Why Joe Burrow's deep struggles shouldn't concern Bengals

CINCINNATI -- Joe Burrow took three steps back, waited for the right moment and fired.

On third and 9, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback spotted fellow rookie Tee Higgins flying down the right sideline. Higgins cradled the incoming pass in his fingertips and kept running until he was dragged down two yards shy of a touchdown.

The 67-yard gain was an oasis for an offense struggling to create explosive plays through the first six weeks of Burrow's NFL career. Last year at LSU, Burrow was second among Power 5 quarterbacks in completion percentage on passes of 20 or more air yards. But with the Bengals, Burrow is 2-of-25 on throws of 20 or more air yards, the second-lowest percentage among qualifying quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

But fretting over that statistic is worrying about the wrong aspect of Burrow's game.

"Joe is much more going to be a precision guy and pick-you-apart guy," ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. "He's going to pick people apart more than go bombs away over their heads."

Ever since Burrow was in high school in southeast Ohio, coaches have always been skeptical of his arm strength. But in his time at LSU and through six games with the Bengals (1-4-1), the 23-year-old has offset the lack of velocity with his timing and accuracy.

When it comes to dicing defenses at a medium range, Burrow is already among the best in the NFL. On intermediate throws (between 10 and 19 air yards), Burrow leads the NFL with 657 passing yards and a total EPA of 32.8, which ranks fifth in that category, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. To put that in perspective, the four quarterbacks who are better are some of the league's most proficient passers this season: Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Josh Allen and Ryan Tannehill.

The intermediate accuracy set up Burrow's big completion to Higgins in the 31-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. When the cornerback tried to jump the route to the sideline, Burrow took advantage and chucked the ball behind the defender for Higgins, who snuck behind the coverage to make the play.

"That was the first big one that we've hit, and it felt good," Burrow said on Wednesday.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor isn't concerned about the rookie's lack of deep connections and believes that will improve as receivers continue to get more reps with Burrow. Taylor referenced the lack of organized team activities in the offseason because of COVID-19, which is crucial when building connections in the passing game.

"The healthier our receivers stay, the more chemistry they will get when we are out there at practice," Taylor said. "We are starting to feel really good about those connections."

It's also up to Taylor, the offensive playcaller, to help Burrow as much as possible. Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said Burrow's early effectiveness was boosted by Cincinnati's sideline acumen.

"We were outcoaching them and outplaying them at the time because we knew what coverage they were going to be in at those certain moments," Boyd said. "And when Joe had seen it, he let it rip every time. He's very confident in his throws."

For now, working the middle of opposing defenses could be Burrow's best bet given his current receiving options.

Orlovsky said he doesn't know if the Bengals have a quality deep threat to stretch the defense.

Veteran receiver A.J. Green is trying to regain his Pro Bowl form after battling injuries the past couple of years. Orlovsky compared Higgins, the Bengals' second-round pick, to former All-Pro Muhsin Muhammad -- a physical player who can make contested catches. John Ross III, the team's speedy former first-round pick, has fallen out of the receiver rotation and asked for a trade in the final year of his rookie deal.

"I don't know if they have a long ball guy right now," Orlovsky said of the Bengals.

While Burrow tries to find that deep connection with his receivers, he still has been impressive. As his development continues, expect to see more plays like the ones Burrow and Higgins had against the Colts.

"Once he sees something," Boyd said of Burrow, "then he knows that's what he wants to take."