Burrow, Bengals Sizzle With Change As Pads Beckon

Sam Hubbard on the move Monday.
Sam Hubbard on the move Monday.

First things first.

Yes, Joe Burrow can sling the ball. And he did it at will Monday in the last practice before the Bengals don pads for the first time in the decade on Tuesday morning.

Second, it looks like A.J. Green is going to be just fine. At some point late in Monday practice's Green tweaked something. Maybe a hammy. Nobody was saying, but indications were Green planned to practice Tuesday after head coach Zac Taylor pulled him out early following a few crisp hookups over the middle from Burrow.

Thirdly, the Bengals look way different these days even without Burrow in the conversation. The middle of their offensive line is massive and anchored in more ways than one, while the heart of their defense is seasoned and salty.

Right end Sam Hubbard had to smile during Monday's workout in helmets, shorts and shells when he glanced down the sideline to his new linemate and heard nine-year defensive tackle Mike Daniels just unleash a verbal assault on a young offensive lineman. For a defense that has struggled to find its way the past few years, it wasn't a breath of fresh air, but rather a much needed stream of steam.

"We love his attitude and the way he brings that competitiveness and that edge to our defensive line," Hubbard said. "We saw him on the first walkthrough, Day One, just being physical and getting after guys. I was really impressed with him. I'm really happy he's a part of our unit."

And then Hubbard just had to look behind him and see an old college teammate. If Daniels is bringing the salt, he knows former Saints free safety Vonn Bell is bringing some hot sauce. He can tell already.

"He's ultra-competitive, first of all," Hubbard said. "Every day out there he's talking to the offense, talking to the defense, getting everybody ready to get after it. He carries that into the meeting room and every aspect of his football character. He's just hungry and physical. What he brings to the back end, I think it's contagious. You can already see it in just three full speed practices. Guys making plays on the ball and everyone being held accountable."

Hubbard is a good place to start Monday in this very different Bengaldom.

Heading into his third season as the sack leader of the 2018 draft class with 14.5, he has seen much of the hard times of a defense that has allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL the past three seasons. But during an offseason he moved back from Miami to Cincinnati for the pandemic, he also saw the Bengals drop a load of money and draft picks on each tier of the defense.

Not only that, one of his close friends long before this all began is Burrow, another buddy from Ohio State and now his neighbor on Cincinnati's leafy east side.

"He's really impressed a lot of guys with how he's walking around the building, his demeanor, how he's carrying himself, how he feels the sense of urgency to be a leader of the offense," Hubbard said. "I think everyone's been impressed with how he communicates, how he understands the offense. Because when the (first-team) offense goes out there, it's a challenge. They're running on all cylinders. That's not something you'd expect to see with a rookie quarterback."

But, and this is maybe what Hubbard likes best about him is this is the same guy that took the scout team snaps in Columbus.

"He hasn't changed at all. He has the same mentality as he was as a third-string back-up at Ohio State as a freshman," Hubbard said. "Still fighting every day to get on the field and get his name known. He takes that mentality and level-headedness of where he's been to where he's at now."

This was Burrow on Monday, getting them in and out of the huddle like he'd been doing it for the last couple of Augusts. And that's not as easy as it looks considering he won the Heisman without a huddle at LSU. Or consider the huddles left guard Michael Jordan remembered at Ohio State when on Monday he saw a defender jump at Burrow's bark.

"It's totally different from way back then," Jordan said. "I just remember guys like (center) Pat Elflein, coach (Urban) Meyer, constantly yelling at Joe to be more demonstrative when calling the cadence, and now everything is crystal clear. He's getting our guys on defense to jump offside with hard counts, and I love it."

Burrow hit his first four passes in 11 on 11 before pressure caused him to overthrow wide receiver Mike Thomas. He didn't miss one in a seven-on-seven and kept finding completions even though his receivers keep dropping like flies. By the end of Monday, he didn't have three of his top four (Green, John Ross III, Tee Higgins) and although he'll have them soon enough it was as if he'd been finding wide receiver Tyler Boyd for years. And he saw Thomas, too.

That's just not the only thing that's new. Xavier Su'a-Filo, the new right guard whose last of his 53 starts came in front of quarterback Dak Prescott in Dallas, brings a rather stately presence to an offensive line that has been adrift in injuries and transition the past several years. The man knows something about rookie quarterbacks. He was Deshaun Watson's guard in Houston when he made that first start at Paul Brown Stadium in 2017.

"Pretty impressed. To be honest, sometimes I forget he's a rookie," Su'a-Filo said of Burrow. "He carries himself real well, and the biggest thing I think for young players is confidence and I've been really impressed with that, not just with Joe but for the rookies in general."

Jordan took a look at his line in front of Burrow Monday and heard the changes sizzling.

"I feel like we're electric," Jordan said. "Having veteran guys like Xavier come in, he's been really helpful improving my game. I try to learn as much as possible from him and all the older guys in the room. Like Bobby Hart, Trey Hopkins, Billy Price. Having those guys help with those other guys does a whole lot for our team."

The 6-6 Jordan, who has lost his 21-year-old rookie baby fat, has fit nicely under Su'a-Filo's wing. He's tipping the scales at a very solid 320 pounds after a huge offseason in Miami at Pete Bommarito's celebrated gym before transferring to Ryan Patrick at Northern Kentucky's PeakFAST.

It all has offensive line coach Jim Turner head over heels. Turner loves his guards huge and now with the 6-4, 310-pound Su'a-Filo, well, he can't wait. But Su'a-Filo is here for as much his sagacity as his size.

Before he became the first pick in the 2014 second round by the Texans, he played at UCLA and got to know Steve Radicevic, then the Bruins director of football operations. Radicevic, now the Bengals' director of pro scouting, remembered that he was not only a top player, but a great teammate and guy, too.

You saw it on the field Monday during breaks in positional drills, where he could be spotted putting his hands on first-year left tackle Jonah Williams and walking him through a tip. Jordan says Su'a-Filo has "wisdom."

"The only way we get better really on the O-line is helping out the younger guys, too, and I've been fortunate to have a lot of veterans help me over the years," Su'a-Filo. "So, just try to share it forward."

He says he likes the old school Turner and the physical game he espouses and now maybe this line is growing up. Su'a-Filo, 29, and center Trey Hopkins, 28, are the clear leaders, but Jordan also has kind words for how right tackle Bobby Hart helped him last year.

Early last season Jordan ran into what Turner has called a "rookie wall." A nagging knee injury didn't help and Turner put Jordan on the bench in the hopes he would sit back a bit and learn. It worked. When Jordan returned in the last month, the Bengals were a top ten running team, running back Joe Mixon got his 1,000 yards and Jordan was a big reason why.

"When I was sitting on the bench I was really thinking about being a professional all the time. Bobby Hart taught me about that," Jordan said. "When you're out in practice and on the field, you have to go out and perform. When you're going through walkthroughs, perfect the steps. When you're on your own you have to watch film and you have to take care of your body whether it's getting massages, cold tub or therapy. Whatever you have to do to take care of yourself. That's what I was doing last year because I had a little bit of a nagging injury the whole year, but once I started becoming a professional everything changed for me."

A different Bengaldom. Hubbard was talking about his defense in year two under coordinator Lou Anarumo. But he could have been talking about a team in year two under Taylor now led by a rookie-veteran quarterback.

"I'd say it's a big difference just because there's a lot better communication and understanding of what our defense should look like," Hubbard said, "what everyone's responsibilities are and a lot of things that we went through the first year have been ironed out."