Welcome to the NFL, Joe Burrow.
The Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback received a bit of a rude awakening the first day in pads Tuesday after what he considered a strong start to training camp Sunday and Monday.
Burrow had to scramble out of trouble under pressure from the defensive line several times during team drills and ended the practice on a tough note, fumbling a snap and throwing an interception while running the red-zone offense. The interception was tipped by Sam Hubbard and picked off by Carlos Dunlap, who earlier intercepted a pass by Ryan Finley.
Even Burrow, the top overall draft pick out of LSU, wasn’t satisfied.
“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.”
The defense stood out Tuesday, but the practice didn’t start off well for that side of the ball, as safety Shawn Williams came up lame in individual drills and had to be carted off – the second player in two days to do so after defensive tackle Renell Wren went down Monday. Coach Zac Taylor said Williams was in the training room after practice and he had no update, and the team is awaiting results of an MRI on Wren.
Rain wasn’t a factor until the final 15 minutes of practice, which might have impacted Burrow’s fumbled snap. Taylor has been pleased with Burrow overall, despite the mistakes Tuesday.
“He’s progressing well for the third day,” Taylor said. “There’s still things that we need to work on as a unit, obviously the quarterback is the one that leads that unit. But I think he’s on the trajectory that we hoped he would be on through three days of training camp.”
The biggest obstacle Burrow said he’s facing early in camp is learning to adjust to the speed of the game. A live rush in the NFL makes for a tighter window than he dealt with in college, even with his national champion Tigers facing the best teams in the country.
That means Burrow has to be especially quick on his feet, which he showed early in the practice, scrambling out of trouble during a 7-on-7 and another time he rolled right and managed to execute a pass to Tyler Boyd when the play was breaking up on him. It’s even trickier in the redzone, he said, when the option to throw deep isn’t there and defenders are more tightly compact.
“In the red zone, a lot of touchdowns come outside the structure of the offense,” Burrow said. “You dial a play up to a certain coverage in the redzone and you don’t get it and there’s not a lot of room to improvise outside of it, so you have to get outside the pocket, you have to extend plays, you have to allow guys to find the windows and get open. That’s something I’ve always taken pride in and I know our coaches are putting a big emphasis on it.”
Burrow estimates that 25-30 percent of his red-zone touchdowns were improvised plays, and that’s an area where the Bengals especially are hoping he can help the offense improve. He had a 71.2 percent completion rate in the red zone last year.
Cincinnati ranked 30th in the league for red-zone scoring, notching touchdowns on only 43.8 percent of trips inside the 20-yard line.
“We were awful at the end of the year when you look at our red zone (numbers),” Taylor said. “A lot of it was on third downs. Our third-down completion percentage down there was not very good. That’s been a big point of emphasis this entire offseason. Today, I feel like our defense beat us in the red zone down there offensively. But there were some moments to extend some plays and our guys gotta do a better job of being in phase and providing some opportunities.”
Burrow said it’s a “feeling out process” with the receivers, too, and right now, he’s missing three key ones. A.J. Green sat out Tuesday after feeling some tightness in his hamstring toward the end of Monday’s practice – though Taylor for a second straight day insisted the team is just being cautious with him. John Ross is 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. Auden Tate and Mike Brown filled in with the first-team offense.
“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 didn’t hesitate to say he’s still confident he can be ready for the season opener in less than a month.