How Bengals QB Joe Burrow audibled his way to a Thursday night win

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As an offensive coach, you do everything you can to help your young quarterback develop (unless you’re Matt Nagy). You hammer the plan, you make sure the quarterback is mentally and mechanically sound, and you put it all on the field week after week, hoping that it all comes together consistently. But if you have a great young quarterback, eventually, you have to let him take the playbook in his hands, react to what he sees, and win a game with his own acuity.

This happened to Bengals head coach Zac Taylor on Thursday night in Cincinnati’s 24-21 win over the Jaguars. The win took the Bengals to 3-1 on the season, which is one more game than they won in 2019. That 2-14 mark put the team at the top of the 2020 draft order and gave them the right to select LSU’s Joe Burrow first overall. Burrow looked good but limited in his rookie season, as the Bengals ran a bunch of quick stuff out of empty formations, and Burrow ran for his life behind an awful offensive line. Burrow was lost for the season in Week 11 when he suffered a torn ACL against Washington, and all Taylor and his staff could do was to wait for the next season to see how Burrow would respond.

It’s not just that Burrow has looked reborn as a quarterback, especially as a deep passer, behind a much better front five, and now reunited with former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase; it’s the on-field acumen combined with his physical gifts that make Burrow such a potentially special quarterback.

Burrow had to be special to pull out that win against a competitive Jaguars team, which had the benefit of Trevor Lawrence, the quarterback taken first overall this year to match Burrow’s equity. There was 5:33 left in regulation when the Bengals got the ball back for the last time, and they never gave it back to the Jaguars. The pivotal play came with 1:09 remining. The Bengals had the ball at the Jacksonville 46-yard line, and Burrow threw a screen to tight end C.J. Uzomah. The play gained 25 yards, and put Cincinnati in position for Evan McPherson’s game-winning 35-yard field goal as time expired.

But the most impressive part of the play was that it wasn’t Taylor’s original call — Burrow saw the defense and audibled to something else, based on the knowledge he’d gained in just over one NFL season. As former NFL quarterback and current analyst Sage Rosenfels pointed out, it was the perfect check.

“That wasn’t the play we called,” Taylor said in retrospect. “That was a check from Joe. We put those guys everywhere in empty, they can line up anywhere and that just happened to be where he was on that play and they zero-blitzed us. I don’t know how many empty plays we ran, but it was a lot. I don’t know if the ball ever hit the ground. They had to try something different. They zeroed us and Joe was ready for it.”

Burrow explained his thought process after the game. Basically, the Jaguars brought a Cover-0 blitz (no deep safeties), and Burrow was able to go through his internal computer in a hurry to discern the best plan of action. It was not a random thought process. It was also a candy dish of a defense for Borrow, who, per Sports Info Solutions, had completed two of two passes against Cover-0 in the first three weeks of the season for 44 yards. When running Cover-0 in the first three games of the season, the Jaguars had allowed three completions in three attempts for 42 yards.

“You guys have heard me talking about having the playbook in the back of my head and seeing looks that I can take advantage of. That just comes with experience. They gave me a ‘zero’ look, and so all week I knew the defensive coordinator [Joe Cullen] had a Baltimore background [Cullen was the Ravens’ defensive line coach from 2016 through 2020, and the Ravens generally run a lot of Cover-0 blitzes]. They showed some ‘zero’ on film — I knew I’d have to be ready for it in a big spot. I had C.J. out there — that’s not exactly the personnel we usually throw those jailbreak screens to, but he really took advantage of the opportunity. I had those plays in the back of my head expecting ‘zero,’ and I just got to it and didn’t really think about it.

“We were going to run it, but it was just that C.J. was out wide. And I was trying to figure out if I wanted to get to the boundary or to the field. I just figured there was more room to the field. I had C.J. out there, and I knew he’d take advantage of it.”

Uzomah was pretty surprised by the whole thing.

(Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY NETWORK)

“I’ll be honest, I had to [do a] double take on that one. Tyler Boyd was looking at me, too, like ‘What did he just call?’ It was Cover Zero and we knew going in that this [defensive coordinator] was coming in from the Ravens and that’s what they like to do — run Cover-0 in critical situations — and Joey Franchise is just back there dealing dots out there knowing and understanding what the defense is doing. He called that play up and just made something happen. [Receiver Tyler] Boyd had a huge block on that one, Trenton (Irwin) came out and had a big block. [Burrow] gave me a wink after I caught it, and I was like, ‘This guy here, he’s reckless [laughs]!

“[Burrow] is the smartest person out there at all times. I was fortunate enough to get brought into the quarterbacks’ Jeopardy game… The questions, I was like ‘What the hell is this — I don’t know anything!’ and [Burrow] is just like ‘Can I steal this one? Can I steal this one?’ and I was like ‘If you want to — I don’t know the answer!’ He’s just Joey Franchise.”

Joey Franchise? There are better nicknames, but Burrow seems to be living up to it. When you have a quarterback who, in his second NFL season can mentally tear apart a defense that way, you’ve got something special.