This is Joe Burrow’s team.
It was last year when he led the Bengals to within 39 seconds of a Super Bowl championship and it is now at 0-2 and Sunday’s game in New York (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12) against a Jets team trying to replicate Cincinnati’s turnaround.
They call him Joe Cool for a reason and so his teammates are taking his lead. They may not have deleted their social media apps like he did, but they’re watching.
“If he’s not getting down, there’s no point for us to get down,” said wide receiver Tee Higgins before Wednesday’s practice. “Keep following after him and let him lead the way.”
If anyone should be flustered, it would be Burrow. After leading the NFL in average yards per pass and completion percentage last season, he’s ranked 28th and 17th in those categories, respectively.
But he’s not. He’s, well, Joe Cool and he remembers when the flames got hot last year after back-to-back losses put them at 5-4 and 7-6 and it turned into an AFC title.
“We’ve got great players, great coaches, understand our plan and know what we need to do to fix it,” Burrow said. “And two, we did it last year. We were talking about the same exact stuff several times last year and everyone saw how it worked out so we’re focused on getting it right and getting better. But like I said, no panic, a lot of urgency, but no panic.”
A lot of urgency, but no panic. That was also the message from strong safety Vonn Bell, one of the defensive captains. He smiled when he was asked about the rookies.
“They’re starting to feel the urgency,” Bell said. “They still have to learn the league and it can change fast.”
Like, in eight days. After the Bengals play the Jets, they play the Dolphins back home at Paycor Stadium next Thursday night and then go to Baltimore Oct. 9.
“Get back to 0-0. A breath of fresh air. Quick little bye,” Bell said. “But we’ve just got to take it one game at a time.
“Guys are still playing ping-pong, still playing cards. Cool, calm, collected. That’s a good sign. Guys sticking together.”
The coaches can read the mood, too. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo sent the similar message in Wednesday morning’s meeting. They’ve been here before.
“We didn’t get to the Super Bowl because we just got lucky and they have that belief in themselves that they can shake off any little bad spell and move on,” Anarumo said after Wednesday’s practice. “I think that’s more where we’re at as opposed to panicking and doing something different.
“Those guys’ message has been terrific and that was kind of my message to them this morning when they first got back. Let’s go to New York, play our game and everything will be fine. Don’t panic. I think that’s the kind of message they’re filtering throughout the locker room.”
Burrow is certainly not filtering his feeds. They’re off his phone.
“What’s great is I don’t have Twitter or Instagram right now,” Burrow said. “So I’ve seen none of it. I’m sure it’s not a very good reaction, but I think it’ll be a different reaction as we get going here.”
Higgins has been communicating with Burrow the old-fashioned way.
“You can see it in his face. When he’s got that look it’s time. He doesn’t need to say much,” said Higgins, who can’t begin to describe what the look looks like. “Just that look, I’ll say that.”
BATES LEADING, TOO: Anarumo also told his defense Wednesday to look at the tape and admire one of its leaders. As always, free safety Jessie Bates III barely came off the field Sunday and played every snap but one. But one he didn’t miss had Anarumo shaking his head when he saw Bates directing a trainer to shove his dislocated finger back into place before the next snap.
“God bless Jessie,” Anarumo said. “He popped the damn thing back in and didn’t even come off the field. I said that to the group this morning. There’s not a lot of guys. He didn’t come off for a play and his finger was like that. Whoever popped it back in, he did not come back to the sideline. He just went right back out there. He waved them off. That’s how much togetherness and brotherhood these guys have for each other. He is not doing that if it is another group. I have seen that before. It is a credit to him.”
Bates: “It wasn’t a knee or anything. I’m trying to play every snap. It was like this (sideways). That’s OK, just put it back into place and let’s go.”
Bates is also leading in another way. When he was a rookie in 2018 preparing to play the Ravens, veteran safety Shawn Williams gave him a few tips on quarterback Joe Flacco and in his second NFL game he came up with his first interception. Now?
“I’m passing it on,” said Bates, the only one in the secondary who has played Flacco as a Bengal. “Flacco never could move around much. But he’s smart, has a great arm and is a dangerous guy.”
Bates says he remembers that Thursday night game “like it was yesterday.” The Ravens ran a two-man route. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree ran an over route and “Joe Flacco was staring at it and I jumped it.” The ball, he believes, is back in Fort Wayne “in my mom’s house in the basement in the trophy case.”
RING IT UP: Bates better be ready to pay up, though. He’s one of four guys that Anarumo said barely missed getting turnovers in Dallas. It’s been a big point of emphasis since the Bengals advanced through the playoffs generating nine in four games and they’ve got just one this season.
