The city of Cincinnati was buzzing this past Sunday in Week 1.
The Cincinnati Bengals, their loyal fans, and the proud locals alike, anxiously awaited the debut of the team’s new leader at the helm: 2020 first-overall pick Joe Burrow. The rookie out of LSU looked to become the first QB taken #1 overall since 2002 to win his first career start.
It was always expected that this year of rebuilding would be rough. Nevertheless, the team and their fans were, at least, left with hope and optimism for the future of the organization.
THE HIGHLY-ANTICIPATED OFFENSE
The entire state of Ohio was eager to see how the “hometown kid” Joe Burrow would fare in his professional debut. The offense would start pretty slow, beginning with a three-and-out on the opening drive that stalled after a bad throw to receiver Mike Thomas, who was open on the play.
The following Bengals possession was a pleasant, welcome sight to “Who Dey” Nation, however, as Burrow hooked up with former All-Pro WR A.J. Green on a slant, resulting in a first down. This was not only good to see from Green himself, who’s had his last two seasons cut short by injury, but also for the development of the rookie quarterback. Burrow already seems comfortable with Green, as the star wideout caught six receptions for 44 yards on nine targets, leading the team in all three categories for the afternoon. However, a few plays following Green’s catch, Burrow took a 14-yard sack from Los Angeles defensive lineman Jerry Tillery, forcing a punt. Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa beat left-tackle Jonah Williams badly off of the snap.
On their third offensive drive, the Bengals’ rookie QB showed good pocket awareness, stepping up and maneuvering around constant pressure. Unfortunately, third down saw a repeat of the last possession, as Bosa blew past Williams again. This time, a backwards pass to RB Joe Mixon led to a Cincinnati fumble, recovered by the Chargers defense — an ugly sequence.
With the ball back in Cincinnati’s hands, WR John Ross III struggled to gain separation on Casey Hayward Jr. on a short pass. Granted, Hayward Jr. is widely-regarded as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, but even still, his speed should be no comparison to Ross. Burrow connected with A.J. Green again on an accurate 13-yard slant to move the chains on third down. However, on the very next down, the rookie QB would miss TE C.J. Uzomah, who had a step on the defender, overthrowing him deep down the middle, right out of the end zone.
But then, Joe Burrow showed some of that magic he displayed at LSU: on 2nd-and-10 from LA’s 23-yard line, the former Heisman winner broke upfield on a QB draw for his first career touchdown, scampering untouched after a tremendous block from Trey Hopkins.
With the possession at the start of the second quarter, Burrow held the ball too long and took a bad sack. Bengals left-tackle Bobby Hart, whose hands were full with the Chargers’ defensive front for most of the first half, followed up with a false start — something he isn’t too unfamiliar with.
Two plays later, the Chargers’ Joey Bosa notched his only sack of the game, bringing too much pressure off of the edge for Hart to handle.
Cincinnati’s offense was unable to get anything going for the rest of the first half, going into halftime with a 7-6 lead while only producing 88 total net yards — the team’s fewest in the first two quarters since Week 3 of 2019.
On the team’s first possession of the second half, Joe Burrow whiffed on two big-play opportunities. The first was a bomb to John Ross III deep to the right, wide-open in the end zone. Two plays later, from an empty set on 3rd-and-6, Burrow overthrew another receiver in the end zone, with A.J. Green open deep down the middle.
Following a pair of completions, a scoring opportunity was missed when a perfect deep ball from Burrow missed the mark with Green, while Joe Mixon was also open in the flat with no man to beat.
Mixon would later fumble in the fourth quarter, recovered by former Bengals LB Nick Vigil. The critical mistake would mark Mixon’s first fumble since Week 17 of 2017, ending his streak of 622 consecutive touches without committing a turnover.
Later in the fourth quarter, Burrow did a good job of keeping his eyes downfield on a scramble, followed by a chain-moving Mixon run and another short gain by the rookie QB, demonstrated remarkable patience despite good protection — a good habit for a young gunslinger to develop. Following a series of plays, Burrow would establish rhythm with his arm and find C.J. Uzomah on completions of 15 and 19 yards.
