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Bengals Notebook: Tee Higgins Watching Tom Brady's Receivers; Joseph Ossai's Full Circle

The defense of DJ Reader and Jessie Bates III (right) get ready for Tom Brady.
The defense of DJ Reader and Jessie Bates III (right) get ready for Tom Brady.

With Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins saying he expects "to be out there," Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Tampa Bay after missing all but the first snap last week with a hamstring issue, you can wheel out that Joe Burrow stat.

With both Higgins, the Bengals leading receiver with 861 yards, and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, leading the Bengals with 64 catches, the Bengals are 5-1 and Burrow hasn't thrown an interception while throwing 14 touchdowns for a 120 passer rating. Without Chase or Higgins, they are 4-3 and Burrow has thrown his nine interceptions with 13 touchdowns for an 87.9 passer rating.

And Higgins only took the first snap against the Browns because he made sure head coach Zac Taylor didn't see him take the field for what amounted to his 39th NFL start.

"I was sneaky when I was younger. I had to pull it out again," Higgins said after he went full in Friday's practice at the IEL Indoor Facility.

They made him questionable for Sunday, just like they did slot receiver Tyler Boyd even though he went full Friday for the first time since he departed with a dislocated finger on last week's second play. Both have indicated they'll play and head coach Zac Taylor said after Friday's workout that he "feels good,' about them for Sunday.

"In practice you want to be cautious, you don't want to open it up too much," Higgins said. "But in a game, you just have go out and play and if it happens, happens."

Higgins says it happened to the same hamstring he blew out in the finale of his rookie year two years ago. He had been battling a hamstring issue for the last month of that season and on the first series he had to leave after his 41-yard catch-and-run was wiped out by penalty.

This time around they played it safe after Higgins said the hamstring didn't feel right when he ran a certain route in Sunday's pregame warmups and it kept not responding. But he says he's go after a full week of therapy and treatment.

It is not lost on Higgins that this is a game full of premier receivers. Five are in the top 33 for receiving yards and the other one, Tampa Bay's Julio Jones, is a Hall-of-Fame candidate. While the Bengals are back to a full complement of what is regarded as the NFL's best trio, Bucs quarterback Tom Brady is also throwing to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans.

Those are guys Higgins has been watching and not just Brady. Jones (2011), Evans (2014) and Godwin (2017) were drafted a bit ago. The rugged 6-4, 215-pound Higgins has an affinity for the 6-3, 220-pound Jones.

"Of course. It's Julio and who doesn't watch tape of Julio?" Higgins asked. "Julio's a dog. He always will be. His whole career. Same with Godwin. Those are guys I've watched closely, watched their game and I really like their game. (Jones) is one of those tall guys. He's got crazy speed, will go up and get it. That's a game I like to watch and try to do some stuff that he does as well."

He also likes to watch his own teammates and he had his eye on wide receiver Trenton Irwin taking a lot of his snaps against Cleveland, including the 45-yard flea-flicker touchdown where he was wide open. When Higgins saw Burrow hand the ball to running back Joe Mxon and then Mixon dish it back, his eyes immediately went to Irwin because Higgins had run the thing in practice during the week.

Sure enough, Higgins saw Irwin with no one around him.

"I was like, 'Damn!'" Higgins said. "I'm glad it worked out. Trent ran a hell of a route. I was happy for him he scored a touchdown."

Higgins was just as intrigued when Irwin celebrated with a dance he had never seen and when Higgins asked about it on the sideline Irwin explained it was an Irish jig. He didn't rule out trying one himself one day.

"If I learn to do it the right way," Higgins. "I won't do it if it's not the right way."

MORE JOE NUMBERS: Burrow comes into his 40th NFL start with more numbers than Brady did when he came into his 40th start (a 12-0 win over Dallas at Foxboro the day the Bengals beat the undefeated Chiefs) 19 years ago.

The only edge is on wins, where Brady won 27 of his first 39 and Burrow 21. Burrow threw it more and came out of it with 74 touchdowns to 28 picks (100.9 passer rating) while completing 68 percent of his passes at 7.9 yards per throw. Brady had 57 TDs and 34 picks (85.5 passer rating) while completing 62 percent of his passes on 6.7 yards per throw.

The Pats were a defensive team back then, but it was also a different time. The only categories Brady leads Burrow this season is passes attempted and fewest interceptions (Burrow has ten and Brady five). Only Patrick Mahomes (33) has more TD passes than Burrow (27) and Burrow is top three in completion percentage (68.1), passing yards and combined running-passing TDs (32).

Meanwhile, Brady is averaging 6.2 yards per pass, the lowest of his career, and his fewest touchdown passes per game (1.3) since his first year as a starter in 2001.

But in a game pitting one of the game's most accomplished passers against one of the game's generational passers, it could be decided with legs.

According to Next Gen Stats, on plays of at least four seconds since 2021, Burrow is first in yards per pass (8.4), second in completion percentage (69.3) and second in passer rating (105.5). This season when Brady takes longer than 2.5 seconds to throw, he's completing just 51 percent of his passes. And Burrow's 102.6 passer rating under pressure is 53.2 points higher than Brady's (49.4) this season.

