If Joe Burrow acted like he had been there before, it's because he had.
In fact, his could-have-should-have-would-have storybook drive at the end of his debut was headed into the same end zone where in recent weeks the Bengals conducted their two situational practices inside Paul Brown Stadium.
In practices chaired by assistant wide receivers coach Troy Walters, the man head coach Zac Taylor has put in charge of situations, the Bengals mirrored pretty much what Burrow had Sunday in the 16-13 Opening Day loss to the Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium. They went through many other scenarios with Walters calling out the situations while his image was displayed on the scoreboard.
And they spent a lot of time with Burrow in the red zone and the clock getting near 10 seconds with no timeouts and then again with a timeout. And needing a field goal. Or practicing it again needing a touchdown.
On Sunday, they wanted a touchdown to win but needed a field goal with seven seconds left from the 13 to tie. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan knew that one more shot into the end zone would just be too risky. The numbers had already told them that weeks ago when they crunched the analytics, but then there was also NFL reality at work, too.
"Ultimately the end of the game with seven seconds left from the 13-yard line is right up against when you would ever attempt another play," Callahan said. "It takes about six seconds to run a play. That is assuming snap to whistle and nothing else happens besides the quarterback receiving the ball and throwing it. And you have to get into the end zone from the 13-yard line, you are pushed to the brink. That is really, really tight and probably not one that would happen very often anywhere in the league with seven seconds left from the 13."
Maybe if there had been one more tick. Maybe. Remember, they would need time to get the field goal team on the field.
"Eight (seconds) would probably be one you would have to consider. Again that would be pretty tight," Callahan said. "The issue is whenever you have that amount of time left your margin for error is almost nothing. So if anything goes wrong in terms of protection breakdown, receiver not open, quarterback has to hold the ball for a second because he is trying to let a play develop from the 13-yard line, that is pushing it. You'd be sick if something happened and you didn't get a chance to kick a field goal to tie the game in that particular instance."
The only way you could get sicker is the field-goal kicker injuring himself missing the tying field goal.
BULLOCK LIMITED; PRICE GETS CALL AGAIN: Which, of course, is what happened. The Bengals may have dodged a bullet when Taylor said Monday it looked like the Bengals wouldn't have to chase a kicker outside the building in time for Thursday night's game (8:20 p.m.-NFL Network) in Cleveland. Right now. Given the pandemic protocols, the first time the new kicker would work with the Bengals would probably be in pregame warm-ups.
But Randy Bullock was listed as limited with the injury to his "calves." He said as he missed the 31-yard field goal that his left calf grabbed. It sounds like he may have suffered cramps in both calves.
Although the Bengals are pretty much confined to just walkthroughs this week because the game is so close, an injury report was released Monday as an estimate and defensive tackle Geno Atkins (shoulder) and safety Shawn Williams (calf) wouldn't have gone after they were inactive Sunday. One option is they could give them what amounts to an extra 10 days between the Cleveland game and Sept. 27 game in Philadelphia.
Also out was defensive tackle Mike Daniels (groin), who gamely struggled through nearly half the snaps on Sunday after missing a day of practice during the week and then being called on for heavy duty when nose tackle D.J. Reader went out for two series with leg cramps. But Reader returned and isn't on the report.
Billy Price (ankle) turned up on the report, but he would have gone full and he'll have to at right guard in Cleveland. Taylor said Xavier S'ua-Filo (ankle), the man Price replaced, is going to miss a few weeks.
Cornerback LeShaun Sims, inactive Sunday, would have gone full Monday.
BURROW WORLD: Taylor, Callahan and quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher combed the LSU tape that Burrow lit on fire with 60 touchdown passes last season and tried to marry what he did best with the Bengals system.
So the empty backfield look of five wide receivers appears to be here to say. It's a formation in which Burrow looked so comfortable in winning the Heisman Trophy with the best season ever by a college quarterback. It's not exactly an NFL staple. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Bengals ran that formation once last year.
But they used it an estimated 11 times out of their 67 snaps on Sunday. Imagine that in an effort to keep Green rested and healthy wide receivers John Ross and Tyler Boyd took more snaps than Green's 45. The deep corps of receivers is another reason why they're using it.
The fives wides also cut into the Bengals' use of three-receiver sets, which according to Sharp was an NFL-leading 76 percent of the time last year. On Sunday the three-receiver group took an estimated 66 percent of the snaps.
The Bengals like five wides because not only do they have seven good wide receivers, but Burrow has such vision and rhythm when he's back there with five options to choose from and the defense stretching and stressing. But the down side, as Callahan says, is it offers merely a five-man protection with five receivers running routes. Which means the quarterback is exposed.
Like Burrow on Sunday, when two of the Chargers' three sacks came against the empty look. But it also made some plays for them.
