Joe Burrow was a quarterback that even a middle linebacker could appreciate.
He had not been handed his status as college football’s golden boy or anointed a certain No. 1 pick. He’d stand in against a blitz until the moment of contact and fire a strike.
Ravens rookie Patrick Queen recalled “hooting and hollering” at Burrow when they practiced against each other at LSU. “Joe was more the guy like, ‘I’m going to do this; I’m going to do that,’ and it’s over with,” he said admiringly. “And he’ll go into practice and do his thing — dot it up — and that will be it.”
Burrow has needed every ounce of his fortitude over the past four weeks, playing behind a porous offensive line for a Cincinnati Bengals team that won two games last year. Already, he’s brought new hope to one of the NFL’s most tortured franchises.
The Ravens will get their first look at the unflappable rookie Sunday when the Bengals (1-2-1) come to town off their first win behind Burrow. His matchup with reigning Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson will give us another glimpse of the AFC North landscape for the decade to come. With Baker Mayfield leading the Cleveland Browns, the division now includes three former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, all born within 21 months of one another. Not to mention 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger with his two Super Bowl rings and Hall of Fame resume.
“We love it,” said CBS analyst and former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, who will provide commentary on Ravens vs. Bengals. “I think it’s good for the league. When you had guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, it was like, who’s next? And it was rough there for a while. But now you’ve got all these guys at quarterback, and it’s an exciting time.”
Bengals coach Zac Taylor knew he was getting a potentially transformative player in Burrow, but he did not anticipate how quickly the 23-year-old would seize command after an unconventional preseason without any games.
“He just doesn’t feel like a rookie,” Taylor said. “You don’t get that indication at all. There’s no false confidence with him; it’s all earned. He’s done everything to put himself in this position, and you know when he walks on the field on Sunday afternoon that he’s ready to play and believes in his abilities. And the whole team feeds off that.”
The rest of the Ravens don’t know Burrow as well as Queen, but they perceive the threat he presents.
“He’s the first pick of the draft and he’s playing that way,” said Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. “He’s making all the right reads. You can see he’s coached well, and he’s doing some things that normally, guys don’t do.”
The history of fresh-faced quarterbacks opposing the Baltimore defense for the first time might give Burrow pause, if he paid attention to such narratives. Mayfield actually beat the Ravens in Cleveland two years ago, but he threw an interception, and the Browns scored just 12 points. Roethlisberger took the only regular-season loss of his rookie campaign when the Ravens intercepted him twice in a 30-13 beatdown (Burrow and Jackson were both seven years old at the time).
Since John Harbaugh became head coach in 2008, the Ravens have gone 18-6 against rookie quarterbacks.
Burrow knows Martindale’s blitz-happy defense will be gunning for him Sunday. “I anticipate a little more than usual since I’m a rookie quarterback,” he told Cincinnati reporters on a midweek Zoom call. “And they’re going to see how I can handle it.”
As for the opposing quarterback, there’s no natural rivalry between Jackson and Burrow, at least not yet. In fact, they’ve never met.
They’re mutual long-distance admirers. Jackson described Burrow’s early performance as “pretty dope.” While Burrow says that when he reviews game tape featuring the Ravens, “I catch myself watching Lamar instead of the defense I’m studying.”
Born 28 days apart, they were members of the same 2015 recruiting class. Rivals.com ranked Jackson 15th among dual-threat quarterbacks, with Burrow nine spots behind him. They both stared up at the likes of Sam Darnold, Jarrett Stidham and Kyler Murray.
From there, Jackson raced ahead of his Ohio-raised counterpart. He started his first game at Louisville while Burrow was redshirting at Ohio State. When he won the Heisman, Burrow was stuck as a backup to J.T. Barrett. He had yet to start a college game when the Ravens drafted Jackson with the last pick in the first round of the 2018 draft.
Burrow made up for lost time in 2019, however, leading LSU to a 15-0 national championship season with passing totals that still look like misprints — 76.3% completion rate, 5,671 yards, 60 touchdowns against just six interceptions. In a few months, he rose from a projected middle-round pick to the man who would save the Bengals.
When Gannon watched Burrow run offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s schemes on television, he saw a player already grasping NFL concepts.
“There’s all these guys who come out and you wonder, ‘How will his game adapt to the NFL game,’” the CBS analyst said. “But I just look at Joe, and he has a high football IQ. You see some of the stuff he did in college with Brady, and it’s real NFL-caliber stuff — reads, progressions, footwork, timing, adjustments, audibles, moving the safeties. The guy’s pretty far along, so it makes sense that he’s gotten off to such a good start.”
Scouts who dinged Burrow’s game pointed to his good but unremarkable arm strength and mobility. Gannon, who won MVP honors with an arm that hardly compared to those of John Elway or Aaron Rodgers, sees more than enough individual talent.
“He’s got very good mobility for a guy who’s 221 pounds,” he said. “He’s able to pull the ball down and run for a first down, but more than that, he’s got good pocket awareness. Take the arm out of it for a second. You’ve got to be able to step up. You’ve got to be able to slide. You’ve got to be able to extend plays. You look at [Patrick] Mahomes in Kansas City or Rodgers, and these guys make it look easy. … And it just seems natural for [Burrow].”
Ravens edge rusher Pernell McPhee noticed similar strengths when studying Burrow’s tape, particularly his size and patience. “He’s a quarterback who likes to stay on rhythm,” he said, noting that Burrow is on pace to break Andrew Luck’s record for most passing yards by a rookie.
Burrow has also benefited from landing with a team that was hardly bereft of skill-position talent. A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd are proven wide receivers, with rookie Tee Higgins providing another tall, downfield target. Joe Mixon ranks among the best all-around running backs in football.
Cincinnati’s greatest weakness remains its offensive line, which has allowed 15 sacks and 36 quarterback hits through four games. But those who’ve watched Burrow on tape do not see a player daunted by the constant pressure. He’s already one of the league’s most efficient midrange passers, according to Pro Football Focus.
“You don’t see his eyes drop,” Gannon said. “The real indicator is the feet. They tell you a lot, and I think his feet have looked pretty good, better every week.”
That certainly does not surprise his old LSU teammate, Queen, who watched Burrow stand in against the best defensive linemen in the SEC while crowds of 100,000 screamed their heads off. He expects nothing less when they match up at M&T Bank Stadium.
“He’s going to take a hit and keep playing,” Queen said. “I just look at it as, as many times as we can hit him, hit him, and try to get back to him and get some pressure on him, because he’s going to stay in there. He’s a great competitor … and we just have to get after him.”
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Line: Ravens by 13