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The Magic and Mythology of Joe Burrow’s Deep Passing Game

The third-year quarterback enters this season with plenty of expectation. But his combination of touch, vision, and sheer ability has his receivers confident that he’ll find them any time, anywhere.

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Joe Burrow calls his shots. Take a Week 17 game against the Kansas City Chiefs when, at the start of the third quarter, he looked at Ja’Marr Chase on the sideline and said, “You’re about to score a touchdown,” Chase remembers.

These moments are not predicated on a feeling or some whimsical desire for badassery. This is not Babe Ruth pointing toward center field at Wrigley Field. Burrow just knew the following: That in the first half, the Cincinnati Bengals had run “pressure routes” against the Chiefs, 10- to 12-yard speed-outs with Tyler Boyd. And that Daniel Sorensen, one of the Chiefs’ two deep safeties, wasn’t in position to get to the sideline. There was space on the left side—where Chase was running as a glorified decoy. “He’s not getting enough width,” Burrow told the offense of Sorensen.

There is a saying among those in the Bengals quarterback room that Burrow has taken to heart—something Peyton Manning used to say and Brian Callahan, who coached Manning in Denver and is now the Bengals offensive coordinator, brought with him to Cincinnati: “They can’t play like that. We can’t let them play defense like that. If they’re gonna play like that, we’re going to teach them a lesson.”

“There are not,” Callahan said, “a lot of people who can put that into action.” But Burrow is one of them. He doesn’t talk on the sideline often, Callahan said, but when he does, he’s adamant. This was one of those times.

Burrow asked to run the play again and for Chase to do the same thing—what coach Zac Taylor calls a “run for the love of the game” route. Burrow approached Chase, the receiver remembers, and in a strangely calm manner, explained he would throw it toward him, and that it would be a sure score. Chase believed him. He was, of course, right. Sorensen couldn’t make it to the sideline, and Chase tore down the left side for a 69-yard touchdown.

Then there’s the Week 8 game against the Jets. The Bengals called a throwback route earlier in the game, and the Jets were in quarters coverage. “They are just so tight,” Burrow said on the sideline. If Tee Higgins ran a “fan route” on the outside to the right, Burrow said, there was no question it would be there for them. The result was a 26-yard toss that brought them to the 2-yard line.

“There is something like that every game,” Callahan said. “Where he says, ‘I know they can’t cover this.’”

It should not surprise anyone that Burrow led the NFL in deep touchdown passes last year. He does not have the league’s strongest arm, but he has perfected the art of getting the ball where it needs to be, enough to helm a prolific offense that brought the Bengals to the Super Bowl. His three top receivers are some of the very best in football, and their relationship and chemistry are huge parts of the story of Burrow’s deep passes. I went to Cincinnati this month to find out how this all happened for a team that entered last season with the third-worst Super Bowl odds and came back with stories that would sound like tall tales if there weren’t video evidence readily available. The receivers and I ran through every deep touchdown they scored last year, as well as some other big plays, and what they described was a quarterback unafraid to do anything on a football field. Burrow is part football genius, part point guard, part chaos agent.

Week 16, at home: The Bengals were in a max protection scheme, meaning they were keeping extra players in to block. To counteract this, the Ravens defense moved into what is called a “triple double”—double-covering all three of the Bengals’ star receivers. Higgins ran a post route and was covered on the inside and the outside by both defenders. And, like most normal humans, he assumed Burrow wouldn’t throw to him. “I looked back, the ball is there. And I just said, ‘Oh shit,’” Higgins remembers. Sometimes, I posit, Burrow seems to have more confidence in the receivers than they have in themselves. “That’s facts,” Higgins said.

“When Joe threw the ball,” Callahan said of the play, “he knew the spot to put that would be high and a little bit behind. So those guys that are trying to cover from the outside and inside with their eyes turned away from the quarterback, only Tee had the vision to go get the ball.” Those completions tend to create more of the same, Callahan said. Once a receiver gets used to such a throw, they can do it again, and defenders still can’t catch up to it. The result was a 52-yard reception that put the Bengals inside the 5—and provided proof that double coverage doesn’t mean to Burrow what it means to other quarterbacks.

Taylor said Burrow can do this both because he understands exactly what type of pass to throw in every situation, and because he has a brilliant ability to understand the body position of everyone on the defense. “He can see a safety or linebacker turned a certain way,” Taylor said, “and understand it doesn’t feel like double coverage anymore because they’re not in position with the play.”

Higgins first realized how amazing Burrow was on the losing sideline of the national title game between Burrow’s LSU and Higgins’s Clemson. When he was drafted 33rd overall in 2020, Higgins’s first thought was about the perfect passes he saw that night. “Damn, I get to catch those balls from one of the best,” he thought.

