You have to hand it to Joe Burrow. Ever since he hefted the national title crystal and hoisted the Heisman, he has been in the habit of meeting the moment. Even in the steamy dog days of his second NFL training camp.
Take about three weeks ago when he opened camp with a spate of unsteady play in the pocket on his reconstructed left knee. Immediately after he went public with his concerns of finding "my old self," he did with a series of swashbuckling Seamless Joe workouts that showed what made him the first pick of the 2020s.
"The moment where I feel like he was himself again, I think it might've been last week going into that second preseason game. It was when we (were) in the high red zone and in 7-on-7," said wide receiver Tyler Boyd earlier this week. "He scrambled one way, I think it was right and I think he planted on his bad knee and reversed and scrambled out. He was moving.
"That's when it hit me. 'He feels more comfortable. I feel like he's about ready.' He was a little worried. I've messed my knee up and when you're cutting and putting your foot in the ground, it feels like you're just going to fall over … For him to finally feel free just running and bursting, let me know I feel he was cool."
And there was Wednesday. After head coach Zac Taylor told the world what Burrow knew for weeks, that he would play in Sunday's preseason finale (4 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Dolphins at Paul Brown Stadium, Seamless Joe just may have had his most impeccable practice yet in a fully padded grind. With the defense teed up for a third-down team period of stunts and blitzes, Burrow knew they couldn't touch him and his orange No. 9.
But bodies were flying in his face and the knee could see traffic like the ubiquitous 305-pound tackle Larry Ogunjobi and Burrow was stepping up and into the pocket, hitting his first eight passes on a buffet tray of treats.
A play-action rip from the pocket to slot receiver Tyler Boyd down the seam. A step up flip away from pressure to running back Joe Mixon in the flat. A nervy last-instant shot to wide receiver Tee Higgins on shallow cross.
It was the kind of day where even a low moment had a high. On the same play cornerback Trae Waynes appeared to pull a hamstring covering Higgins, rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase had time to run what was probably the best route of his brief NFL career and shook loose from camp nemesis Chidobe Awuzie for a wide-open 20-yard chunk breaking to the left sideline.
Stack that day on top of Monday's laser connections to Higgins on a deep ball and a red-zone fade despite blanket coverage and there is a sense around the offense is moving on from simply encouraging. If it looked Burrow emphasized one big step into Monday's deep post to Higgins, he did.
"I think Joe looks really good in the pocket. He knows a big part of that play is you've got to buy some time," said head coach Zac Taylor before Wednesday's practice. "It is a sound protection. It is an eight-man protection. At the same time it takes a while to get down the field on that particular play that you guys saw. And so he did a nice job pushing up and making a great throw.
"And Tee, that was a great route by Tee. Really, being at the mark he needed to be, going up and really making a play in somewhat traffic there. He had to pull through some contact."
After Wednesday's work, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan could see the result of the month-long slog of installation.
"The best practices are where the ball never hits the ground and we were close to that today," Callahan said. "That's the standard we're trying for. They're flying around, they're playing fast and they're playing with confidence. In particular Joe.
"Guys are executing. Everything has been in. We've got a lot of reps in on a lot stuff we like that we figure we're going to be good at this year. Guys are starting to pick up details that have been sharpened over the last week. It's really good to see. Were kind of ramping up to where we need to be for the regular season."
PLAYER OF THE DAY: QB Joe Burrow
Another coveted Bengals.com Player of the Day to book-end the Heisman. He hit eight of nine passes in team and the best pass of the day just might have been the last one that was a miss.
Higgins couldn't get loose on the sideline on a deep out and Burrow had no place to put it but where he did, lofting it high and over Higgins' head. Tough play, but Higgins was able to get his hands on it because Burrow gave him a shot.
You can talk about Burrow's nerve and swaggy pocket presence and pre-snap acumen and locker-room leadership. But you have to start with his accuracy.
It's interesting that both he and Callahan used the word "standard," on Wednesday. It's one thing to hear Taylor say it, but another when it becomes a theme.
"Talking to the offense the last two, three, four practices are the standard around here now," Burrow said. "We know what we can do. We know the kind of practices we can have, the kind of plays we can have. We have to come out every practice now and do what we did today and the last few days. We have no excuses coming out here and not perform that way anymore."
PLAY OF THE DAY: WR Ja'Marr Chase
If we were giving out a Defensive Player Of Camp, new cornerback Chidobe Awuzie just may be the leader in the clubhouse heading into Thursday's last full workout of the preseason. Although Ogunjobi is making up for lost time.
