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Percentage Passing Has Joe Burrow in Ken Anderson's Lane

QB Joe Burrow throws the ball during practice at Kettering Health practice field on Wednesday, November 16 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
QB Joe Burrow throws the ball during practice at Kettering Health practice field on Wednesday, November 16 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, looking to join Drew Brees as the only passer with back-to-back 70-percent completion seasons in NFL history, is gunning for his fifth straight game of at least 71.4 percent Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Pittsburgh. 

As Burrow said earlier this week, that's right about where he wants to be. Bengals all-time passing leader Ken Anderson, who was the first of the modern quarterbacks to get there, once coached the Steelers quarterbacks decades after he shredded them for a record 91 percent on a memorable day in 1974 and is more than an interested bystander. 

"He's been doing a great job getting the ball off. You listen to the broadcasters and they say he's one of the quickest in the league," Anderson said this week. "You have to have protection and guys have to get open."

When Anderson completed 70.6 percent of his passes 40 years ago, he broke the record set by Sammy Baugh nearly 40 years before that in the last year of World War II. And nobody did it for 27 years after that until Brees tied Anderson in 2009 at 70.6. In the years since, Brees hit 70 percent five times and so have one-timers like Aaron Rodgers, Sam Bradford and Deshaun Watson. 

It's believed the only other Bengal to have four straight 70-percent passing days is Carson Palmer with three in his last three games of 2004 and the 2005 opener.  

"It's a different game," Anderson said. "More spread out. More passes." 

But 70-percent seasons still don't grow on trees. There have been four of them in this decade and Burrow has one of them with last season's league-leading 70.4. At an even 70 percent this season, he trails two guys trying to do it for the first time, Geno Smith (72.8) and Tua Tagovailoa (71). With Brees retired, the next No. 9 has picked up the percentage points.

"His mechanics are great," said Anderson, who authored the Art of Quarterbacking in 1984, the year Steve Bartkowski led the NFL with 67.3 percent. "You have to be able to make those off schedule plays The arm angle changes depending on how you have to throw around people or throw over them. His mechanics are outstanding." 

As a rookie, Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham played in Anderson's most exacting game ever when he hit 90.9 percent, slicing Pittsburgh's famed Steel Curtain on 20 of 22 passing for 207 yards to smash Ken Stabler's record during the Bengals' Nov. 10, 1974 victory at Riverfront Stadium. Anderson remembers the Steelers, on their way to the Super Bowl title, giving their attention to Pro Bowl long ball threat Isaac Curtis and future Hall of Fame wide receiver Charlie Joiner. 

"A classic example of taking what the defense gives you," Lapham says.

Anderson: "They weren't going to let Isaac Curtis and those guys beat them. They took away the downfield stuff. A lot of the passes went to running backs on check downs and to tight ends. We did a good job controlling the ball throwing it and we were running it as well." 

The Bengals knocked off the Steelers, 17-10, with Curtis catching one ball for five yards. Running backs Doug Dressler (nine catches for 84 yards) and Charlie Davis (4-45) combined for 13 of the completions for 129 yards. But Lapham notes that four receivers had a big play with one catch of at least 21 yards. Joiner had two catches with one for 37 yards while Davis had one for 32, Dressler one for 23 and wide receiver Chip Myers had one for 21. 

"He was able to hit guys underneath in stride, right on time and they were able to keep right on running for yards after catch. The YAC," says Lapham with a nod to how Burrow and head coach Zac Taylor are attacking zones now. "An extension of the running game." 

When the smoke cleared that day, Steelers defensive line coach George Perles was struck with how Anderson used his athleticism to find crevices while throwing on the run: "People might decry those short little passes, but they're not easy to execute and he does it effortlessly. I admire him. There's no sense saying he's going to be great because he is that now." 

Mean Joe Greene, the face of the Steelers historic front, offered, "He's a very hard man to find. I give him credit." 

That was Anderson's calling-card game in his fourth season, much like Burrow's 525-yarder last year against Baltimore announced him in his second year. Lapham sees a lot of similarities with Burrow and his old road roommate. There's the football IQ, but beyond that is the quiet athleticism. Burrow was an All-Ohio point guard at Athens High School. Anderson also could have played basketball at Augustana College coming out Batavia, Ill. And, Anderson says it wasn't his pin-point passing that day that was his highlight.

"Don't you remember my game-saving tackle?" Anderson asked, recounting the last few minutes of a game Davis fumbled near the Steelers goal line and safety Mike Wagner picked it up and looked like he was going all the way.

"Perfect form tackle. Head across the bow. They couldn't score. We won the game," Anderson said. "With Paul Brown, we did the routine warmup every day. I knew how to tackle … All conference safety at Batavia High School."

Which conjures up some old conversations with Burrow about how he proudly played both cornerback and quarterback in the Ohio state championship game.

"He's fun to watch," Anderson said. "Being in just his third year and what he's able to do and how he commands the offense, it's pretty impressive."

Lapham has seen it before on the road to 70 percent.

"The thing that both Kenny did and Joe do is they don't force the issue," Lapham says. "They make the read and put the ball where it's supposed to go and throw it straight as an arrow. They don't put it in a bucket. They put it in a thimble."