BENGALS QB JOE BURROW VS. RAIDERS DC GUS BRADLEY
Burrow had old family friend Bradley beat in his NFL debut last year until the official threw the flag with seven seconds left in the season opener. So maybe it's fitting that Burrow opens the second half of his second season and first pro playoff run Sunday (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Las Vegas looking to throw a wrench into the postseason seeding jumbled with both the 5-4 Bengals and Bradley's 5-4 Raiders.
Bradley, the former Jaguars head coach and a well-regarded NFL defensive mind with the help of Burrow's father, has made his name in the league with a no-frills-nothing-big scheme sprouting from a Cover Three concept that dares the offense to make mistakes by forcing it to go underneath. The Bengals have spent the last two weeks daring to talk about the playoffs and how they have to cut down on such mistakes.
The operative number is minus-four, the Bengals' turnover-differential as Burrow's NFL-high 11 interceptions stares into the maw of Bradley's discipline. It's shaping up to be a vintage take-what-they-give-you game. They just have to make sure they take what they give.
"They don't let the offense beat them," says offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who prioritized minimizing turnovers during the bye. "They make you earn it."
Bradley has switched sides in the AFC West after leading the Chargers defense to a top ten season last year, a run that began with a 16-13 scrum the Chargers won before no one at Paul Brown Stadium in the 2020 opener.
That day Bradley characteristically Cover-Threed the rookie Burrow to a grudging 193 yards with no pass of at least 20 yards. Seventy of those yards came in the last three minutes when Burrow wheeled the Bengals to a winning three-yard touchdown pass with seven seconds left that got wiped out by a curious pass interference call on wide receiver A.J. Green.
"Gus texted me right after that and told me how well he thought Joe did," Jimmy Burrow says. "That just makes you feel good, even though it's coming from the opposite side. You can still connect with him."
Bradley has been good friends with the Burrows since the North Dakota State days in 2003 and 2004, when Jimmy Burrow brought his Monte Kiffin-tinged Tampa Two defense from Nebraska as Craig Bohl's defensive coordinator. Bradley was a holdover from the previous staff and as Burrow's linebackers coach he was all in on the new playbook that Burrow took word-for-word and call-for-call from Kiffin, his mentor at Nebraska, and together they installed a scheme that laid one of the groundworks for Bohl's string of national titles in Fargo.
By then, Burrow had been lured to Athens and Division I to run the Ohio University defense and Bradley, well, he was actually in Tampa with Kiffin as his quality control coach on Jon Gruden's staff after Burrow heartily recommended him.
"Coach Kiffin called about somebody and I told him I didn't know him but that he should call Gus," Jimmy Burrow says. "I told him, 'He knows everything you do.' They brought him in and Gruden loved him."
Bradley's reunion with Gruden has been famously cut short, but Jimmy and wife Robyn plan to reunite with Bradley's wife this weekend to say hello and Jimmy figures Joe will see Bradley before the game.
They were together just two years in North Dakota, but they've remained close. Jimmy flew in Bradley to talk football with his staff in Athens and he took Joe to see him in Cleveland a few times whenever Bradley came back to Ohio to play the Browns.
The Bradleys' son, Carter, is Toledo's backup quarterback and when he was in Athens for the game this week the Burrows stopped by the hotel to make sure they took a picture with him and sent it to his dad. At about the same time, Gus Bradley briefed the Raiders media on the relationship while making note of Joe Burrow's abilities.
"Not a lot of guys, especially younger guys, when they feel pressure, he keeps his eyes down field," Bradley said. "He's always looking to make a play. He does a good job escaping and extending plays.
"The family is very competitive. Joe is very competitive. Very smart. Very talented."
Bradley called Burrow's receiving corps one of the most talented the Raiders play ("and I haven't even talked about Mixon yet"), but everyone knows Bradley's Cover Three frowns on giving up big plays. Its heyday came in the previous decade when Bradley ran Seattle's "Legion of Boom," Super Bowl defense, but the principles remain.
"Bend but don't break. You have to be patient with it. You have to be able to run the ball," says Jimmy Burrow, who picked up some Cover Three from Bradley. "You have to look for the opportunity to make big plays, but they're had to come by in that kind of defense.
"Gus didn't go heavy into the Cover Three until he got to Seattle with Pete Carroll," Jimmy Burrow says. "They're so well-coached because of Gus. They know their weaknesses, too, and they'll disguise them."
Jimmy hadn't seen the Raiders this year until last Sunday night's game, when the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes put a 41-14 hurting on them. But no one expects a Bradley defense to give up numbers like that twice in seven days. Listening to him break down the woes against the Chiefs, Bradley sounded a lot like Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo talking about a slew of missed tackles in space.
When Burrow arrived at Fargo, he remembers Bradley was named the assistant head coach because of his deep ties with the players and how much he was admired around the program.
"The players love Gus and I know one thing. They'll play hard and they'll play fast for him," Jimmy Burrow says.
Jimmy is leaving the Cover Three dissection to Joe, Callahan and head coach Zac Taylor. He did send a reminder to Joe not long ago saying something along the lines of, remember, Gus was with the Chargers last year. He knew Joe would know, anyway, and he got a thumbs up in return.
Other than that, he's watching. But everybody sees it.
"We've played this style of defense a bunch over the last two years," Joe Burrow told the Bengals media in his own briefing. "So we kind of know what to expect. He's a great defensive coordinator that's really been successful everywhere he's gone. And it does it by really being simple on defense and people understanding their assignments."
The way Callahan sees it, their simplicity makes it complicated for the offense.
"You play a team that plays with the simplicity they do, they know every problem and every play they're going to see," Callahan says. "They get to focus on it and they know every which way you can attack the coverage schemes. They rep those things. They understand it. You see it. You see how well they match concepts. They make it hard … Guys gravitate to him and they play really hard for him."
It looks to be a classic matchup. The Bengals lead the league with Burrow gunning 10 pass plays of at least 40 yards. The Raiders have allowed just three such plays.
"They really limit the big plays. They're good at that," Joe Burrow says. "They understand the scheme that they're playing in and you can tell because they keep it so simple that they really don't have a lot to think about and they can just focus on playing fast, playing with speed and a physicality. We're going to have to take what they give us and take the big opportunities when they're there."
Maybe taking a looking at that last drive last year against the Chargers is a harbinger. The game situation heightened the zone, of course, but the Bengals moved it underneath with the longest pass 15 yards. Three of them to the slot. One to the tight end. One to the back. An incomplete deep shot spliced in.
"It's going to be fun," says Jimmy Burrow, a defensive guy rooting for the offense. "A real challenge."