But the one thing about Brady. He's been murder on the Bengals coming off a loss, most famously the "It's on to Cincinnati," game. In 2014, after the Pats fell to 2-2 in a 41-14 loss in Kansas City and the Boston papers and talk shows had Brady finished and traded, Brady lit the undefeated Bengals the next week on 23 of 36 passing for 292 yards and a 110.7 passer rating in a 43-17 win in Foxboro.

In 2019, it was reversed. The Chiefs beat the Pats in Foxboro and the next week Brady came into Paycor and while he competed just 51 percent of his passes, managed a 34-13 win.

ROOKIE FOCUS: The news wasn't as good for the Bengals' two slot cornerbacks, Mike Hilton (ankle) was declared out and Jalen Davis (thumb) is doubtful. Taylor wasn't ready to rule out Davis even though he hasn't practiced last week.

(It will be recalled Davis played well in the one game he played for Hilton when Pro Football Focus had him allowing just three catches for 39 yards and no touchdowns in the Nov. 6 win over Carolina.)

Zac Taylor also wouldn't say rookie Dax Hill, the first-rounder from Michigan, would slide into the slot after playing just 59 snaps this season and a few of them in the slot. He's not worried about his fellow UM alum Brady knowing he's a rookie because "Everyone knows I'm a rookie."

As he pulled a Bengals sweatshirt over a Michigan shirt Friday, he figured Brady knows he's from Michigan, too.

"I wonder," Hill said. "The scouting reports usually have the schools on them."

TIPS ABOUT TIPS: Hill says he's inspired about the Mike Thomas story. How the Bengals safety and special teams captain was pressed into service nine years ago this week in his first NFL game against Brady and sealed the game for the Dolphins on an end-zone interception with two seconds left.

Another Bengal in that game, assistant linebackers coach Jordan Kovacs, knows that Hill is much more prepared than Thomas ever could have been, since Thomas arrived from the San Francisco practice squad that week. Hill has been in this system from day one.

Still, it's Brady. Kovacs, who played special teams that day, notes how Brady is playing with a mix of the New England offense under Josh McDaniels and Bruce Arians' Buccaneers scheme.

"You don't see a lot of offenses doing that old school New England stuff," Thomas said. "Not too many teams run that two-back traditional play-action pass with the overs (routes) and glances … quick throws off two-back play-action to receivers coming across the middle. Even tight ends over the middle, that New England old school type of ball. Especially out of two back. Most offenses don't have that. You have to stop the run. Also, if the run game isn't going, he gets it out fast."

The Bucs have the fewest rushes and rush yards in the NFL. Burrow and Brady are the two fastest quarterbacks getting the ball out of their hand and opposing defenses have responded by tipping Burrow's passes. That's what has happened on many of his interceptions this season.

The Bengals front has been getting their hands up lately, too. They've got 14 passes defensed from defensive linemen after just three all last year. Nose tackle D.J. Reader has four in the last three weeks.

"The ball comes out really fast. You have to be really matchy," Kovacs said. "You've got to get the hands up and hit the quarterback when you can. The opportunities are few and far between when he gets it out of his hand that quickly. We work it all the time. You have to work at it."

ANOTHER JOE: With sack ace Trey Hendrickson (wrist) ruled out, what better place for second-year edge Joseph Ossai to get his first NFL start? It's full circle for Ossai, a third-round pick in 2021 who played his first NFL game in Tampa Bay in the preseason opener and sacked Brady on the game's first series.

Ossai suffered season-ending wrist and knee injuries later in the night and now here he is with two sacks that count, the last one a huge third-down-hustle-and-dive takedown of Patrick Mahomes on what turned out to be the Chiefs' last play from scrimmage in the Bengals' 27-24 win two weeks ago.

He's played 26 percent of the snaps this season with his most work coming on 40 plays against the Jets back in September. He suffered a shoulder injury playing 18 snaps last week against the Browns, but went full in practice Friday. Along with Ossai, Cam Sample, who plays both three technique and edge while taking 33 percent of the plays with one sack, also figures in the mix. They're trying to piece together a rotation to replace the 71 percent of the snaps Hendrickson is taking, about 45 plays per game.

"You can always ball park that number, but you never know that specifically," Taylor said of doling out snaps. "I always have a hard time saying this guy is going to play X amount of snaps and being able to control that fully because of how the game goes."

In the last six weeks the offense has survived injuries to its leading rusher and leading receiver and gone 5-1. They hope they get the same bench action with the loss of their leading sacker. Hendrickson has six sacks and Next Gen Stats has him tied for second with Myles Garrett and Nick Bosa with 52 QB pressures.

"That's what this team has been about lately," Taylor said. "Especially with different guys getting more reps. No one wants to be the weak link on our defense. They've been playing at such a high level. That's the expectation for these younger guys … The play can't go wrong because of one guy. I think they feel that responsibility. The older guys get them ready for that."