Many of Awuzie's plays have come against the rookie Chase in what has been a learning camp for the draft's fifth pick. After not playing for a year in the wake of being named the nation's best receiver at LSU and then stepping into the highest level in a new scheme, Chase has had his share of struggles against the fundamentally-sound Awuzie and his five years of seasoning.
But on Wednesday Chase ran what Callahan called "a shake route," and that's exactly what he did. It was such a good pattern that even before he caught the ball, the offense erupted as they saw Chase get huge separation on Awuzie.
"In terms of the details and making progress in that way, his arrow has been up," said Taylor, a few hours before Chase shook. "I think he's getting used to the play of speed at this level, a lot of the nuances of the offense is really slowing down for him. Now it's just putting it all together. So pleased with the day he had (Monday). We had a great day in the red zone, he was a big part of that. We're going to keep feeding the rock and letting him continue to progress, and I'm excited about what his potential is."
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Head coach Zac Taylor on the safety of plays he'll call Sunday when Joe Burrow is in the game:
"I can be as smart as I can possibly do with the play calls and what will be options for him."
O-LINE LINEUP: Taylor won't say if Sunday's starting offensive line is his Opening Day offensive line, but it sure seems like it because he said it is going to play only as long as Burrow plays. That means in center Trey Hopkins' 2021 debut, he's going to be flanked by veteran guards Xavier Su'a-Filo on the right and Quinton Spain on the left.
It seems like they're letting the young guards develop instead of wedging them into the lineup as the opener closes in. It appeared as if rookie left guard D'Ante Smith was getting the shot to win the job before he lost the last few days of practice last week to dehydration issues and didn't play Saturday in Washington. He's been back this week, but isn't in the starting lineup. On the right, second-rounder Jackson Carman is getting good marks for progressing and third-year man Michael Jordan is looking to regain his starting spot at the opening of training camp.
What they've opted to put in front of Burrow is a pair of cagey vets in Su-a-Filo and Spain that has started a combined 132 NFL games. But Su'a-Filo got hurt in the opener and has played just one game with Burrow while Spain has played another three and a half. They were the guard tandem in the last four games of last season when they allowed just four sacks and averaged 142 yards rushing and now they get their first shot together with Burrow.
"It's just the approach we're taking in this game," Taylor said. "The younger guys, D'Ante's been out recently. Jackson we want to continue give a lot of reps to, Mike Jordan needs a lot of reps as well so, it's more just let's let those guys continue to get reps. Often times with Quinton and Xavier, we want to take care of them anyway just because of we want to monitor their reps in practice and games so it all just factors in the decision play certain guys a certain amount of time."
The fact the Bengals have allowed just one sack in two preseason games (and that on a blown snap count) has not been lost on Taylor.
"I do think the protection has improved. These guys have done a really nice job," Taylor said. "We haven't been overly aggressive with how we called these games early on. Sometimes you are going to hit big plays when you do that, sometimes you are going to take sacks when you do that because you got to hold on to the ball a little longer. I have been pleased with protection. The quarterbacks have been very clean. We've gotten guys out on time. We haven't had guys holding the ball, protection has held up and done a nice job. There's always room for improvement but I have been satisfied through two weeks."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Another tough break for Waynes when he limped off the field with what is believed to be a hamstring issue. The severity isn't known or his availability for the Sept. 12 opener that is 17 days away. It's been a long haul for a guy looking to take his first Bengals snap since signing a three-year, $42 million deal before last season.
Not working Wednesday and probably not playing Sunday were a pair of rookies, edge Cam Sample (shoulder) and running back Pooka Williams, Jr. (hamstring). Sample has had a terrific camp, but Williams has rarely practiced and got just three snaps Saturday night and it would seem like he needs a big day Sunday to compete for the final 53-man roster.
Apparently it's all good with Taylor and Dolphins head coach Brian Flores. The last time we saw them on the field together, it wasn't good. It was last Dec. 6 in Miami during a skirmish that led to three ejections and Flores storming from his sidelines and marching on the Bengals.
Flores has a done a great job in South Florida and he later said he shouldn't have lost his poise. But that meltdown won't be on his resume and it was a move that upset the Bengals. Yet Taylor says they've smoothed it over, which is a good thing because the two head coaches should get together and figure out how to play a preseason finale.
"There's respect there. Obviously, what happens there on the field a lot of times, happens on the field but Brian is a good guy," Taylor said. "I've got a lot of respect for him. He's done a great job. He and I have gotten to know each other a lot more through us becoming head coaches at the same time. He's done a great job. We've got a lot of mutual people working down there who are close to him. I saw him at Florida's Pro Day and that's probably the last time I saw him. Yeah, I've got a lot of respect for him."