"I think we got a really good group of receivers and you put those guys on the field and a defense has to determine how they're going to cover it and who's going to cover who, and so somewhere there's going to be a mismatch," Callahan said. "And somewhere someone should be open.
"And there's a time and a place for that, and sometimes it has moments where it struggles but overall I thought it was pretty effective, especially late in the game there. Part of being in five-wide is you spread everything out, and it makes it really easy for the quarterback to see everything. And so there's an advantage there too. And I don't think you can live in that all day long, all game long and kind of snap-to-snap basis but there's places for it, and it can be very effective."
You can see why Burrow likes it. He checked to a quarterback draw out of an empty set for his first NFL touchdown, a 23-yard run up the middle. He seemed to be able to find wide receiver A.J. Green pretty easily in the five wides. Burrow got him for two first downs, one on his longest catch of the day, a 14-yarder.
And Green should have had a 31-yard touchdown out of empty when he fried a linebacker down the middle, but Burrow overthrow him.
Burrow started that last drive with three empty looks and moved the chains before going back to it on the next to last snap, when he hit Bernard for that huge 10-yarder that put the ball at the 3.
There are seven reasons why Taylor likes to five wides, although tight end C.J. Uzomah (four catches for 45 yards) showed why they don't mind using him in the set.
"You have A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, John Ross, Mike Thomas, Auden Tate, Alex Erickson - you want to get those guys on the field," Taylor said. "There are a lot of weapons that we've got. You can put them on the field at the same time at the receiving group. We've got weapons all over the place. It's just a package we can utilize at certain points."
The Bengals used double tight ends an estimated 10 times Sunday, good for about 15 percent, right about what Sharp had them last season at 18 percent.
GREENING OF CALLAHAN: Callahan finally got a chance to coach a game with Green and he says it was worth the wait. Like Bengals radio voice Dan Hoard said, Green easily could have finished with seven catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns if the flag stays in the pocket and Burrow hits him in stride. Still, five catches for 51 yards after not having a catch in the last 24 games were plenty good enough.
"I was very excited to have him, and I thought he lived up to what I thought he would be," Callahan said. "He had moments where he showed you he's still one of the best in the league. The more he gets out there and plays and the more he feels like he's getting in shape so he's playing at the speed he wants to play at, he's going to be helpful to our offense. And he showed all the reasons why he is that yesterday."
BATES DELIVERS: The Bengals best defensive player Sunday may very well have been free safety Jessie Bates III. Showing the range they were banking on when they took him in the second round in 2018, Bates ran across the field to scale massive Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams and break up a long pass with perfect timing.
He also made a huge third-down play in the end zone on touchdown maker Hunter Henry when he broke up a pass headed his way with the help of Carlos Dunlap's great pressure on quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Stopping the Chargers inside the 5 and holding them to a field goal with nine minutes left gave them a shot to win the game.
Bates is one of the many guys who are looking much more comfortable in year two of defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's scheme.
"It's just a fact of being in the system for two years. It may look different because we're reacting faster and there's a few things that we make adjustments on every week when we struggled last year, where we try to eliminate that," Bates said. "I don't think there's a lot of different things that we're doing, I just think a lot of guys are playing really fast and being able to communicate really well."
Bates plans to appeal the fine coming from his unnecessary roughness penalty for belting Williams' shoulder on another play. And they picked up another roughness flag on him later in the game.
"I did not agree with either one. I'm not going to say much about it," Bates said. "Hopefully, I'm going to get on the phone here soon and I'm probably going to have to appeal it at some point. I think the first one, I hit him right on the shoulder. I felt like it was a very clean play. The second one, I was shooting for his thighs and he kind of put his head down. I called my agent right after, and he's going to make sure we appeal it."
KID BACKERS SURFACE: It was the NFL debut for Joe Burrow and Jonah Williams and Tee Higgins and all that, but it was also the debut for rookie linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Logan Wilson and it looks like they held up in the nickel package playing together at times. Wilson played 22 snaps and Davis-Gaither 20.
"I think they have a bright future," Bates said. "There's just a different type of confidence and calls and stuff like that with Josh Bynes being in there, just because of experience. My first game as a rookie, I wouldn't be up there making checks and stuff like that. So, I give a lot of credit to those guys. I talked to them in the locker room today. I was very impressed with them two being on the field at the same time with no veteran guys (at linebacker) with them. A lot of props to them.
"I think they both kind of worked with each other with checking the fronts whether we're in dime formation and stuff like that. I don't care who makes the check as long as they get it right, and I think they did that"
Don't kid yourself. Bates has barely missed a snap in his three NFL seasons. He could make the calls back then. That's why they picked him.
"I probably could," Bates smiled when pressed. "I'm just giving them a little bit more love. I think they've done a hell of a job."