Bengaldom took a collective deep breath Saturday when quarterback Joe Burrow led his offense out of the doldrums with a 13-play touchdown drive that featured a little bit of everything that all added up to an encouraging step in his comeback.
Working against a checkerboard of first-and second-unit defenders, Burrow hit seven of nine passes that included a dart to rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase on third-and-long and a fourth-and-five 40-yard jump ball to wide receiver Tee Higgins.
The drive was helped along by a third-down penalty flag dropped by a member of referee Ron Torbert's crew working practice this week that called pass interference on strong safety Vonn Bell working against slot receiver Tyler Boyd. But the drive had to overcome a holding call on right guard Michael Jordan.
Only a few hours before Burrow had candidly discussed his slow start with the Cincinnati media, zeroing in on his unsteady play in the pocket just eight months removed from reconstructive left knee surgery impairing his lethal accuracy.
"In the team drills it's effected it for sure," Burrow said. "I just need to get back to being able to feel the people around me as opposed to seeing the people around me. I've always had a great feel for the pocket and feel for where everybody is and it's just going to take some reps to get that back. I feel great in 7-on-7, I feel great routes on air, all that good stuff. It's just the team part where I need to get that feeling back."
Saturday was one of those days he needed. After a very un-Joe week of below 50 percent passing bottoming out with Friday's two of eight, Burrow hit nine of 12. A few pops to tight end C.J. Uzomah over the middle. The frozen 10-yard rope to Chase. The nice long ball where only Higgins could make a play. A couple of flips to running back Joe Mixon near the goal line before Mixon converted on third-and one barreling over the left side.
Burrow just missed a long one to Chase down the right sideline on the next drive when it looked like Chase was expecting the ball over the inside shoulder and got it over the left instead.
"First time we've repped that play live against a defense. Thank God it's Aug. 7," said head coach Zac Taylor, who figured they didn't run that play live last year until Aug. 26. "We'll get to run that five more times. Just clean up all that stuff and get on the same page."
Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan had been waiting for Saturday. They say the installation of the offense is now done and instead of periods focused on a family of plays no matter the result, they're off script.
"Now it's just go play football. Sustain drives. Ten, 12 plays. That's what we'll start seeing next weekend," said Taylor, referencing next Saturday night's preseason opener in Tampa. "Just hearing the play in the huddle instead of (off) the script."
The big plays that keep drives alive is exactly what Callahan wanted to see. He actually called it.
"Today is going to be fun because we're going to get to move the ball. We call it and play football," Callahan said about 90 minutes before practice. "Hopefully you can get the feel of the momentum and what a big play can do for your offense and ability to score touchdowns. That's something we'll be able to see today, but that is certainly one of the points of emphasis from the spring and we continue to find ways to be explosive down the field."
And they did get one of those explosives down field they rarely got last season when Higgins launched himself over bubble cornerback Jalen Davis (having a good camp, by the way) and hauled down that 40-yarder like a rebound.
"The deep ball. Down the sideline, down the middle of the field and all the spots we're trying to take advantage of," Callahan said. "It was a focus in the spring and still is now and will be throughout the entire season. We keep finding ways to work on that because I do think our intermediate game is as good as anybody's in football."
PLAYER OF THE DAY: QB Joe Burrow
It could have been rookie edge Joseph Ossai, who had a very active day before he got verbally lambasted by everyone when he walked into Burrow on a sack.
But it had to be Burrow after the kind of week he endured. The frustration has been building. The guy just isn't used to looking like that or feeling like this. He's searching for that easy pocket presence, the very thing that made him the first pick of the decade,
"It's up there," said Burrow before practice, talking about his frustration level. "It's frustrating right now, more so just not feeling like myself. I know I've put the work in to make my knee feel good, make my body ready for the season. It's just now trusting my abilities, trusting my work, trusting everything."
He says it's not physical. It's more mental. And the only way to feel like his "old self," in the pocket is to get the reps.
