The Bengals have scored just seven points in the first quarter and if they start grinding again Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow knows where that's headed.
"We can't start slow the way we did last week," said Burrow, who before he beat the Jags' zero blitz and had zero points at the half. "If we start slow like that, we'll be down 21-0 before we can blink. So we're going to have to come out fast."
Burrow and company face a top 10 defense in Green Bay's No. 6 outfit that doesn't give up a bunch of yards but is allowing 25 points per game. The Pack has allowed a passer rating of 100.2 to opposing quarterbacks, which has to be enticing to unleash Burrow's hot hand right away. He comes into Sunday's first quarter racking up the NFL's sixth best rating in the league and sits six spots higher than the legendary Rodgers' 100.8.
But it looks as if the Bengals aren't looking for Seamless Joe to carry the day these days. No question he's the straw that stirs the drink. But in what looks to be an evolution of the merger between head coach Zac Taylor's pass game and offensive line coach Frank Pollack's wide zone run game, the Bengals are helping Burrow with more varied personnel groups and slightly more run-friendly formations in a more balanced attack of 118 drop-back passes and 93 runs from scrimmage. (Last year after four games it was 192-104).
Last year, the Bengals used heavy formations with three tight ends and/or an extra tackle one percent of the time. This year it's eight percent. And the offense that was in the shotgun formation nearly all the time last season has played it as even as it can get the last two games.
Against Pittsburgh Burrow was in the gun 26 times, under center 23. Against Jacksonville it was 31 and 29, respectively.
Plus, it is all being tied into the empty sets Burrow loves.
"I think what Coach Pollack likes to do and Coach Taylor likes to do is kind of mesh up because they both like outside zone, wide zone," said left tackle Jonah Williams before Wednesday's practice. "I feel like technically we're doing a much better job with a lot of Coach Taylor's concepts, stretch them out vertically. You end up doing that and it puts defenses in tough positions and it stresses out different positions on the defense. Those definitely complement each other and that's been critical for our success."
When Taylor summoned Pollack back to the Bengals this past offseason, it was thought to be the most important hire of his three-year tenure and the first month of the season has shown why. While Burrow got hit regularly in the first two games, the pressures and the sacks have decreased in the last two as Taylor and Pollack get in sync.
"(Taylor has) been exposed to the wide zone and this spring him and Brian Callahan made a big effort in trying to mirror up the stuff I want to do in the run game to do what they want to do as far as play-action pass," Pollack said of Taylor's offensive coordinator before Wednesday's practice. "And keepers. All that's really been married together formationally so it looks a lot similar to the defense. It's helped us out tremendously.
"Zac does a great job of marrying all those things from the run game and the pass game along with coach Callahan and being a zone team makes it a little bit easier," Pollack said. "End of the day big picture thinking, we are just running a zone play. Whether I got a fullback, or two-man wing, three-man wing. Tight end, extended receiver. It's all zone. The players have to understand and grasp the little nuances then be able to adjust and play fast because we are bringing motions, whether a regular motion or fly and how the defense will be able to react and process fast then we are all humming on all cylinders being able to do those types of things."
Translation? The Bengals hope to kill them with variety. Empty sets with five receivers spread. Heavy personnel with Isaiah Prince as the extra tackle. Or something else.
"As an O-line we take pride in being able to protect Joe out of empty. That's really important to us. But every O-lineman wants to line up in big personnel and just go right at someone," Williams said. "Being able to have that, spread them out, use our receiver speed and our quarterback's arm to spread teams out and make them have to cover us in space and then be able to come around and be able to line up and pound them, that's going to make us hard to defend on offense. And we know we have the talent to do it. It's just on us to go out and execute it and be effective running the ball just as well as we are protecting the quarterback."
O-LINE SHOUT-OUTS: So much has been said about the zero blitz play from Thursday night, the 25-yard pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah that broke open the game. Burrow's check at the line, Uzomah's quick thinking to make a catch on a route he never ran, wide receiver Tyler Boyd's block to get it started.
But Burrow saw this from right tackle Riley Reiff:
"He got out, maneuvered … - they brought one guy inside, one guy outside and he slipped them and then got skinny and blocked the linebacker. And he was really the key block that allowed us to get 20 yards instead of five."
Reiff, a free-agent pickup, and left guard Quinton Spain, a holdover from last year's midseason rescue job, are two solid veterans that gave the Bengals confidence they had done enough to get this offensive line ready for the season.
"He's made a world of difference," Burrow said of Reiff. "He's a veteran leader that doesn't say a lot, but when he does, you listen. And he's really locked down that side of the offensive line."
And Pollack can't get enough of Spain's power and the mean streak to match.
"He's probably our nastiest guy. He's the most physical guy in the room. He's heavy-handed. He puts those hands on you and he's going to stone guys with one or two hands," Pollack said. "He's played a lot of football. He's extremely bright … He's the veteran in the room that asks the questions he knows the answer to. He's really wanting me to expand on it for the rest of the room. I love veterans like that."
POLLACK REMINDED OF ANOTHER JOE: But Pollack's observation of a non-O-lineman had to be the story of the day down at Paul Brown Stadium. Pollack, whose first three seasons with the 49ers were Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana's last three with the Niners, has been looking at Burrow and reminiscing.
"He's an incredible, talented guy, but more importantly he's got an aura about him. He reminds me a lot of Montana having played with that guy, his swagger," Pollack said. "When he makes a statement guys listen to everything he says and he's deadly, man. So (the offensive line) has to do our part and give that guy all the time that he needs to make those great plays, which he's been doing. He's an outstanding athlete and really a fun guy. He's really a low-key, humble guy. He's all ball, too. It's like there's nothing else but ball. As a coach you kind of gravitate to those kind of guys. You kind of like those guys."
A-ROD ARRIVES: Of course Taylor followed the will-he-demand-a-trade-or-won't he soap opera that Rodgers staged this offseason. One of Taylor's best friends in the business, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, was in the middle of it all.
"I remember talking to LaFleur, I think, in training camp," Taylor said before practice. "He said something about, 'I don't even know when we play you guys.' I said, 'Week 5.' He said, 'How do you know that?' I said, 'Because I saw what was going on with your quarterback and I was hoping by Week 5, maybe he wouldn't be there.' He is, so we'll have to deal with him."
INJURY UPDATE: Running back Joe Mixon (ankle) didn't practice Wednesday, but Taylor is going to see how he is Friday. Remember, the last time they played the Packers four years ago, Mixon was a rookie and it was his break-out game in the third game of the year with 62 yards on 18 carries during the overtime loss in the hottest game ever at Lambeau Field.
"You'd like to see some full speed work later in the week," Taylor said. "That's the biggest thing."
There is optimism around wide receiver Tee Higgins (shoulder) and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (groin) even though they went limited. Third safety Ricardo Allen (arm) wasn't on the report in his first practice off injured reserve.