Call it the Burrow Effect.
Head coach Zac Taylor observed in Tuesday's Zoom call with the media that the one thing that has caught his eye since practice opened two weeks ago is the competitiveness of his team and how incumbents and newcomers alike have raised the bar of expectations beyond what took place at Paul Brown Stadium last year.
"The competiveness of practice, that is a change from last season, just the energy," Taylor said. "Just the overall competitiveness and the expectations the players have for themselves and each other I really feel is different than last year."
Taylor didn't point to any individuals during the team's off day, but everyone knows that quarterback is the most important position on any team and it's quite clear that rookie quarterback Joe Burrow has injected practices with a snappier and more successful pace that has been contagious.
But you also have to mention the addition of four veteran free agents on defense. What Burrow has done for the offense, strong safety Vonn Bell, middle linebacker Josh Bynes and tackles D.J. Reader and Mike Daniels have done for the defense with a fresh, chippy blue-collar approach they've brought in from winning teams. They're godsends for a defense that's been short on confidence and attitude for a few years.
Bell, for one, has been drawing raves for his ability to communicate on the field and rookie linebacker Logan Wilson has already gone on record saying Bynes is the smartest player he's ever seen. And Reader and Daniels don't mind reminding the offense when they win a snap.
"The leadership feels different from guys who were here and guys who we added and it's been a welcome change," Taylor said. "I'm excited to see these guys embrace the adversity that the season is going to bring."
_If he thinks it's been competitive, just wait. Taylor has yet to coach a full practice with wide receiver A.J. Green in pads, but it looks like he'll do that this week because Taylor says Green (hamstring) is back on the field Wednesday.
During a slight collision eight days ago, the day before the Bengals put on pads, Green tweaked his hamstring and has been on the shelf since. More out of caution than anything and that's why Taylor wouldn't say if Green is going to play in Sunday evening's scrimmage in Paul Brown Stadium. But he was back catching the ball just a day or two after The Tweak. Wide receiver John Ross is also expected to get back into team drills, giving Burrow his full arsenal for the first time.
Taylor tried to slow down the Burrow Expectation Bandwagon that is now full tilt after his very impressive early camp. But he, too, has been impressed.
""He's been to take in the offense, and it hasn't been overwhelming for him. We've put a lot on his plate," Taylor said. "\ He asks the right questions. When he doesn't fully understand something or just needs to have a better understanding of it maybe, he doesn't hesitate to ask the question the right way to get all the information he needs, so that's been really positive. Again, he puts in the work that's necessary to be the starting quarterback and be prepared for Week 1, and again we're encouraged with the progress he's making right now."
_Taylor left the impression that Green and some established veterans may not play in the scrimmage. But he has to play somebody because Taylor says he's treating Sunday's 6 p.m. scrimmage like the third pre-season game, which was supposed to be in Atlanta Friday night on CBS in Burrow's national pro debut.
Traditionally, that third game is what is called "the dress rehearsal," in the final tune-up for the opener where the starters sometimes play into the first series of the second half. He's already constructed this week like a game week. Tuesday off day followed by afternoon practices Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday walk-through, then the Sunday game, Or, in this case, scrimmage.
Taylor didn't tip his hand on playing time, but he'll surround his team with the same trappings they'll get when they open in this very spot on Sept. 13 against the Chargers. With the first two games late starts (a 4:05 p.m. opener on CBS followed four days later by an 8:20 Thursday night game in Cleveland on NFL Network), Taylor figured he'd get them used to those late kickoffs with the dinner-time scrimmage. He also said it will be like the scrimmage last Friday morning, which alternated between "live," and "thud."
"Our season is going to start a little bit later in the day, so we want players to get accustomed to that," Taylor said. "We'll have officials. We'll have a chain gang. We'll have coaches up in the press box, getting a chance utilize the headsets. We're going to make it as realistic as we can in that regard.
'We want the players to feel that atmosphere as we walk onto the home field as we're going to do on September 13. We want coaches up in the box. We want to iron out some of that communication. … We go into the stadium every day. We do all of our walkthroughs in the stadium as well. Our players are used to getting some works done in there."
Taylor plans to have another scrimmage in PBS around the time of the scheduled Sept. 3 pre-season finale at PBS against the Colts. But he's still putting together the one for Sunday. And both aren't as easy to structure as pre-season games.
"Depending on the depth we'll see how much work we can get in," Taylor said. "(A scrimmage is) different than a fourth pre-season game because normally you're short on bodies but you're playing against the Indianapolis Colts. So, your offense is out there, and your defense is resting. When we actually go against each other, the offense and defense are both on the field at the same time.
"So, you have to find ways to build in those breaks. It's not as easy as me just saying you're going to replace the fourth pre-season game because you're using all your own bodies to service each other. We try to give ourselves some breaks, so we can get some good quality reps."
Taylor responded to left end Carlos Dunlap's comments that he's looking to hear more from the Bengals on social justice in the wake of his own recent experience with racism in Florida. Back in June, Taylor chaired an emotional Zoom meeting with players and coaches on the subject of discrimination.
"We've heard a lot of those stories that he had told in June back when we talked about it as a team. We have a committee that we formed," Taylor said of the Bengals' Positive Community Impact Committee. "He was on that committee. So we've had a lot of in depth conversations here these last three months and those are still ongoing as we get closer to the season. We've had an open dialogue with our players. They've been able to voice their concerns and we feel like we're making really good progress in that area."
Taylor said safety Shawn Williams (calf) and linebacker Jordan Evans (hamstring) are week-to-week. So don't look for them in the scrimmage. Or maybe for other established veterans. Since running back Joe Mixon and Dunlap sat out Monday with what Taylor called "minor," injuries, they may not play, either.
Taylor didn't get specific about the injury that has sidelined guard Alex Redmond the entire camp and said that he'll get re-evaluated in a few days.
Taylor basically echoed what offensive line coach Jim Turner said Tuesday after back-up right tackle Fred Johnson took a spin at right guard with the first group. The right tackle job belongs to incumbent Bobby Hart, but like Turner showed last year when he gave center Trey Hopkins a training camp promotion over a first-round pick, everybody is always a call away.
"I think Fred is still battling for that job," Taylor said. "And Bobby's had the right approach so far in training camp. But again, I'm not ready to declare anybody at any spot. Fred's still in the mix there to compete for some starting jobs on the O-line."
Bengals cornerback Mackensie Alexander left camp when he was informed his father is missing in Florida. According to reports published Tuesday evening, the Okeechobee County Sheriff's Office is searching for Jean Odney Alexandre after he disappeared Monday while on a berry-picking trip.