There's no question what we've witnessed in the past two games is the coming out party of the next Bengals star.
As he heads into Sunday's game in Philadelphia (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), rookie quarterback Joe Burrow has led the Bengals to 46 points, a number not hit by the Big Four (Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton) in their first two starts. But only Anderson came out winless like Burrow.
That's because while Burrow has the second most completions in the league, he's dead last at 5.3 yards per throw and everyone knows the down-field ball has to be the next step. After playing two soft defenses that took away the long ball, wide receiver A.J. Green went back-to-back games without a catch longer than 15 yards for just the second time in his nine seasons.
Before Wednesday's practice, Taylor vowed the big plays are coming. The only play longer than 19 yards is injured tight end C.J. Uzomah's 23-yard touchdown catch for a league-low of one 20-yarder.
"Really close. And again. A.J. has probably had four practices leading up to that last game," Taylor said. "It will be good for anybody, whether you're an All-Pro player or not, to be able to get on the field, get that rhythm and communication with the quarterback. We're only going to improve in that area. I can promise you that. Those guys are doing a great job of addressing it.
"I care about the points. We've just got to score points and take advantage of our opportunities. Again, if a team is going to play soft, soft coverage and you're going to take five-yard completions, then your average is maybe going to be a little lower. We stress about the points and taking care of the football."
Burrow has addressed it by saying the big play is his biggest emphasis of the week.
"Two weeks into the season," he said, "we are just going to have to get it right."
While the Eagles are more likely to play eight men in a box than the Chargers and Browns, they aren't giving up big passes. None longer than a 28-yard touchdown of the seven 20-plus-yarders they've allowed. Maybe the most disturbing thing about those soft coverages is the Bengals running game couldn't make them pay. Running back Joe Mixon has averaged just 3.3 yards per his first 35 carries of the season into those zones.
Taylor agreed it is chicken and egg. What comes first? Big pass plays or a consistent run game?
"We've got to be more efficient running the ball when we call the runs," Taylor said. "And you can make excuses for reasons why those runs didn't pop, but the bottom line is we got to get 11 guys on the same page to win their jobs to the best of their abilities so we can help our backs. I expect improvement there."
BURROW COMFORTABLE: Burrow says the offense took strides from week one and despite the invisible vertical game, he feels "super comfortable," back there surveying the options. Taylor thought how he handled the Browns' pass rush was a step up from the opener and believes his down-field vision is fine.
"Joe has done a really nice job going where he needs to go with the football. Of course it's not perfect, there's things to clean up," Taylor said. "One thing we talked about, taking a sack on first down on a naked, those are things that we've got to avoid and sometimes you've got to learn your lesson once. But I trust there's mistakes that he'll make that he won't make again and that's what you love about him."
For his part, Burrow says he won't stop trying to make something out of nothing.
"I'm going to try to extend plays and make plays down-the-field," Burrow said. "There was one play last week I should have thrown the ball away and one the week before where I should have thrown the ball away. If I can get those plays right and not take those sacks or turnovers, that's kind of the next step for me."
KEEPING JOE SAFE: Center Trey Hopkins doesn't back away at all from it. Yes, there's a lot of heat on his line to protect Burrow. But not from you or I or the network blazers.
Try taking the heat from themselves. They like this guy. They know what he means to the team and the town. That's pressure.
"There's a lot of people watching Joe Burrow this year. There's a lot of people, and rightfully so -- he's special," Hopkins said. "And so the pressure isn't from the outside, the pressure is from inside. We want to protect our guy, because we know he can do big things for us, he has done big things.
"He's come in from day one and been a huge leader for us. He's been a brother in the locker room. He's been the guy, and he's going to continue to improve his game. He's going to lead to a lot of a lot of wins around here, and so the pressure is internally wanting to hold your guy up, keep him clean, and do your part for the team."
And now for a perspective from the other locker room, where Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has had Carson Wentz since his second season after he was the No. 2 overall pick. Since then Wentz came within an ACL tear of being NFL MVP, has broken his back and suffered a concussion. So Pederson knows something about trying to protect young franchise quarterbacks.
"You've got to be careful. You've got keep coaching these guys, because sometimes they feel like they might be invincible and they can take all the shots and bounce right back up," Pederson in a conference call with Cincinnati reporters Wednesday. "But it's a long season. The success of the team obviously goes through the quarterback position and the Bengals are in that same spot. You just got to keep talking with your quarterbacks. We had to do that with Carson at an early age. We're into Year Five and still having those conversations. It's going to be ongoing. It's just lessons these guys sometimes will learn the hard way. But for the most part, they'll do what's right. They'll do what's best for the team."
SMALL WORLD, PART III: In the opener, Burrow was opposed by Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, a guy that coached with Burrow's father 16 years ago in North Dakota. In Cleveland, Taylor was opposed by his college head coach, Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan, father of Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan.
Now on the other side in Philly is Press Taylor, Pederson's passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach who also happens to be Zac Taylor's younger brother.
It turns out that Pederson also knows NFL kick return leader and Bengals safety Brandon Wilson from coaching high school in Shreveport Louisiana, where he coached Wilson's older brother and where Pederson's son played with Wilson in middle school.
"I have a little connection with him. But he's a heck of a player. He plays safety, linebacker-type on defense," Pederson said.
He promoted Taylor to a coordinator this past year because he's smart, well-versed in the offense and works hard with the memory of an elephant.
"So his brother wouldn't take him," said Pederson, who may not have been joking.
INJURY UPDATE: Wilson didn't work Wednesday because of personal issues. Left end Carlos Dunlap had a rest day. But unease remains at defensive tackle, where Geno Atkins (shoulder) and Mike Daniels (groin) didn't practice Wednesday. Taylor has them day-to-day and so is the Bengals run defense.
With Atkins missing the first two games, they are 30th in rushing. When they were both out Thursday night, the Browns racked up their first 200-yard rushing day against the Bengals in 13 years.
It never stops. Christian Covington, who got the start Thursday night in place of Atkins, went full Wednesday but appeared on the injury report with a biceps issue.
Safety Shawn Williams (calf) looks ready to make his 2020 debut after going limited Wednesday.
STATE OF TATE: The agent for wide receiver Auden Tate was miffed his client was inactive in Cleveland and said so publicly the day after the game as Tate seeks his first catch of the season. Taylor remains a big fan, but when you need to dress as many defensive tackles as you can and Tate isn't as much of a factor on special teams as are fellow wide receivers Mike Thomas and Alex Erickson, somebody has to be the seventh wide receiver. But the Bengals don't plan to bury him. Taylor made clear Wednesday Tate is going to play.
"Auden's the man. It has nothing to do with Auden, so I'm not even going to address it," Taylor said. "Auden is all about this team. He approaches things the right way and you hate that he's put in a tough position like that, because all he does is respond the right way and is a total team player. I love that we have Auden on this football team."