As with any rookie, however, the good will come with the bad.
Right after delivering two good strikes to his tight end, Joe Burrow tried to do too much and delivered a gift to the Chargers’ Melvin Ingram III, intercepting a shovel pass on a broken screen in field goal range. But, this is all part of the development process of a young quarterback; it was a terrible mistake, but the LSU alum is known to be a very smart player, and should certainly learn from it.
On the Bengals’ final possession, Burrow would get back into rhythm, completing 8-of-11 passes for 70 yards, doing a great job of staying poised and keeping his cool.
Cincinnati almost wrote a storybook ending to Burrow’s professional debut, as a potential game-winning touchdown was caught by A.J. Green with 12 seconds left on the clock. Unfortunately, to the Bengals’ dismay, the reception was nullified by an offensive pass interference call.
In classic Bengals fashion, kicker Randy Bullock would subsequently miss the game-tying field goal, spoiling an otherwise-decent debut for the rookie quarterback.
A REVAMPED DEFENSE
Despite these key losses, the Bengals’ defense really showed up and was, without a doubt, the bright spot of the team.
On Los Angeles’ first four possessions, Cincinnati forced three straight punts and a turnover-on-downs; the Chargers were held to a measly 28 yards on their first three drives.
It was interesting to see both rookie linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Logan Wilson in on the first defensive series, notably on third down. Davis-Gaither, aptly nicknamed ADG, showed off his blitzing prowess in the middle of the first quarter, when he shot up the middle of the line on a blitz and pressured Chargers QB Tyrod Taylor into an incomplete pass.
CB Darius Phillips provided good, tight coverage on Chargers WR Mike Williams on the same third-down play, but for the most part, would have an uneven game, as Williams later beat him deep on a couple of receptions. Phillips is being greatly depended on until the return of free-agent acquisition Trae Waynes, who was signed to a 3-year, $42 million deal this offseason.
There was surprisingly one other rookie sighting on defense, as first-year defensive-end Khalid Kareem was credited with a quarterback pressure leading to a Carl Lawson sack. Lawson, along with veteran linebacker Josh Bynes, were the only Bengals to record a sack on the day.
Known more as a capable run-stopper throughout his nine-year career, Bynes displayed solid coverage abilities in his Bengals debut. His veteran savvy and physicality was on full display Sunday, stuffing Chargers RB Austin Ekeler in the second quarter, forcing a turnover-on-downs. The biggest play of the day for Bynes was a red zone tackle where he knifed through the Los Angeles blockers to stop RB Joshua Kelley for a one-yard loss, holding the Chargers to a field goal late in the fourth quarter.
William Jackson III looked really good in this game. After having an up-and-down 2019 season, Jackson looked to be back to his 2018 dominance, not allowing a single catch on three targets during Los Angeles’ opening drive. The University of Houston product held his own against the big and crafty wideouts of the Chargers, with particularly good coverage on Mike Williams on the third quarter that led to a failed Los Angeles drive.
Other Bengals defenders who had stellar games were second-year LB Germaine Pratt and third-year DE Sam Hubbard. Both players were all over the field: Pratt finished with a team-high 12 tackles, showing his range and overall development since his rookie year; Hubbard was second on the team with eight tackles, including a play where he kept good containment on Tyrod Taylor to make the stop and force a turnover-on-downs in the second quarter.
Last, but certainly not least, Jessie Bates III (do the Bengals lead the league in most players with Roman-numeral suffixes?) was unquestionably the star of the team on Sunday. Bates flew all over the field, making plays left-and-right. He looked like he was back to his dominance as a rookie, when he absolutely balled-out. Bates only tallied five tackles for the game, but had two pass break-ups and provided tight coverage in every part of the field. Bates also had some jarring hits on Chargers receivers as well, including one that yielded an unnecessary roughness penalty. This was also a great second-quarter play by Bates, as Mike Williams had beaten Darius Phillips deep for a potential score, if not for Bates’ touchdown-saving hit.
Per Pro Football Focus, Bates had the highest mark among safeties in Week 1, earning a 91.6 overall grade.
