by Evan Bruner
Following his breakout 2019 campaign at LSU, Joe Burrow could seemingly do no wrong. His stellar on-field play, paired with an imperturbable personality, has made him a fan favorite and one of the faces of the NFL. Despite it only being his fourth season in the NFL, Burrow has a reputation that few can rival. From his legendary senior season to taking the Bengals from the worst team in the league to the Super Bowl in just two years, the legend of Joe Burrow runs deep.
However, this legend, at least for the time being, is on pause. The Cincinnati Bengals find themselves in last place in the AFC North, and the NFL’s golden child has quickly become subjected to scrutiny. Burrow suffered a calf injury in July that kept him out of practice for over a month. Although he was cleared to play in the team’s opener against the Cleveland Browns and has started every game since, it’s clear he’s far from 100%. Burrow’s subpar play this season isn’t just a departure from his last two seasons; it’s a departure from the rest of the league, as he ranks last or close to last in almost every major passing stat.
The obvious explanation for Burrow’s woes is his injury, but it’s not quite as simple as that. After all, Burrow’s peers Justin Herbert and Josh Allen endured serious injuries last season and still maintained high-level quarterback play. This precipitous drop-off in performance is the perfect storm of a specific player with a defined skill set and an injury that directly interferes with it.
The major implications of Burrow’s injury are two-fold. For one, he’s been forced to change his playstyle. The pocket passer label that has followed Burrow has always been a bit of a misnomer. No one would mistake Burrow for fellow AFC North quarterback Lamar Jackson when scrambling, but breaking the pocket has always been a big part of his game.
Burrow has never been a pocket savant. He doesn’t always sense pressure and takes a high number of sacks. This hasn’t typically been an issue for the Bengals because Burrow’s playstyle has led to many explosive plays downfield. But without the mobility to break the pocket, these splash plays are nowhere to be found. Without the big plays to cancel them out, these sacks have become more costly.
Late in their Week 4 loss against the Titans, the Bengals find themselves in a must-convert fourth and nine. Burrow has enough time to get the ball out, but when he goes to climb the pocket, the suddenness and fluidity that have been a staple of his pocket movement completely vanish. His feeble attempt at a drive-extending scramble falls well short, and the Bengals turn the ball over downs.
This inability to move both in and outside the pocket leads to the second issue. A healthy Joe Burrow has just enough arm talent to make all throws expected of an NFL quarterback. Unlike Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, Burrow has little room to spare, and every bit of power he loses on his throws is costly.
With Burrow’s inability to move in and outside the pocket, he’s especially vulnerable to pressure and blitzes. He’s having to throw from many muddy pockets, making it harder for him to set his feet and step into throws. Burrow just doesn’t have the talent to throw off-platform consistently, and this, on top of the fact that his lower body isn’t at full strength, has made it difficult for Burrow to drive the ball.
On this play from Week 1, the Browns send a blitz. Usually, Burrow is lethal against extra rushers because it takes defenders out of coverage, creating favorable matchups for his pass-catchers. However, in Burrow’s current state, he isn’t as effective. With an unblocked defender coming right at him, Burrow is a sitting duck and can’t put his entire body into the throw, sacrificing both power and accuracy. He sails the pass and misses an open Ja’Marr Chase. This is a difficult throw, but it’s one he consistently made in 2021 and 2022.
Burrow’s poor play has put the 1-3 Bengals in a predicament. Either they continue to play a quarterback who’s clearly not 100% and further delay his recovery, or they put him on the bench and risk losing games the franchise simply can’t afford to.
The mid-season mark is rapidly approaching, and with the Bengals in danger of falling out of playoff contention, pressure is mounting on the Bengals and their franchise quarterback to figure it out.