It’s time we give Joe Burrow the credit he’s due.
He’s seven games into the 2021 season coming off a severe knee injury in late 2020, and he has led the Cincinnati Bengals to a 5-2 start. That’s already more wins than Cincinnati had all last year; they’re well on their way to the first winning season since 2015. If that wasn’t enough, the Bengals are atop not only the AFC North but the entire AFC. Their win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday was incredibly convincing with Burrow’s performance highlighting the day.
One week after the Ravens had held the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers to six points, the Ravens defense could do nothing to stop the Bengals. Cincinnati scored 41 points on 520 yards of total offense, of which their quarterback was responsible for a career-high 416 yards along with three touchdowns. It wasn’t like the Ravens weren’t trying to stop him either. They got pressure on the second-year quarterback on 13 of his 38 pass attempts, but Burrow didn’t care. Instead, he just performed better in those situations than any quarterback has so far this season. He finished 9-of-13 with 183 yards and a touchdown, good for a +6.8 pass EPA when facing pressure, according to Next Gen Stats. Oh, and he did all of this in Baltimore.
Even before the divisional matchup on Sunday, Burrow had already been showing that he’s found his footing post-injury. He had a shaky Week 2 game in Chicago that left many wondering whether he was still feeling out his range of mobility. Since then, he’s been leading the Bengals’ offense on an impressive run. They’re 4-1 over the stretch since then and never failed to score more than 20 points in a game. That may sound like a low bar, but more than two-thirds of all other NFL teams had a game with fewer than 20 points over that stretch. The Bengals are first in yards per play in that time, second in 20+ yard plays, and seventh in offensive EPA. If Evan McPherson didn’t miss two late-game field goal attempts against Green Bay, they’d still have just one loss this season.
One of the most important reasons for the Bengals’ recent success is that Burrow has looked confident. Now that he’s settled in from his injury, he isn’t worried about his knee giving out if he’s scrambling around in the pocket. He hasn’t been forcing throws and making the bad decisions that led to his three picks on three straight pass attempts against the Bears.
The confidence we’ve seen from Burrow this year has won games for Cincinnati, and some of the credit for this year’s extra confidence boost should go to their draft strategy. Last year, the LSU product was one of the worst deep passers in the NFL. Since his college teammate, Ja’Marr Chase has joined the team, he’s aired the ball out for more long passes and deep touchdowns than he ever did last year.
As much as the Bengals were criticized for passing on offensive line help in the first round of this year’s draft, the Burrow-Chase connection has been an incredible spark for their offense this year. Of Burrow’s 416 passing yards on Sunday, 201 of them were on Chase receptions. Of his 1,956 yards throwing this year, Chase is responsible for 754, almost 40%. He’s been a hard man to defend and Burrow loves throwing to him. The dynamic duo has already connected for six touchdowns this season and Chase leads the league in yards per reception this year. The rookie receiver and his college quarterback always seem to be on the same page and it’s completely elevated this Cincinnati offense.
If anyone had told me during the preseason that the Bengals would hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC seven weeks into the season, I would not have believed them. Burrow’s return felt like too big of a question mark, especially behind an offensive line that hadn’t received the major upgrade it needed in the offseason. There was the concern that he wouldn’t look the same post-injury. I had also been worried that he would so often be under duress that he’d lose his confidence and start seeing ghosts in the pocket.
Instead, Burrow has completely balled out. He’s been confident in himself, in his receivers and—as we saw in the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars—in his ability to go out and win games. With that being the case, Cincinnati could make a real run for the playoffs and beyond, even in a highly competitive division.