It also matters in the secondary, where they have more pots going than the Hard Rock. The DBs get fined for everything from loafs to missed turnovers and they have to throw in some cash. The pot for dropped interceptions grew after Bates, slot cornerback Mike Hilton and left end Sam Hubbard got their hands on the ball but came up empty.
Bell appears to be the chairman of a board that rules on who owes. It’s usually signified by a clap of the hands, the universal sign for a just miss. Bell indicated the final decision goes to safety Mike Thomas, the board president and the team’s most senior offensive and defensive player.
“We’ll say, keep running the play all the way through,” said Bell of the determining video.
That particular pot goes to helping the rookies pay for the end-of-season dinner.
SAMPLE OUT: The news of tight end Drew Sample’s impending knee surgery that may take him out for the rest of the year is a blow to the Bengals’ pass protection. Sample was at the center of the plan last Sunday to protect Burrow from Cowboys pass rusher Micah Parsons and that got blown up when Sample did on just his 10th snap. That came after he played 29 in the opener.
So it’s good thing they claimed Devin Asiasi from the Patriots at the cut down. The 6-3, 260-pound Asiasi, a third-round pick, is cut differently than the 6-5, 255-pound Sample but he’s got a rep as a powerful pass blocker on the edge that they now need.
“Those are things that we saw on tape as we evaluated him coming out of UCLA,” Taylor said. “He’s a big, strong guy. I think he brings something to the passing game as well. He’s shown the ability to separate. He seems smart, just in our dealing with him for the last two and a half weeks or whatever it’s been. There’s a lot of positive things that we liked about him, which is why we claimed him.”
The starter, Hayden Hurst, has played well and they need Mitchell Wilcox to play more snaps after playing two in the opener.
“Those three guys will make up that room for the time being,” Taylor said. “All three of those guys have done a nice job. I though Mitch came in last week and did some really good things, despite not getting all of the reps in practice, he stepped in there and did a nice job. Hayden’s obviously been really good for us this year, now we get a chance to look at Devin a little bit.”
Go back to last year and tight end C.J. Uzomah’s 55-yard touchdown catch in Baltimore that put the Bengals up 10-3 in what would be a huge win. Taylor remembers Sample holding a block for what seemed to be four seconds against Ravens perennial Pro Bowler Calais Campbell.
“Nobody writes about that or talks about that,” Taylor said. “Drew’s just one of those tough, smart football players. He’s what we want to be about. There’s just so many of those little nuances.”
Now the Bengals need guys like backup running back Samaje Perine to step into the cauldron like he did in Dallas when Sample went down. Perine threw a Campbell-like block on Parsons that made Burrow’s tying two-point pass to wide receiver Tyler Boyd with 3:45 left possible.
“That’s not why you call the play, to match up a running back on Micah Parsons, I promise you that,” Taylor said. “A guy can line up on the left side for the entirety of the drive and all of sudden be on the right and you’ve just got to call the protection the way you want to call it, trying to help everybody there and just the way it worked out. He lined up outside against Samaje and Samaje did a great job holding him off, re-fitting his hands. That’s just what a veteran player like him brings to the table.
“Samaje did not practice that. That was Drew Sample and Hayden. Samaje gets thrown into the fire. He’s got to at halftime learn the ‘O2’ package and do a good job of executing a unique play down there on the goal line that was really just meant for inside the 3. Steps up, does it.”
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Right tackle La’el Collins (back) missed practice, but initial signs were it’s not major …
First-round pick Dax Hill played six snaps in the opener and two in Dallas and Anarumo isn’t looking to jam the rookie safety in there. Or rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt when he comes off IR. They’ve got a wait.
The long-time secondary coach rotates his front seven players, but not his DBs. Anarumo remembers what happened when he coached rookie cornerback Xavien Howard in Miami.
“It took until about Week 14 before he became Xavien Howard. And I think he’s one of, if not the best corner in the league,” Anarumo said. “It takes time for those guys. So the fact that Dax and Cam’s coming back off the injury, the fact that they have time to not get beat in a game and lose some confidence. Because soon as you put those guys out there too fast and those guys get rattled, it’s a problem, it’s a problem.
“Nobody sees the three technique get out of his gap and give up a B-gap run. Nobody sees the linebackers shed the block the wrong way. Everybody in the stadium, eighty thousand, and fifteen million people (on TV) and everybody thinks they know that the corner gave up the play or the safety took the wrong angle. So, confidence for those guys is huge and when you have a tight-knit group like we have, there’s absolutely no reason to screw up that chemistry.” ….