"I'm throwing the ball in the right spot, getting the right checks and doing all that stuff right now," Burrow said. "It's just putting the physical and mental side back together. They're two separate things right now. Just getting that connection back is going to take reps."
Burrow says his lack of accuracy has nothing to do with tweaking his throwing motion over the offseason, where he emphasized digging in his cleats for balance. Callahan has put him under the hood and sees nothing wrong with his throwing motion or stance.
"All of that stuff has been fine. It's just a matter of occasionally there's somebody in front of him and he may not fully have confidence to step into the throw and really lean into it the way he used to," Callahan said. "That's just a product of coming back from an injury. Mechanically he looks great. The ball's coming out like it always does. It's got plenty of pop on it. It's just the pocket presence part that's taking him some time and reps to get back in the mode of playing."
No question this has been one of the most challenging weeks of Burrow's football life. Asked if there is something he's doing well, he didn't hesitate.
"No. Not particularly," he said, matter of factly. And he's not exactly working the phones.
"I just have to work through it on my own. Kind of dark mode. Not talking to anybody right now outside of football. It's just something I have to work through," Burrow said.
"Being on my own. No outside noise. Just on my own."
But he's far from down. He believes reps are all he needs. He went to the coaches and suggested more bodies around him in seven-on-seven to help him simulate traffic. Callahan responded by standing next him with an occasional wave in the face.
"It's everything, just getting more comfortable in the pocket," Burrow said. "That's the last step for me, get my pocket presence back and understand when I'm pressured and when I'm not. Just getting that whole feeling back that I've been really good at for a long time."
He knows he has to walk before he can run. The world is expecting the irrepressible swashbuckling Heisman winner Joey B right now. But he's only thinking about the Sept 13 1 p.m. opener against the Vikings at Paul Brown Stadium.
"I thought about that last night (that) I kind of have to temper my expectations of myself down a little bit so I don't get too frustrated," Burrow said. "When we get closer to Game 1, if this is still happening, then the panic button will start off. But, right now there's no panic button going on. Just got to get the reps back."
On Saturday, the only button was where he threw most of his passes.
PLAY OF THE DAY: Burrow to Chase
It's hard to say the state of the club's mind when Burrow dropped into the shotgun on third-and-long on the first offense's second series of team drills. They didn't get a first down on the first drive, which came in the wake of Friday's jarring effort they had more false starts than completions on top of a pretty punch-less first week of camp.
But leave it to Burrow and Chase, LSU's 2019 national championship connection and the Bengals' last two first-round picks. Burrow sifted an out and Chase beat cornerback Chidobe Awuzie to the sideline and stretched for a handsy grab. And that hasn't been easy to do this camp.
"Chido is playing awesome, Mike Hilton has been great for us," Burrow said of the slot corner inside Awuzie. "He's a really smart player and mixes things up really well, disguises coverages really well. We're a really smart defense right now. There's not going to be a lot of people running wide open against our defense."
Chase has had his struggles, too, early on. He's dropped some balls, including one right before team when Burrow hit him in stride running a go against air. But Chase is here for a reason and he showed why when, well, is there ever an absolute must on third down in camp? That may be as close as it gets.
"He's getting better every day. He's a smart player. He's going to listen to coaching, obviously," Burrow said. "There's going to be some rookie mistakes just like I had last year, just like everybody has. But he's getting better every day. He's not making the same mistake twice, and that's all you can ask for."
Chase is known for his diligence and after Friday's practice, wide receivers coach Troy Walters grabbed him and he ran him through the linemen chute a few times to emphasize technique. Callahan doesn't buy the notion the receivers are pressing despite some drops.
"I don't feel that from them yet. There's been opportunities in practice to make some plays that we haven't. There's also been a few times guys have made some pretty nice catches," Callahan said. "I don't feel them pressing, I just feel guys trying to get better. Ja'Marr is trying to get more comfortable, it's a lot of offense we've put in. Our installation is relatively close to done. Today was two minute installs and there's much else schematically we're going to put in.
