MVP candidate Joe Burrow stalks his first win over Cleveland Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium with top five rankings worthy of the NFL's hottest quarterback.
His 69. 1 completion percentage, his 25 touchdowns and his 3,446 yards are all good for second place and his 103.7 passer rating is fifth with stats that that project to him breaking his Bengals season records from last year for touchdowns passes, yards and passer rating. He's on pace for 35 touchdowns and 4,881 yards and his four game-winning drives lead the AFC with the Chargers' Justin Herbert and the Colts' Matt Ryan.
Sunday marks Burrow's first start against Deshaun Watson, the Browns quarterback returning to where he made his first NFL start on Sept. 14, 2017 in a Thursday night game he led the Texans to a 13-9 victory scoring the game's only touchdown on a 49-yard third-and-15 scramble.
Burrow comes in with 72 touchdown passes in 38 games and in the next two games would pass Watson, currently tied for fifth fastest to throw 75 TD passes, according to Elias. Patrick Mahomes reached 75 TD passes in 30 games, followed by Dan Marino (31), Herbert (34) and Kurt Warner (35). Watson is tied at 41 with Matthew Stafford.
Burrow, averaging 287.2 yards per game (also second), heads into his 39th career game 255 yards shy of becoming one of the third fastest to reach 11,000 for his career, according to Elias. Mahomes did it in 37, Herbert 38 and Warner in 39.
RED ZONE MAGIC: Burrow is sizzling in the red zone. Last Sunday's touchdown darts to wide receiver Tee Higgins from 12 yards and the winner to running back Chris Evans from eight in the 27-24 win over Kansas City jacked Burrow to 16 touchdowns with no interceptions inside the 20 on 59 attempts. The only one with more attempts and no interceptions is Tampa Bay's Tom Brady with 14 TDs on 69 pass attempts.
Burrow also has nine touchdowns inside the ten, which is where the go-ahead touchdown against the Chiefs arrived midway through the fourth quarter.
No doubt red zone passing is a topic this week. Three of his five career red-zone picks have come against Cleveland and two have involved cornerback Denzel Ward, deflecting one to a teammate and then taking one 99 yards the other way. In both Paycor games against Cleveland, Burrow's first drives ended in picks.
But if Burrow looks comfortable back there now, it's because he is. Down 24-20 Sunday, he was running one of his favorite plays, which is how he works it with head coach Zac Taylor, the play-caller, as well as offensive coordinator Brian Callahan.
"On Saturday night we order the third downs and red zones and talk to Joe about what he likes. He gives us his favorites and we try to call those," Callahan says. "We have a lot of plays we like in those areas and he sort of orders them the way he likes them best. So we try to give them those in the order he prefers them and that was one of his favorite plays at that spot in the red zone. It was the next play to come up and we felt really good about it."
This is how specific it gets. The play is designed for between the eight and 14-yard lines. The Bengals were sitting at first down from the eight (thanks to wide receiver Tyler Boyd's third-down conversion) and the top two plays on the list had already worked for touchdowns. But the Chiefs were playing a different style of defense and the Bengals were banking on the percentages of their study that showed KC played a handful of man in that spot. Those two plays weren't the counter now.
"If it's not man and it's something else," Callahan says, "you try to design plays you hope answers to beat their top one or two coverages and make sure your progressions take you to a completion if it's not what you think it's going to be. If it's not man, other routes would have come up on the pattern."
But no problem. It was man. Since it had been hashed out the night before, Taylor went right to the next call for that part of the red zone, one with a funky formation and a quick, hurry-up tempo, two ingredients Callahan thinks helped spring the play so wide open.
Evans, who had been in the huddle only once Sunday before this play, and just six times in the three-game winning streak, was lined up as a receiver on the outside of an unconventional bunch formation while wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase lined up where the running back would usually be, next to Burrow in the shotgun.
The Chiefs hesitated in the back while they blitzed up front. Left tackle Johan Williams picked it up and Burrow had plenty of time to see his last option, Evans running underneath from right to left with not a soul thinking of covering him.
Usually running back Joe Mixon would have been lined up like that, but he was out with a concussion. Sunday's bellcow, Samaje Perine, isn't used in pass formations like that. But that's Evans' M.O.
Callahan figures Evan repped it twice last week. Both on Friday. Once in walk-through. Once in practice. Evans heard his name and personnel group called and running backs coach Justin Hill already had him ready for anything, anyway.
"Whether you're playing two plays or 60, you always have to be thinking you're going to be going into the game," Callahan says. "We try to use players the way that emphasize their strengths. We try to find things they can do and that was a play and a formation that really fits the way Chris can run routes and catch the ball."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: But it sounds like Evans won't be running back kickoffs because special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons seems to be leaning to running back Trayveon Williams.
"I think I think he had a really good game, he exploded out of the box, you know, in the Pittsburgh game did a good job," Simmons said Monday. "But the one thing he's doing a good job of, and this is even dates back to last year, I told Chris Evans, who started as our kickoff returner, and said 'You've got one goal, at the end of that play, your job is to make sure we hand the ball to the official. So make sure we get possession of the ball when you're done.' And Trayveon has done a good job of that."
So if Mixon comes back Sunday, Perine is in there, too, and Williams returns, that gives them three, their usual complement of backs on game day. Could Evans' winning TD be rewarded with being inactive? That's what you call depth …
Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo again quelled Mahomes in the fourth quarter last Sunday, giving him 0.0 points with his versatile, ever multiple Staten Island Stew of a scheme. Anarumo did what he promised and changed it up all game. No fast balls to Aaron Judge.
When it came time to stop Mahomes on third-and-three from the Bengals 33 with four minutes left, Anarumo had enough of a wrinkle left and it turned out to be KC's last snap when edge Joseph Ossai came barging out of a three-man front for the sack that forced a missed field goal. Like the last third-down of regulation in the last minute of the AFC title game back in January in Kansas City, the Bengals had defensive end Sam Hubbard in the middle of the field as they rushed three. But this time, Hubbard didn't delay rush for a sack as he anchored a zone.
"In the past we had pressured with Sam out of that and played cover one (man)," Anarumo said. "We didn't change the same look, but we changed the coverage.
"Sam was more worried about underneath routes as opposed to a low spy type of guy. He was more disruptive, banging routes as they went by and that type of thing. Similar, but not the same. That's what I was after," Anarumo said. "That one's been out there on tape since probably the first Pittsburgh game last year and then sprinkled in here, sprinkled in there, sprinkled in here, did it, did it a couple times this year but hadn't played zone out of it. And so that was the one I had in my back pocket for the big call." ….