BENGALS QB BRANDON ALLEN VS. RAVENS CB MARLON HUMPHREY
Emerging as Joe Burrow's potential backup for next season, Allen is believed to have done what no Bengals quarterback has done in his first four starts. So when quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher consults with him Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) on the Paul Brown Stadium sidelines, they're not only facing the ferocity of a Ravens defense that put their offense through the blender, not to mention a mere 205 yards and three points, back in October.
But they're also looking at one of the more remarkable storylines in the team's recent memory that really didn't begin to unfold until the first practice after Burrow got hurt.
Until then, Pitcher had been one of Allen's main targets in practice. A practice that only happened after the Bengals had practiced. Not only that, Allen was throwing to Pitcher and any practice squad wide receiver. Nowhere near the guys he threw most of last Sunday's 371 yards. He did throw to the A.J. Greens and the Tee Higgins and the Tyler Boyds. But only in individual drills.
And since the receivers had already practiced and put in their day's work, Allen often threw to statues standing where the route ended. The only time he could talk to Pitcher is when they were out there on the grass.
He was the COVID QB and had to be as isolated as an island. Or pretty close to it. Only Virtual meetings in an office by himself. Dressing in a remote locker room. Then Burrow went out.
"Quite remarkable," Pitcher says. "It's a testament to him and how he's gotten himself ready to play in the unfortunate event he had to go and unfortunately he's been called into action. And he's become better each game.
"It goes back to he's a natural thrower of the ball. The ball comes off his hand very cleanly. He's got a smooth delivery and a quick delivery and you can tell he's been throwing the football his whole life and he's done it at a high level."
Despite operating in the parameters of a pandemic, Allen is believed to be the first Bengals quarterback to complete 69.4 percent of his passes while hitting better than 70 percent twice in his first four starts. And he's done it averaging more than seven yards per throw (7.25).
Now, there have been some pretty good shows.
Turk Schonert completed 80 percent in one of his first four Bengals starts on the way to a 65 completion percentage in his first four starts. Virgil Carter and AJ McCarron each hit 71.4 percent of their throws in their first Bengals starts 45 years apart.
Ken Anderson and Joe Burrow each put up a 70-percenter, Anderson getting a lead swiped in the fourth quarter in Oakland by George Blanda and Burrow getting pick-pocketed by Carson Wentz in the last 21 seconds in Philly for a tie.
But none of them did it twice in those first four starts and Allen did it back-to-back. After hitting 75 percent against the Cowboys, Allen went for 78 percent winning last Sunday's shootout with Deshaun Watson in Houston.
Greg Cook hit nearly 10 yards per pass in the way back machine in his first four Cincy starts in 1969 completing about half his throws. Jeff Blake launched Blakemania hitting 60 percent while averaging 8.24 yards per pass. Neil O'Donnell hit 75 percent in his Bengals debut, but barely managed six yards per finishing second to Allen in his first four games with a 67 completion percentage.
The man for who Allen is keeping the seat warm, Burrow, gave him a run completing 66 percent of his NFL-record 177 passes at 6.3 yards per throw.
But none of them have done what Allen has done on his first 121 passes and that includes getting ready for all of this under circumstances slightly more than bizarre.
"It starts at making the right decision on where to go with the ball," Pitcher says of the accuracy. "His last two starts stick out with performances that were by and large made with exceptional decisions. He's playing on time. He's getting the ball out of his hands quickly. He's not throwing with a lot of junk in his face because he's playing so quickly and all of that is leading to him being able to throw the ball accurately and to the right guy."
Allen, a coach's son who got the call from Bengals head coach Zac Taylor about his interest just as his wife went into labor, is used to living the game. Pitcher says his threshold is high when it comes to brains and retaining what he puts into them.
Smart guy that he is, he knows he's not facing that Texans' next-to-last ranked defense he carved.
Here come the dastardly Ravens needing a win in the finale to make the playoffs. The Ravens who blitz 44 percent of the time for most in an NFL they are ranked ninth in defense. Only three teams hit the quarterback more. These Ravens who back in October hit Burrow 15 times and sacked him seven.
"They do a good job of disguising things and brining a lot of different pressures. So I need to know where my quick throws are," Allen says. "I need to know when I can get through the progression and when to get the ball out and be accurate with it because obviously they play a lot of tight coverage. Their talent on defense is everywhere, so accuracy is going to be at an all-time high this week and just getting the ball out and getting it to the guys so that they can go make plays."
And quick accuracy is what Allen brings to the table. For a lot of reasons. The biggest reason is he's been in the same type of offense for the majority of his career despite being on his fourth team in five years. There have been tweaks to the playbook, Pitcher says, and maybe there was an occasional different thought process when some of the concepts were put together when he and Taylor were with the Rams. But, basically it's the same.
"He came in here with a high degree of comfort with the terminology," Pitcher says. "It's a big part of why, without virtually any real reps in the first half of the year and then all of a sudden he's playing in a real game, he's had some success."
Here's all you need to know about why the Bengals got hammered, 27-3, in Baltimore (three turnovers) and why they've won two straight (no turnovers in basically the last 11 quarters). It's the stat that has defined this rivalry. The Bengals are 2-19 in games they have a minus-differential against the Ravens. Always, it seems, because they do what rookie linebacker Patrick Queen did back in October and took a 53-yard fumble all the way.
"I'll just keep it simple, you have to protect the football. They've very aggressive with their mindset defensively," Taylor said. "They do a great job attacking the ball not only in the backfield, on the perimeter with the defensive backs. No. 44 (Humphrey) is as good as anyone in the league at punching the ball out. I think a lot of guys try to emulate his play style and they do a good job of it. You have to be physical not only in the box, but on the perimeter as well. That's up to the quarterback as well to protect the ball in the pocket."
Allen hopes to be accurate enough to keep it away from Humphrey, the NFL-leader with eight forced fumbles and a defense that has recovered the second most fumbles in the NFL with a dozen.
"I think a lot of throws we have in our offense are rhythm and timing. When you can play on time and obviously the offensive line has done a good job of keeping me clean in a lot of those situations. When we are clean in the pocket and we can get the ball out with rhythm and timing," Allen says. "They do a great job of punching at the ball and getting fumbles and turnovers and things like that, so we have to be great with our ball security from all aspects, from the run game to when we catch passes, tucking it away."
With accuracy the week's big watchword, Pitcher got right to the heart of the matter.
"(The Ravens) scheme week to week and they'll give you something you haven't seen," Pitcher says. "It's going to happen. And when it happens, it's going to be fast."
Check out the best images from practice as the Bengals continue to prepare for a Week 17 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.