"So now it's a chance to go through it again and get more comfortable. Those guys are doing everything we ask them to do and the plays will come. When you try to step out of yourself and do more than what's asked of you on a given play, that's when you see guys start to press, go off script and abandon technique and do things they don't normally do. I don't see that yet, so I don't feel a press from our guys yet."
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Callahan on Burrow just plain being where he is:
"To be back where he's at the time frame he's been back and being able to participate fully with the amount of work that it took to get there I think is really incredible, to be honest. When he gets to get out there in the live reps, you feel like he wants to be in a place where he's not quite at. That's where frustration can stem from.
"I think the work that he put in to get to this point where we're even having this conversation is pretty remarkable. He deserves a ton of credit for that. Trust me, there's nobody that has more faith in him than I do to be ready for when it's time to go play football."
D'ANTE GETS CALL: Offensive line coach Frank Pollack stopped rookie tackle D'Ante Smith in the hall Saturday morning and told him to get ready because he was going to be at left guard with the ones, since he was switching Michael Jordan from left to right. Smith last played guard at the Senior Bowl and before that one game as a sophomore at East Carolina.
But it was all good.
"I'm just thinking, 'Let's go play,' Smith said. "The big thing was getting the technique down. And it's a lot faster in there."
Smith's versatility at the Senior Bowl is one of the reasons the Bengals went into the fourth round of the draft coveting him even though there wasn't much game tape on him because he opted after last year's opener. But the 6-5, 305-pound Smith has an NFL body complete with 35-inch arms and he didn't let 2020 get him down. He went through three different summer quarantines and played that opener at just 283 pounds before opting out of the season and choosing to stay with his team to get ready for the Senior Bowl,.
Maybe he's not that much of a project after all. When right tackle Riley Reiff (ankle) missed a few days and with swing tackle Fred Johnson (quad) still out, Smith raised some eyebrows when he played for them.
"D'Ante has shown a lot of promise," Taylor said. "He's got a high football IQ. He wants to do it and give him an opportunity and see what fits and what he can do for us."
Second-rounder Jackson Carman had been running at right guard with the ones for a few days until Saturday. He had two false starts on Friday, but Callahan isn't ready to ice him.
"Jackson's a young player, and he's learning every day. He's making plenty of mistakes. But he's learning from them, and the goal is to not make them again," Callahan said. "He had a little cadence issue. When you jump offsides a couple times in a third-down period, it's frustrating and it looks bad. But that's the first time he's really seen Joe use his cadence. And Joe is one of the best at using his cadence in the league."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: With Trey Hendrickson getting a rest Saturday, Ossai was all over the place with the first team on the right edge. He made some nice stops in the running game and also had some nice rushes against left tackle Jonah Williams in one-on-one. He also had an unblocked sack of Burrow, which didn't win him any friends because it happened so quickly it looked like Ossai committed the cardinal sin of this camp and ran into Burrow in the pocket.
Ossai got screamed at by mostly everybody and vet nose tackle D.J. Reader led him off the field by the arm, no doubt telling him the facts of life.
"In the moment," Taylor said of the reaction to Ossai. "That's not how we want to practice. Young guys just have to learn that some time. He's a great guy … That's why you need your veteran guys. Young guys are going to get their tails ripped a little bit and sometimes it's for those veterans to talk them off the ledge."
Maybe Burrow didn't mind.
"I think I take that first hit and I'm right back at it," Burrow had said before practice. "That's how I feel right now. Just have to get back to playing football."
The thing is, Taylor knew Ossai was having an impressive day.
"I've only seen him improve," Taylor said. "He's like D'Ante Smith. He wants to be good. He soaks it all in. It's important to him. He's getting a lot of reps and you can see his potential rising."
Tight end Thaddeus Moss won the tiebreaker in the five one-on-one matchups over the last two days when he caught a touchdown working against safety Kavon Frazier. The defense had to do some up-downs after they failed to talk the refs into offensive interference.
Presented by Gatorade, check out some of the top images from Day 10 of Bengals Training Camp 2021.