'It's still alive with him': Joe Burrow's off-script ability key to Bengals' playoff hopes

CINCINNATI -- As the pocket collapsed around Joe Burrow in a Week 9 game against the Carolina Panthers, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback scanned the end zone for a receiver.

He rolled right and bought enough time for running back Joe Mixon to spin off a defender and catch a 12-yard pass for a touchdown, one of Mixon’s five scores in the 42-21 win.

The play emphasized an aspect of Burrow’s game that has evolved over the years. Through his first three seasons, Burrow’s timing and accuracy inside the pocket has played a major role in cementing his status as Cincinnati’s franchise quarterback. But his improved abilities outside of the pocket could be the key to getting the Bengals back to the playoffs, and making another deep run while there.

“If a play breaks down, it's still alive with him,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “And, I think he's like all the other great quarterbacks in this league where the play goes on forever, and you got to defend for a long time when it does break down and he's still got the ball in his hands.”

Burrow and the Bengals (5-4) begin the second half of their season Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers (4:25 ET, CBS). It was at this point last year that Burrow and the Bengals’ offense hit its stride, eventually helping Cincinnati to its first Super Bowl berth since the 1988 season. Burrow was a key performer during that run, with a number of his big plays coming from outside of the offense.

In the first nine games of 2022, Burrow has surpassed last seasons’ figures from outside the tackle box, completing nearly 61% of his passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Some of those scores have been key in winning games. Against the Panthers, Burrow told Mixon to run a fade route into the end zone. When Mixon saw Burrow looking his way, the running back had one thought.

“I saw Joe throw the ball and said, ‘Man, I better catch this,’” Mixon said after the game. “I caught that thing, toe-tapped it and it was just a great feeling. It was a great feeling for me and knowing Burrow trusts me as a receiver is a great feeling, too.”

Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst stressed the importance of getting on the same page with quarterbacks when they scramble. Some guys like receivers to run across on shallow routes.

Burrow is not one of them. When Burrow starts scrambling, Hurst knows the expectation.

“Get your ass deep,” Hurst said.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Burrow said he has improved in knowing when he can take risks on extended plays.

“Maybe we need a spark and something like that can create some momentum for the offense and then maybe we are playing really well and running the ball great and completing the balls quickly and that’s not what is required of me at the time,” Burrow said. “I’m getting better at understanding when I can and can’t do that.”

Last season, in the AFC divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans, Burrow tried to extend a play on third down and was instead sacked, pushing the Bengals out of field goal range. The third-year quarterback said gaining the reps this season has helped him find that balance.

Like last season, it also helps that Burrow is in physically better shape than he was at the beginning of the year. In 2021, Burrow had just returned from a torn left ACL and MCL he suffered as a rookie. This past July, Burrow had an emergency appendectomy to repair a ruptured appendix, a surgery that forced him to lose an undisclosed amount of weight.

Joey Boese, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, said the setback had an impact on Burrow early on.

“There was a process of getting the body weight back on and then starting to introduce some machine work to him and then work into some of the routine stuff that we’re used to doing,” Boese told ESPN in October. “That did take quite a bit of time.”

Now back at full strength, Burrow is at the helm of a Bengals offense that is fifth in the NFL in points per drive and fourth in red zone efficiency.

On Wednesday, Burrow said the fact skepticism exists about an offense that ranks so highly in such key categories is a good sign for a quarterback and unit expecting to take a leap forward in the second half of the season.

“We’re excited about the opportunity ahead of us,” Burrow said. “Fortunately, we’ve been in this spot before and we came out on top. We have the experience to go out there and do it.”