CINCINNATI — The Pittsburgh Steelers did everything they could to make Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning feel uncomfortable Sunday in his first NFL start, and it worked, with the visitors leaving town with a 16-10 victory.
But the game isn’t the only thing Browning has put behind him. So is that feeling of unease.
“Practice felt so much smoother today versus last week,” Browning said after Thursday’s first practice of the week. “(Last week was) what is this all going to look like? Now I have a full week of that, and I think I also just keep going back to the fact that whatever week this is (13), this is like Week 2 for me, Week 3.”
“Early on in the season, everybody is getting a lot better, and then they kind of hit a certain point where they kind of plateau,” Browning continued. “I’m not at my plateau, and so for me, those practice reps are really important. So as I keep stacking these starts and stacking these reps, I continue to improve.”
What Is Different for Jake Browning in Week 2 as the Bengals’ Starter?
Browning was the 19th quarterback to make his NFL starting debut in a Bengals uniform. He became the 14th to fall short of a victory.
With two of those previous 18 in the meetings with Browning, he doesn’t have to look far to get input on how different the feeling is in the second start vs. the first.
In 2020, Joe Burrow was 23 of 36 for 193 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in his debut against the Los Angeles Chargers. In Game 2, he was 37 of 61 for 316 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions at Cleveland. Both games were losses, but the whole operation felt smoother and more relaxed.
AJ McCarron won his starting debut in 2015, then lost the following week on Monday night against the eventual No. 1 seed and Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. But McCarron led back-to-back touchdown drives of 80 and 90 yards to give the Bengals a 14-0 lead.
“I think it surprised Denver, us coming out throwing the ball the way we did that night,” McCarron said. “We felt like even though they had Pro Bowlers at both corners and a good D-line, we felt comfortable throwing the ball. So we came out swinging.”
“And that does nothing but build your confidence when you see completions,” McCarron added. “It’s kind of like a shooter in basketball. Once you see it go through, that confidence builds, and then it just trickles from there.”
Both Burrow and McCarron’s second career starts came on the road in primetime before a national audience, just as Browning’s will Monday night at Jacksonville.
Browning said Thursday he felt much better about what he was able to do against the Steelers than he did in the immediate aftermath of the loss.
“I think anytime you play, the result of the game is going to influence how you feel walking off the field about how you played,” he said. “That’s kind of held true throughout my whole career, all the way back to like high school. It’s never as good as you thought; it’s never as bad as you thought. Walking off the field, it felt like I played terrible. And I think part of that had to do with the loss, and there’s definitely some things I can clean up.”
Browning said he obviously would like to have the interception back while also mentioning some plays where he should have thrown the ball away rather than taking a sack.
Trenton Thompson with the INT 🙌
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 26, 2023
It’s all part of the learning and growing process, even for a 27-year-old.
Head coach Zac Taylor gave a similar assessment.
“I thought he was really sound in his decision-making,” Taylor said. “You look at the normal downs in the first half, he was 8 of 10 with seven of those being efficient, leading us down there, scoring a touchdown, so there were some things I thought he handled very well. And there were some things with the experience portion of things will really help him as he moves forward.”
“I was impressed with how he handled it on the sidelines and his demeanor in the game and rebounding from a tough interception is difficult, and still have a lot of confidence in him moving forward,” Taylor added. “It’s always good for a game like that you get a chance to step back and kind of let the night go and have a chance to sleep on it, come back and watch the tape, and it’s like, ‘OK, there are some really positive things here we can continue to build on.'”
It’s not just the growing comfort and confidence on the field but in the meeting rooms and in practice, too.
“I know for me, when you’re sitting in the quarterback room, they’re like, ‘Hey, do you like this or this more? Do you like this or this more?’ And you kind of think you know,” Browning said. “But then once you’re in a game and you kind of have that experience, and you have your notes from that, I feel more comfortable with this. Versus last week, it’s like, ‘I don’t know. Call what you think is gonna work, and we’ll roll with that.’ As we continue to get more games around the plan, the offense will kind of morph into whatever we’re doing well.”
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