isn’t very fun,” said the Bengals starter. “This might be the only time I’ve lost two games in a row. It doesn’t feel very good. … Losing is unacceptable to me.”
The Bengals lost, but Burrow shined. For the second straight week, one throw could have been the deciding factor from an undefeated start to now hoping a win is on the team’s cards in the future. Four days after leading a 70-yard drive into the end zone negated by an A.J. Green pass interference call, another receiver dropped the ball — literally.
In the third quarter, Tyler Boyd could have put the team down by eight after winning on his out route. Perfect pass, perfect route, but poor hands under pressure negated the rep. Boyd bobbled the two-yard score, and Cincinnati settled for a chip shot worth three. Even though he hauled in a touchdown with 43 seconds remaining, the damage was done.
Green’s outing could be the start of the end. The seven-time Pro Bowler was targeted a team-high 13 times. He finished with just three catches for 29 yards and had an equal amount of drops. John Ross was a no-show once again while Tee Higgins made the most of his limited role, tallying three catches for 35 yards.
A season ago down in Baton Rouge, Burrow was playing with a semi-pro record-setting offense for LSU. Having a pair of first-round receivers in Justin Jefferson and the Ja’Marr Chase acted as security blankets. Clyde Edwards-Helaire in one week has taken the NFL by storm as a perfect addition to a Patrick Mahomes-led offense. Two interior offensive linemen are starters while his former right tackle is fighting for reps in D.C.
Meanwhile, in the City of Seven Hills, Bengals receivers are dropping easy passes, protection from the offensive line is scarce, and the run game has yet to make an impact despite the team paying Joe Mixon a new $12 million per year salary. All that’s left is for Burrow to play the mop-up role and hope for the best during terrible times.
How much more can Burrow endure?
In 2012, a franchise found its man after success for 14 seasons. Andrew Luck was expected to be the “it” quarterback. The can’t-miss prospect, the next John Elway. All the intangibles of a winner were there, and he was ready to become the heir of Peyton Manning.
Two weeks before the 2019 season, the then-29-year-old quarterback shocked the NFL by announcing his retirement. His body had given up after the hits were compiled to an all-time high. Why? Former Colts GM Ryan Grigson never fixed the offensive line.
It’s early in his career, but the Bengals could face something similar with Burrow. That’s not to say his skills on par with Luck’s, but franchise quarterbacks are limited. Less than 10 days into his NFL career, Burrow’s already taken nearly 30 hits, had three fumbles (two due to poor blocking) and still keeps coming back for more.
As he headed to the locker room with another loss, Burrow can finally rest, knowing he’s not the problem. Since 2001, only three rookies have been asked to pass more than 60 times in an outing. Burrow’s completion rating, passing yards, touchdowns, and lack of turnovers all come in higher than the likes of Chris Weinke (2001) and Carson Wentz (2016).
Let’s not forget these stats are completely out of context as the preseason was much like the salary cap in 2020: just a figment of the imagination.
There’s a reason the team voted the 23-year-old a captain before ever taking a snap. Burrow’s already proven his worth as a leader in the locker room. Now it’s time for the locker room to step up and help him seize his first career victory.
More importantly, Paul Brown has a chance to learn from Jim Irsay’s mistakes. The right side of the Bengals offensive line can’t be trotting out of the huddle much longer. Otherwise, the NFL might see another player end their career on terms that were never truly their own.