Burrow’s ability to get the ball to Higgins and his teammates at any point has changed the receiver’s entire perception of the position. On a play against Pittsburgh in November, for instance, the Steelers were in a type of off coverage that would usually mean Higgins’s route was dead: They gave him a 10-yard cushion off the line. He was shocked, then, when Burrow placed a perfect ball that he could haul in for a 32-yard touchdown. “A lot of times he’ll say, ‘I’m throwing it up, go catch it,’” Higgins said. “And you do not want to drop it when he says, ‘Go catch it.’”

Everything with Burrow is intentional. Chase told me that against Chicago last September Burrow underthrew a deep pass. It was an easy adjustment for Chase—and an impossible one for two Bears defenders, who collided with each other as Chase came back for the ball and then glided into the end zone for a 42-yard score. Burrow found Chase after the play and told him he meant to do that. Of course he did. “I believe everything he tells me,” Chase joked. I don’t blame him.

Some of these touchdowns are simpler: Chase said a pass in an October game against the Packers slipped past safety Darnell Savage—who was running at 22 mph to catch up to the ball—just because of the ball placement.

And some are just for fun: Against the Vikings in Week 1, when Chase had Bashaud Breeland playing off of him, Burrow’s former college teammate knew the pass was coming his way. Why? “Because it was our first game back together and it was our first ‘go’ call,” Chase said, referencing the simple, straight-ahead route designed to, well, go. “He just wanted to see if we still had the same chemistry. So I always knew it was coming to me. That’s the funny part. He just wanted to see if we still had it, honestly.” The 50-yard touchdown was, up until that point, the longest completion of Burrow’s career.

Nothing is impossible in the Joe Burrow offense, and that’s what makes it work. “He has a creative arm, I like to call it,” Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson, Burrow’s former teammate at LSU, said. “He can put the ball exactly where you want. He is a crazy player.” Jefferson told me that it starts with his accuracy, of course, but it’s more than that. When the pocket collapses, Burrow is still looking downfield and can throw it deep. He can throw any pass out of any situation.

“Joe’s greatest gift is he’s got an incredible perception of what everybody on the field is doing and where they are located,” Callahan said. “So his ‘making every throw’ is gonna look a little different sometimes than Rodgers or Mahomes. He doesn’t necessarily have that huge, awkward body position, that kind of power those guys have. He can make a lot of throws. But Mahomes, where he takes nine steps back and he’s off his back foot and throws it 60, that might necessarily not be in Joe’s bag. He’s probably not far off it—the difference is minuscule to me—but [Rodgers and Mahomes] do have some freakish body control things that they do that’s different than really anybody in the world.” Still, Callahan says, Burrow’s ability to know everything happening on the field at all times allows him to anticipate. “When the pattern comes up, he can feel things happening, and his decision-making is so fast and he’s so accurate that there’s no throw on the field he can’t find,” Callahan said.

That vision, married with the touch he can put on his passes, means he can do anything at any time. Or, as Higgins puts it: “The ball is at the right place at the right time, all the time.” Bengals coaches said that Burrow is unusually talented at reading his own receivers’ body language, the way they plant their steps, and their leans while they run. One rule of the offense is that if it’s press coverage, Burrow wants Chase to look back at him in the first 10 yards of the play and they’ll change the route. It is the closest thing to basketball you can find in football.

Then there are the types of balls Burrow can throw. For example: Burrow will give his receiver the opportunity to run past his defender. Taylor said that well before the receiver closes the distance on the corner, Burrow is comfortable throwing the ball because he knows the defensive backs’ athletic traits so well, and he knows the coverages. “He puts enough touch on the ball to allow receivers to out-physical the DB and still run by them and go catch it,” Taylor said. “He understands times when the DB is not going to give up that over-the-top presence and they are going to stay on top come hell or high water, and give a firm back-shoulder throw.

“And sometimes, when you’re in that 50-50 zone, when you’re not quite sure if the receiver is going to run by or go back shoulder, he gives just the right amount of touch where the receiver can turn and adjust and see what type of ball it is. ‘Oh it’s not over the top, OK, now I’m adjusting to back shoulder.’”

Take two different throws against the Steelers last year. On one Chase touchdown, with less than a minute left in the half, “the ball is gone before Ja’Marr has closed the cushion,” Taylor remembers. “Joe just said, ‘I’m gonna put this up and let him run by.’” The result was a 34-yard touchdown. The flip side of that was the aforementioned Higgins pass, “where the safety just left Tee and the corner is playing 10 to 12 yards off and he just said, ‘I’m gonna give a ball where only Tee can get it.’” That led to a high-pointed ball in the end zone, perfectly thrown for a touchdown.

