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Matchup Of The Game: Bengals' Hot Rookie Burrow Vs. Titans' Opportunistic Defense

Joe Burrow at work this week in practice.
Joe Burrow at work this week in practice.


This one is for the Bengals draft room and their personnel purveyors when they host the AFC South-leading Titans Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paul Brown Stadium and put on display their two first-round choices drafted 14 years apart.

Burrow, everyone's NFL Rookie of the Year as Bengaldom gorges on his all-you-can-consume statistical buffet. Joseph, the ageless one still using that late burst to close in on 200 career passes defensed in his 207th game during his 15th season for a Titans defense that wins by turning over quarterbacks.

"Two of the best," says Kevin Coyle from Baton Rouge this week. "One is just starting out and one has still got some gas in the tank."

Coyle is the guy you want breaking down this tape, which he does exhaustively for LSU head coach Ed Orgeron as the defending national champion's senior defensive analyst.

After watching Burrow get him a ring and a cigar, Coyle immediately predicted can't-miss NFL greatness for the draft's No. 1 pick. As the Bengals secondary coach during the 2006 draft, Coyle teamed with the scouts to project Joseph's minute body of work at the Division I level into the 24th pick of that first round. They did their work well. Joseph is the last cornerback standing from that weekend, one of 50 players drafted by the Bengals on NFL rosters this week, tied with New England and Baltimore for the most.


Gamedey Program - Game 4 vs. Tennessee Titans

Coyle gets a chance to watch NFL film late in the week when it all dies down a bit and not much has changed despite the gargantuan leap for Burrow and the cascading years for Joseph.

"He's starting his career there like he ended his career here," Coyle says of Burrow. He's in total control.

"Really, you expected it. What a start for him. He's like Johnathan. Another warrior. A classy guy that leads by example. He's like an experienced veteran out there. You can see his leadership qualities and his competitiveness in tight situations. He's why they've had a chance to win all those games."

As for Joseph, well, when he flips on the tape Coyle can't help but think about that rookie year he had him for 10 drops. He still kids him about his hands. There's a lot to needle. He's got nearly 50 more passes defensed than the next guy with 198 among the active leaders. But his 32 interceptions are third behind Richard Sherman's 35 and Tramon Williams' 34.

"I guess he plays defense for a reason. I know there's got to be about 30 more he wishes he had," Coyle says. "He's still got it. He can still run like a deer. He's got his quickness. He's a savvy vet now. He can still close on the ball. And a great team guy. Always with a smile on his face."

With Adoree Jackson shelved for the first half of the season, Joseph has played 73 percent of the snaps at age 36. But with Jackson expected to return Sunday and Joseph missing the last two days of practice with an illness, it's unclear how much time he'll get in his first NFL building.

 So Burrow, the ultimate gym rat/football junkie who talked this week about watching every game that comes on the TV no matter the night, has taken note of No. 33 on his computer.   

"He's obviously a good player. He's been playing for about 15 years," Burrow says. "A veteran guy that has seen a lot of different route concepts and will play accordingly. He's a good player."

Joseph is emblematic of how the Titans play defense. They get to the ball. Their only top ten category appearance is in turnovers, but it's a big one. They're 23rd against the rush, 26th against the pass, third to last in sacks per pass and next-to-last in red zone. But they've got an NFL-leading plus-nine in turnover differential and Joseph has one of their nine interceptions that is second only to the Colts.

"Very opportunistic," says Burrow, who doesn't hesitate to point out he's turned it over in three straight games and he can't let it keep happening. "Their D-line makes a lot of havoc with tipped balls, interceptions, sacks, fumbles."

Also on display Sunday is Bengals head coach Zac Taylor's two pupils, Burrow and Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, a guy Taylor not only broke into the NFL during four seasons as the quarterbacks coach for the Dolphins but also worked with for four years at Texas A&M.

Taylor must have taught him well. After coming off the bench to steer the Titans into last season's AFC title game, Tannehill has now started 16 games for Tennessee and Pro Football Talk projects over the course of a full season he would have ranked sixth in passing yards, fourth in completion percentage, first in touchdowns and first in passer rating. Only Seattle's Russell Wilson has more touchdowns in that stretch.

Burrow is also putting up prodigious numbers. He's on pace to break Andrew Luck's rookie record for passing yards and 300-yard games while racking up the most completions and attempts of any quarterback in his first seven games. 

All of which has Burrow simply shrugging.

"Honestly, I'm not even sure the names or the stats or anything like that, I'm just focused on winning games," Burrow says. "Stats are stats, sometimes they mean something and sometimes they don't. We're 1-5-1, obviously they don't mean too much."

The only time Burrow really gets effusive in his Zooms with the media is when he's talking about his relationship with Taylor, a guy he's been with eight months compared to Tannehill's eight years.

"He's just great communicating what's going through his head," Burrow says. "When he calls this play, here's what he's thinking, call this play against this defense, do this, this or this, so he's just great at communicating what he expects and then, you know, it's also a dialogue that I'm comfortable enough with him to share what I expect from myself as well and from other players on the team on the offense. It's just a great dialogue."

In Burrow, Taylor has found the perfect student. Coyle watched Burrow quietly grind behind the scenes for that Heisman. The almost seamless transition is no surprise.

"He's a worker. He's a roll-up-your sleeves, grind, study, prepare. Takes great pride in all those things," Coyle says. "He's been playing winning football every week and you can't ask for anything more from a young player. He's going to keep getting better and better and I think the players sense that and the staff probably does, too."

Coyle has loved watching both guys grow. Joseph "as a father and a man," and Burrow as kid turning into a pro.

"He's a heck of an athlete. He's faster than you think. Elusive. Great pocket presence. Great awareness of what's going on around him," Coyle says. "He's tough. He'll take the ball down and he'll stand in the pocket."

Two first-rounders. Fourteen years and a line of scrimmage in between. If Burrow can keep Joseph and his Titans from getting their hands on the ball, youth may be well served.