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Bengals Notebook: Evolution Of Offense Aims For Balanced Burrow; Center Of Cadence; Tee Tips Hat To Jackpot Joey

Zac Taylor and his offensive staff did offseason homework.
Zac Taylor and his offensive staff did offseason homework.

When Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan offered Thursday's debriefing about what took place on Opening Day, he made it clear what you saw is what you're going to get the rest of the way.

"It's part of our identity," Callahan said after practice as he elaborated on the attempt to become more balanced with the running game.

They self-scout every offseason and the 27-24 overtime victory over Minnesota showed how hard they studied and innovated to try and get better marrying the pass to the run and opening up quarterback Joe Burrow's lethal play action game.

Callahan, the eyes and ears of head coach Zac Taylor in the intricacies of the playbook, said the heavy emphasis of snaps from under center reflected an offseason of study as well as the hiring of offensive line coach Frank Pollack.

For the first time in his life last Sunday, Burrow worked under center more than he did out of the shot gun formation and for the first time in 11 NFL games he threw less than 30 passes (27) while racking up his best passer rating (128.8).

Callahan's not saying they're ditching the pass. But after going 2-10 in AFC North games throwing nearly more than 100 passes than runs (412-318), they've recalibrated and that was clear against Mike Zimmer's Vikings, an honorary member of the AFC North. In the past two seasons with their No. 1 quarterbacks the Bengals have never thrown fewer than 30 passes in a division game.

"There is a part of playing football, especially in the AFC North, where you have to be able to be efficient in the run game because you play so many good pass rushers and so may good defenses that if you can't run the ball and keep yourself in makeable down and distances with runs that are efficient, you're going to put yourself in harm's way," Callahan said after Thursday's practice.

"When you have to drop back 50, 60 times a game, that's not necessarily sustainable in our division. There's a place for balance … It doesn't mean you have to run the ball great. To be a great play-action team, you certainly have to do it. And the play-action always has more teeth when it's under center. After looking at all those things in the offseason and Frank coming in as the starting point, what he wanted to get done in the run game matches really well with what we want to do in the pass game."

The most visible change is putting Burrow under center 53 percent of the time last Sunday compared to about 20 percent last season. That set him up to throw play action passes (he sifted 7 of 9 for 96 yards on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus) a third of the time.

When Pollack returned to work with Callahan and Taylor after he was the line coach here in Marvin Lewis' last season in 2018, the Bengals turned to one of the NFL's most respected purveyors of the wide zone. Taylor knew he was organically changing his run game and made Pollack the run game coordinator.

"It's hard to run the ball in the wide zone without (going under center) and we're a wide zone team," Callahan said. "You have the (running) back tied in with the front and his footwork and the way the line moves, all those things, they're more effective and efficient under center. Your screens, your play actions and keepers.

"Not that you can't be in the gun and not that you can't be efficient in the gun running the ball. But to be where we want to be, under center is part of our identity. I've always believed the wide zone is an under center system that focuses on all the things that can go along with it and that you build off of. The starting point is you have to be able to hand off under center in the wide zone to make sure everybody is in phase in the run game."

Running back Joe Mixon, one of Pollack's biggest supporters, has made no bones about loving the wide zone. After becoming the first Bengal to win an AFC rushing title under Pollack in 2018 with 4.9 yards per carry, he was the NFL's leading rusher with 127 yards on Opening Day. In his last five games with Pollack, he has four 100-yard games.

SILENT COUNT TIME: Burrow plays his first NFL game with the silent count Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) at Chicago's Soldier Field and he's got an old pro at center in Trey Hopkins. And there's really no way to practice it. All Hopkins has to do is look across the way and see old friend Andy Dalton starting at quarterback for the Bears.

"When Andy was the quarterback here, I had never done it until I had to do it at practice," Hopkins said before Thursday's practice. "It's just something that gets simulated through the speakers out on the practice field. Obviously, that's not the same. But it's just getting used to the mechanics of having to do the head bobs or whatever you want to do. That's pretty much how you simulate it in all the same team situations you would have in a normal practice. Just make it off of cadence.

"You really just have to be dialed in and have your utmost focus. It's going to be loud. There's going to be a lot of distractions just have to when we really just have to be dialed in to focus on the stuff."

ANOTHER RETURN: Like Burrow, Hopkins came back from the grind of an ACL rehab last Sunday and there is no rest for the offensive line's Nerve Center. Bears Pro Bowler Akiem Hicks lines up all over the place and Hopkins figures to get him after the Vikings lined up the monstrous Michael Pierce over him almost every snap. Hopkins sees no difference between Hicks and Pro Bowl pass rusher Khalil Mack. All the Bears, he says, are explosive,

"(Hicks) is tall (6-4), long, extremely strong, extremely powerful (352 pounds). That pretty much sums up the last time we were playing them, too," Hopkins said. "I remember getting a big swat, I think it was like play two in the preseason in like 2018 or something, going against him. But yeah, just huge, strong, powerful guy. You've really got to be on your stuff when you play him because he's also relentless as you can see. I mean, he plays through the whistle, and it's going to be a fight for sure."

The always stand-up Hopkins didn't put his struggles against the Vikings on being rusty or his knee.

"I will blame a lot of my mess-ups in the game on just technique," Hopkins said. "Just getting away from my technique and just abandoning some stuff that I really know better than to do. And I just got away from it a couple spots I would say."

Also like Burrow, he said his knee was sore on Monday but that it feels better now. He wasn't on Thursday's injury report. But he did have a major scare on Sunday when the line let Burrow take a shot on third down and he limped off the field only to return without missing a snap.

"Terrifying. It was just like, 'Oh no.' You hate to see that," Hopkins said. "Especially for Joe. Knowing what it's like having to come back from an ACL and what you have to do to push through to even be on the field right now. It's just like, 'No.' Especially not to Joe."

FASHION PLATE: Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins was quite the fashion plate during his media availability before Thursday's practice. Wearing a ball cap featuring Burrow's No. 9, Higgins said he plans to change his number from 85 to 5 next season.

"When we come in from practice, this guy is always waiting with some 'Jackpot Joey' gear and I like trucker hats," Higgins said. "So I was like, 'Can I get that hat?' And he was like 'Sure, man.' And then he gave me some stuff for me and my mom. I've got to represent my boy Joe. 'Jackpot Joey' I mean."

Higgins went down with cramps in the second half Sunday, but he still played 74 percent of the snaps and ended up as their second-leading receiver with four catches for 58 yards and a touchdown catch.

"I haven't cramped like that since high school. I just felt I got off my routine last week and this week, I'm back on it," Higgins said of the fluid intake. "I asked the trainers to put the game on in the locker room so I can see what's going on. I was like, 'Man, I've got to get back out there.' So I got back out there. It felt great. Obviously, calves are still sore. But I still went out there and helped my team get a W."

Higgins also wasn't on Thursday's injury report.