CINCINNATI — Even after a rough ending to his first NFL practice in pads, Joe Burrow said he’s confident he will be ready for the season opener in less than a month.
The Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback was limited to a virtual offseason with the team that drafted him No. 1 overall, and there won’t be any preseason games to help him settle in before the real competition begins Sept. 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers.
But those setbacks, and an up-and-down practice Tuesday against a live defense for the first time, haven’t created any doubt he can handle the quick transition.
“I’m very confident,” Burrow said. “I feel very comfortable with the offense right now. I feel comfortable with my guys. I think we’re gonna be pretty good on offense. I’m excited moreso than nervous, I would say. … You ever heard anything else about me being nervous?”
Burrow has been a confident leader since his days at Athens High School and even while sitting on the bench at Ohio State University before transferring to Louisiana State University in 2018. He led the Tigers to the national championship during a record-setting 2019 campaign and already has gained the respect of his new Bengals teammates, who said they are excited just feeling his energy on the field.
So, there is little concern over some early bumps in the road, just three days into training camp. On Tuesday, Burrow found out just how quickly defenders are going to be coming at him this season, and he managed some of those moments better than others.
The 2019 Heisman Trophy winner had to scramble out of trouble under pressure from the defensive line several times during team drills, and he fumbled a snap and threw a tipped interception while running the red zone offense at the end of practice.
“It was OK,” Burrow said of his first NFL practice in pads. “It wasn’t what you’d like to see on a red zone day, but it was the first one. It started raining a little bit. Obviously, I’d like to play better than I did, and I know as an offense we’d like to play better than we did.”
Adjusting to the speed of the game is the biggest hurdle right now, Burrow said.
The pass rush comes much faster in the NFL, which means Burrow has to be especially quick on his feet. Extending plays was one of his strengths in college, and he did show some of that Tuesday. He threw a touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd on a broken play in a 7-on-7 drill, where he rolled to the right and managed to find Boyd on the run.
Cincinnati hopes that translates into games this season. The Bengals ranked 30th in the league for red zone scoring last year while reaching the end zone on only 43.8% of trips inside the 20-yard line. Burrow completed 71.2% of passes in the red zone last year at LSU and estimates 25-30% of his red zone touchdowns were improvised plays.
“It's difficult down there because you have the end line, so defenses are going to sit on the routes more,” Burrow said. “You can't go deep, so you really have to drill that in practice. It's not just going to happen on game day.”
Burrow said it’s a “feeling-out process” with the receivers, too. Right now, he’s missing three key targets. A.J. Green sat out Tuesday after feeling some tightness in his hamstring toward the end of Monday’s practice — though coach Zac Taylor for a second straight day insisted the team is just being cautious with him.
John Ross is out in California caring for his 3-year-old son while the child and his mom have COVID-19, and rookie Tee Higgins had a bit of a hamstring issue that sidelined him the last few days, according to Taylor. Higgins, a second-round draft pick out of Clemson, returned to individual drills Tuesday but did not participate in any team portions.
“Right now, I’m focused on getting better every single day,” Burrow said. “We don’t need those guys today, we need them in (26) days, so they need to do what they need to do to get healthy and we’re going to continue to get better.”
Burrow clearly has a level of comfort with Boyd already, and the offensive line has work to do in providing better protection, but players have been praising Burrow’s command in the huddle and on the field.
Second-year left guard Mike Jordan played with him at OSU in 2016 and 2017 and remembers coaches getting on Burrow to be more demonstrative when calling the cadence, and now “everything is crystal clear” to the point he’s getting guys on defense to jump offside.
Veteran right guard Xavier Su’a-Filo has been impressed in his first interactions with Burrow, too.
“To be honest, sometimes I forget he's a rookie,” Su’a-Filo said. “He carries himself real well, and the biggest thing I think for young players is confidence and I've been really impressed with that.”
Taylor said he’s not surprised by the depth of Burrow’s confidence.
“He’s been through this before,” Taylor said. “He’s transferred in the summer months and had to quickly get ready to compete in one of the premier conferences in college football against some great competition. He has had to do this quick-study stuff before where you really have a summer to prep with no physical reps before you show up for training camp. It doesn’t surprise you because you know his history. And again, he’s done the things that we pictured him doing when we took him.
“We still have room for improvement. That’s for certain. But he’s doing a good job of leading the group right now.”