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Matchup Of The Game: Old Home Opener Pits Bengals' Compelling Rookie Debuts Vs. Chargers

Jonah Williams (73) at work.
Jonah Williams (73) at work.


Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow's NFL debut (which also happens to be the debut of Williams) Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium against the Chargers (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) has turned into an intimate, it's-a-small-world-after-all gathering with no fans but plenty of familiar faces.

There is the Chargers walking guaranteed college loan at rush end in Bosa, Burrow's old buddy from Ohio State who has ripped through his four seasons in the NFL with 40 career sacks and an extension that brought him $78 million just for getting handed a pen.

But he's never had a shot at Joey.

"I was running with the twos and threes, so I didn't ever go up against him, so this will be my first live reps against Joey Bosa," Burrow reports of the Horseshoe days. "I'm looking forward to it. We're pretty good friends, so I'm sure there will be some words exchanged on the field.

And there is highly-regarded Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, a coaching colleague of Burrow's father at North Dakota State early in the century.

The one NFL game that Burrow has been to before Sunday came when he was a little kid barely able to remember and courtesy of Bradley. Bradley got his family tickets for a Seahawks game in Cleveland. Now on this Sunday Bradley is oiling up his rocked-ribbed, no-frills defense that relies on fundamentals instead of flash.

Throw in one of the truly more compelling debuts in Bengals history and you've got back-to-back first-round picks appearing in their first games in the same opener. That's because Williams' rookie year was wiped out by shoulder surgery.

Try to find that in Bengals history where a rookie quarterback is making his NFL debut in his left tackle's first game and you can't do it. The last time it happened in the NFL, according to Elias, was five years ago in Tampa when Jameis Winston lined up behind Donovan Smith in their debuts.

"We play great competition every week. This team and this player is no exception to that," says Williams, the other half of this very young but very mature tandem. "That's exciting. It's what you want in the NFL. It's what we have been practicing for all camp. It's what we are prepared for this week."

Adding to the whole old home week flavor, Williams finds Bosa a bit similar to the Bengals own right end Sam Hubbard, another Bosa buddy from Ohio State.

As Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham noted in Burrow's Zoom with the media Wednesday, true to form last season Bradley had the Chargers at the bottom of the league's blitz percentages.

Burrow isn't buying it. Heisman Trophy, No. 1 overall be damned. He's still a rookie making his first start on Opening Day.

"They're going to do what they do, but I also anticipate some wrinkles that are going to try to make a rookie quarterback confused, so I'm anticipating some things he may not have shown last year and I'm just going to do my best to adapt to them," Burrow says. "You always have to be ready for it. But their defense is their defense and they play it really, really well and they have the guys who can do it. I think coming into my rookie year I'm always going to anticipate a little more blitz than defensive coordinators might have shown in the past."

Bradley doesn't have to do much with Bosa at one end and Melvin Ingram III at the other with his $14 million guaranteed this year. Last year, while Bosa was racking up 11.5 sacks, Ingram added seven. Pro Football had Bosa rated fourth on the pass rush among defensive ends and Ingram in the 20s. PFF charted Bosa for 50 hurries, good enough for the top 10, and Ingram for 39, good enough for the top 40.

"They are one in the same. They are two of the top 10 rushers in the league, and they just got paid to show it," Burrow says. "It's going to be a challenge for us, but I wouldn't have it any other way."

His friend is something else, he says.

"He's so technical with his hands. It's almost unbelievable to watch," Burrow says. "He's so great at timing his swipes and moves off different punches the O-line brings. I think he's one of the best in the league."

At times, the 6-5, 305-pound Williams is going to get the 6-2, 247-pound Ingram. But many times it is him and the 6-5, 280-pound Bosa. One of the reasons Williams was the first offensive lineman drafted in 2019 was because of his NFL-like preparation. But he hasn't been immersed in Bosa tape. 

"I didn't want to start overloading my mind. I didn't want to stress out about it and just go out there and play loose and confident," Williams says. "So I probably started watching him last week. As we install the game plan and continue to prepare more and more we will watch a lot more film. "

Williams sees the same thing Burrow sees when breaking down Bosa.

"The biggest thing that stands out when you watch him is your technique," Williams says. "The way that he uses his hands and has great bend coming around the edge. It's going to come down to me a lot to technique vs technique. Obviously he has physical attributes that go along with it as well. "

This where Hubbard may have proven to be a good stand-in.

"Similar bodies and builds, excellent with their hands, great technicians," Williams says. "I think going against Sam here really helped prepare for Joey a lot."

It looked as if Hubbard gave Williams all he could handle in the last scrimmage at the end of August. But what was real? There were no refs, Hubbard knew Burrow was throwing all night and sacks were heatedly debated the entire time.

But like he always does, Williams wrote notes to himself after it was over.

"We did a lot on the offense trying to get everyone prepared. I think we want to be sure Joe has really good awareness of the pocket," Williams says. "That's why there was a little bit calling some more of those things to give him an idea of the worst-case scenario of what could happen in the game. I think he did a good job managing it and overall the line did a good job protecting him and that is just something we have to carry on throughout the season."

The conventional wisdom is you have to help Williams, be it with two tight ends or plenty of running back Joe Mixon, or both. The Chargers were a rock-solid-Gus-like sixth in NFL defense last season, fifth against the pass and 18th against the run. PFF had Bosa rated 32nd against the run among NFL ends, Ingram at 102.

But Williams disagrees. He doesn't think he can sit on Bosa's pass rush.

"He does a great job stopping the run and the way he fits into the scheme, he does a good job of trying to eliminate gaps," Williams says. "(Bosa) continues to be good at his technique with his hands in the run game as well. I think that's definitely a challenge going against a guy like that."

Burrow has been Joe Cool all camp, but he has been up front about one thing. He'd feel better going into his debut after taking a few shots in the preseason that never happened. 

Burrow developed a rep at Ohio State and at LSU for making a point to pop up from the ground faster than the guy that sacked him. Defensive coaches from Luke Fickell at Ohio State to Kevin Coyle at LSU have spoken reverently about his toughness.

So he knows Joey Bosa is licking his chops over there.

"Just go into a game understanding that the defense is going to try to come and knock you out, that's what they get paid to do," Burrow says. "That's what Bosa and Ingram, that's why they get paid all the money, that's why Joey just got a hundred and whatever million dollars, to sack guys like me. So I'm going to have to get the ball out of my hands and do what I do in the pocket to negate that.

No, Burrow says. It's not that he can't remember the biggest shot he ever took, it's that he won't.

"I won't give anybody that satisfaction," Burrow says.

In the end, it is the workmanlike, perfectionist Williams ("The best thing about him is that you don't know he's there," says head coach Zac Taylor) that quietly has to keep the hits to a minimum from Bosa, Ingram and Bradley.

"You can't necessarily just correct everything in one day. Just try to chip away at each thing," Williams says. "It's been a while since I've been going full contact, full speed because of my shoulder injury last year I think that was the biggest thing for me was just getting used to that. But I think by the end of practices and end of camp it's like riding a bike."

Joe and Jonah, the two rookies, are riding a bike built for two first picks.