Receivers coach Troy Walters says that receivers operate with the understanding that in one-on-one situations, Burrow will trust you and that good things will normally happen. This, Walters said, is a product of countless reps between Burrow and the receivers: He has clocked how fast each receiver is and knows which players and routes to air it out with and which to throw to the back shoulder with on a slower-developing play. Walters said each of the Bengals’ three star wideouts have the same attributes: strong hands and the ability to high-point the ball and to catch different types of passes.

“It’s not about the moment,” Taylor said. “It’s about the hundreds of reps leading up to the moment.”

One thing Burrow is brilliant at, Taylor said, is simulating chaos while Bengals receivers run routes with no defenders in practice by using different body angles, different receiver positioning, and pocket movement and by acting like a receiver got bumped or is being covered over the top by a safety. He wants, Taylor said, to paint a picture in practice.

“The only way he learns to trust is if you know your place,” Chase said. “If you don’t really know what you’re doing, Joe is not going to throw to you. I had to be on my P’s and Q’s in my playbook. I had to know his adjustments, how he switches plays at the line. You have to know his timing—the ball is always early and it’s when you least expect it. You have to [learn to] turn your head around quickly.”

Chase describes a play against Detroit, a “hole shot,” in which he was double-covered by two Lions. The hole shot means the pass has only one place to go, dropped between two players who could intercept it. (Think of the “miracles” described in Top Gun: Maverick.) That’s what Burrow did with the pass.

These are not just trick shots. Burrow knows what adjustments to make at the line of scrimmage. Boyd, describing a touchdown against Baltimore last year, said Burrow saw a mismatch before the snap. Two receivers were lined up to the left, and a tight end and a running back were on the right, also Boyd’s side. Burrow checked into the Boyd double move against Patrick Queen. “The linebacker undercut me, I put my foot in the ground, I went to my landmark, and it was the easiest throw you could have ever made,” Boyd said of the 68-yard touchdown. “It is not our job to go out there and run route paper. It’s our job to be creative.”

The best compliment I can give Burrow is that throughout my training camp tour, I asked multiple defensive backs whether they would talk about being on the business end of one of Burrow’s deep passes. All of them declined.

Almost everyone in the Bengals facility said Burrow is supernaturally gifted at figuring out what a defensive back can and can’t do and then adjusting before the play, or during it, depending on their limitations. I mentioned Manning, who was famous for such moves, to Callahan. He was hesitant to make any comparisons, “but [Burrow] has that same type of mind where he’s always dissecting what’s happening across from him and where he can find an advantage.”

But just because Burrow is preternaturally skilled at moving the ball down the field doesn’t mean he’s had it easy across his two-year NFL career. He took 51 sacks last season, the most in the NFL. Part of this was on the offensive line, which has been significantly upgraded this offseason with center Ted Karras, guard Alex Cappa, tackle La’el Collins, and 2021 second-round guard Jackson Carman. Part of it is Burrow holding on to the ball too long in certain situations, and part of it is the offense, where the Bengals’ identity—and Burrow’s preference—is to get as many players out into routes as possible and let the QB find a receiver quickly. “We are always going to exploit people in empty because you’ve got to cover all of our guys, and that’s something that he sees really well,” Callahan said. “There will always be an element of that in our offense. We always want to get the backs out as much as possible, five out in a pattern.”

Callahan said Burrow has a great feel for protection and when he’ll need help, especially against elite players. On third down, Callahan said, you’ll always have to put two guys on Myles Garrett and make similar adjustments for T.J. Watt in the four games a year they play against their teams in the AFC North. “We talked with him this offseason—as you go back and watch all the sacks and think, ‘Which ones could you have avoided?’ Do you need to hang on to the ball and scramble on a first-and-10 in the second quarter in Week 3? The answer is maybe, but there’s a decision-making give and take. If you know you can make a huge play or you’re trying to make a huge play, there’s a difference in the two. The idea is to alleviate some of the hits you don’t need to take.”

Against Green Bay, “It’s like, ‘You weren’t close to the first down, there was no way you’re gonna get this, don’t put yourself in that position,’” Callahan said. “Either throw the ball away or run out of bounds. Over time, those things add up, and hopefully I think he understands that. It’s a very fine line, toeing between being an unbelievable playmaker and making a lot of those plays that we’re gonna be telling him, ‘Oh no, no, no … oh hey, great job.’

“There is definitely an awareness of how you can protect yourself better that I think he does understand. There’s a time and place to be a hero and a time and a place where maybe you don’t have to take that hit.”

Even with a retooled offensive line, the 2022 Bengals face fresh questions: Burrow had appendix surgery on July 26 and returned to practice this week. He likely won’t play in the preseason, but is on track to start the season on September 11. Burrow’s health, of course, is the most important thing in the franchise. Lower on the concern list: a stacked AFC that now includes Russell Wilson, Davante Adams, a revamped Chargers team, and holdover contenders like the Chiefs and Bills.

The good news is, Burrow knows the ingredients to defeat such teams: go deep. There’s always something down there.

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