BENGALS QB JOE BURROW VS. JAGUARS QB TREVOR LAWRENCE
Paul Brown Stadium hosts a game pitting two overall No. 1 quarterbacks for the seventh time, but it's the first one that is going national (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and NFL Network) and Thursday's prime time audience can only hope it matches the last time it happened.
Last year Burrow's 406 yards and third touchdown pass of the day with 66 seconds left looked to have Cleveland's Baker Mayfield beat until he went down the field in 55 seconds to throw his fifth and winning touchdown pass.
Now here comes Clemson's Lawrence, this year's overall No. 1 who lost to LSU's Burrow, last year's No. 1, in the 2019 national title game and is looking for his first NFL victory. With the Jaguars trading first-round cornerback C.J. Henderson this week and the Bengals secondary hit with a rash of injuries, it could be a night for quarterbacks probing possibilities that weren't there last week when the Bengals decisively won an AFC North game in Pittsburgh and the Jags lost a 13-7 halftime lead at home to Arizona to stay winless.
"He's just going to keep getting better and better. He's as talented of a guy as there is," Burrow said this week of Lawrence. "He's going to keep getting better and better as he accumulates more reps. Obviously it's tough early in your career, you're still figuring everything out, but he's got all the talent in the world."
The Bengals have lost seven straight games to rookie quarterbacks, but Bengals head coach Zac Taylor is hoping to take advantage of Lawrence's pro inexperience in a packed PBS on Ring of Honor night. In the Sept. 12 opener the Bengals faithful tortured the Vikings offensive line with a slew of false starts and in their lone road appearance on that same day in Houston the Jags offense had five flags thrown on them for everything from false starts to illegal formations.
"I'm excited to see how the fans turn out," Burrow said of his first prime-timer at The Paul. "The first game they caused a lot of penalties. We are expecting them to come here with energy and do the same thing this week."
NO. 1 QB MATCHUPS AT PAUL BROWN STADIUM
|11/26/04||CIN Palmer def. DAL Testaverde||26-3|
|10/2/05||CIN Palmer def. HOU Carr||16-10|
|11/20/05||IND Manning def. CIN Palmer||45-37|
|10/29/06||ATL Vick def. CIN Palmer||29-27|
|12/6/09||CIN Palmer def. DET Stafford||23-13|
|10/25/20||CLE Mayfield def. CIN Burrow||37-34|
Lawrence, who has thrown seven interceptions and is rated ahead of only fellow rookie Zach Wilson of the Jets in NFL passer rating, sees a Bengals secondary down two of its better players with captain and free safety Jessie Bates III (neck) declared out for the first time in his four seasons and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (groin) listed as doubtful. Neither has practiced since they were hurt Sunday in Pittsburgh.
The Cincinnati secondary has played 99 percent of its snaps with Bates since he arrived in the second round in 2018 and it appears they'll have to dip into the practice squad with third safety Ricardo Allen also out. The sense seems to be that if there were a regular week between games that Bates and Awuzie might have been available to play, but not on a Thursday night.
"I always thought he was a real good professional football corner," said Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo of Awuzie, one of their prized free-agent pickups. "That's what he is. He can tackle, he gets off blocks, he covers the best player and he never says a word.
"He's smart. A great human being. He's everything you want in a corner in my opinion. He's tall, he's long, he can run. I've had some really good ones. I've been blessed to have some really good ones in my career. He's really done a good job. I'm super happy with him."
But in a stroke of good fortune it looks like cornerback Trae Waynes is going to finally make his long-awaited Bengals debut. Waynes, the 11th pick in the 2015 draft, signed a three-year, $42 million deal in Cincinnati before the 2020 season. But a torn pectoral muscle wiped out last year and a hamstring injury suffered in the middle of the preseason has sidelined him for the last six weeks.
"It would be great to see him. We saw him a little bit in Tampa," Anarumo said of the Aug. 14 preseason opener. "He's dying to play. The guy has worked his butt off to get ready after (missing) all last year and the unfortunate injury in practice. He's ready to go. I know mentally he's been ready to go for several weeks. I'm looking forward to seeing him out there."
Anarumo says they'll be monitoring Waynes to see how many snaps he can play, which means Eli Apple and Darius Phillips, the backups that finished Sunday's 24-10 win in Pittsburgh, should get plenty of work. Although Apple has been flagged for two pass interferences and a holding, he's also played well enough in the place of Waynes that the Bengals defense is ranked eighth in the league and the secondary has yet to give up a pass longer than 34 yards.
Lawrence has had trouble negotiating deep zones and instead of taking what the defense gives him at times, he's forcing throws with his big arm and is completing just 54 percent of his passes on fewer than six yards per pass. He'll have to decide what he can take against a patchwork secondary because the Bengals front four has been one the NFL's biggest September stories.
Anarumo spent this week musing how nice it is being able to rush with just four. How sweet it is. The Bengals have the fourth most sacks in the NFL and are in the top 10 in quarterback knockdowns, according to Pro Football Reference.
"I can't say it enough, the guys in that room, we've got a bunch of guys that are true professionals," Anarumo said of the defensive line. "They work at their craft. They want to be experts at everything they do that helps them become a better player … When you get the best players acting like that, you reap what you sow and these guys are doing a good job right now."
Meanwhile, Burrow is having a top 10 passing season completing 70 percent of his passes, averaging 8.5 yards per throw while compiling a 105.4 passer rating. His 75 passes are the second fewest among quarterbacks who have started three game and are a stunning contrast to the 141 passes he threw in the first three games of his rookie year.
He's coming off a career-low 18 passes in Pittsburgh, but they averaged 9.5 yards and with rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase on a torrid 20 yards per catch pace and running back Joe Mixon third in the league in rushing, he'll take it.
"When you only throw the ball 18 times it usually means you're winning the game," Burrow said this week. "When you have to throw the ball 65 times you're probably not going to win the game very often. The "W" is all I care about."
He won't have Lawrence's college running mate with wide receiver Tee Higgins (shoulder) out for the second straight game as Burrow checks out a revamped cornerbacks crew that allowed former Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green his first 100-yard game in three years last week against the Cardinals.
Second-rounder Tyson Campbell is fast and can cover, but Green schooled him on a vintage 36-yard jump ball that Campbell couldn't find. Shaquill Griffin, a free-agent import from Seattle, followed a receiver for the first time in his career against the Cards and held DeAndre Hopkins to three catches for 21 yards. But Burrow is looking to find the holes that have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 75 percent of their passes for more than nine yards per attempt on a passer rating that is even bigger than his at 111.
Everyone in each of the Bengals backfields should be certifiably motivated with the Jags coached by former University of Cincinnati defensive back Urban Meyer, the former Ohio State head coach who recruited Apple, Burrow and Bengals strong safety Vonn Bell to Columbus.
Meyer famously put Burrow through some excruciating spring games before he transferred to LSU when Meyer opted to start Dwayne Haskins. But Burrow has no desire to rehash history. Only to write it.
"I put in the work. I had some injuries late in my career there that kind of set me back a little bit," Burrow said. "They knew the work I put in every day and I knew the work I put in every day. They gave me an opportunity out of high school, and that's all you can ask. It didn't work out, but the skills and everything I learned there helped me get to where I am at right now."