The special teams unit was up-and-down against Los Angeles.
For the Good
Jordan Evans did a good job in punt coverage and made a tackle after the Bengals’ second drive stalled. Alex Erickson had a nice punt return that went for 22 yards in the third quarter. Punter Kevin Huber punted six times, with three touchbacks; he’d finished last season with only five touchbacks. The power of Huber’s leg was on display with long punts of 63 and 70 yards, the latter surpassing his season-high of 63 yards in 2019. Stud returner Brandon Wilson only received one opportunity to field a punt, but made it count with a 44-yard return. Kicker Randy Bullock nailed a long field goal from 50 yards out.
For the Bad
There wasn’t too much bad with the special teams unit, thankfully. The kickoff coverage team did allow a return of 46 yards in the third quarter.
The main blunder, however, was Bullock’s failed field goal attempt on the potential game-tying kick at the end of regulation.
For starters, this game would’ve never had to come down to Bullock’s boot, had A.J. Green not pushed off on the go-ahead TD on the previous play. Either way, there was no crowd noise or bad weather to put extra pressure on the kickers. The hold seemed just fine, and he had just nailed a long 50-yarder earlier in the third quarter.
Immediately after the miss, Bullock coincidentally, reached down for his calf on his kicking leg, and landed on the injury report in the days following the game.
Bengals DT Mike Daniels hobbled off the field late in the fourth quarter, after having already returned from a previous exit earlier in the game. It is reportedly the same groin injury that kept him from practicing in the previous week’s build-up to the game.
Cincinnati’s big free-agent acquisition, D.J. Reader, caused the entire organization to gasp when he went down, and then was carted off the field. It was initially a major blow to a Bengals defense that was already missing superstar DT Geno Atkins. It was quickly diagnosed as muscle cramps, however, and Reader was later able to return to the field.
Xavier Su’a-Filo left the game in the third quarter with an ankle injury and never returned.
There was both good and, inevitably, bad, with rookie Joe Burrow in his first NFL start.
It seems as if Head Coach Zac Taylor and Offensive Coordinator Brian Callahan wanted to keep it easy as possible on the rookie quarterback and, thus, came with a rather conservative game plan, giving him a lot of short throws and quick reads.
Burrow missed a couple of would-be TDs, but still remained poised instead of the usual “deer-in-headlights” we typically see from first-year QBs.
The Bengals’ offensive linemen had their hands full, to say the least, but they stepped up in the second half, keeping the team competitive in a game where points came at a premium. Billy Price came in and looked decent in limited action. Guard Michael Jordan fared well and looked better than he did as a rookie last year. Bobby Hart struggled mightily, to say the least, and many fans are clamoring for OL Fred Johnson to get an opportunity over him.
Burrow took three sacks and six QB hits, but in fairness, Joey Bosa is the highest-paid defensive player in the league for a reason. On top of that, the Chargers have really good players along their front-seven aside from Bosa, including three-time Pro Bowler Melvin Ingram III. At least the Bengals offensive line got a good test that’ll potentially make them better.
A.J. Green didn’t have a spectacular day, but he looked pretty healthy and strong in his return. Most importantly, Burrow is showing a quick trust in him — as he should. It was good to see the rookie quarterback operate in a two-minute drill on Cincinnati’s final possession. Burrow showed confidence and mental fortitude, given that he had some rough drives and bad protection throughout the game.
His veteran teammates are also taking notice.
Green was quoted after the game saying, “The way he handled himself in that last drive was unbelievable…We got a special one.”
Burrow, as always, was very humble about his NFL debut: “I made too many mistakes to win the game.”
- Star RB Joe Mixon was relatively quiet; his longest run was 14 yards, and he only averaged 3.6 yards-per-carry for the game. Mixon also only recorded one catch on two targets for two yards.
- Wide receivers Auden Tate and Tee Higgins only tallied 15 snaps apiece, but neither received a single target during the game.
- Giovani Bernard notched a Bengals franchise record for most receptions by a running back.
(Featured Image Credit: Bryan Woolson for AP Photos / Bengals.com)