It's what everybody is wondering -- what in the world happened to Joe Burrow in the Bengals' season-opening overtime loss to the Steelers? Early interception, that's alright. Just some offseason rust. He'll be fine. But it wasn't a fluke. And he wasn't fine.
Risky decisions, shakiness inside the pocket, inaccurate tosses to all levels -- Burrow looked as bad we've seen him in his young NFL career in Week 1. Sure, in the end, Burrow did enough to win the game, but a blocked extra point and missed field goal in overtime kept Cincinnati from capping a rather obscure comeback, and his careless play was why the Bengals got into a sizable hole.
The first interception foreshadowed two problems Burrow had all afternoon, which are foundational elements in the creation of an interception -- poor decision-making and being late throwing the football.
The Steelers were in Cover 2, with Minkah Fitzpatrick responsible for one deep half of the field. Slot receiver Tyler Boyd ran a corner route, which in theory would place him in the hole between the underneath cornerback and the safety (Fitzpatrick). But Fitzpatrick barely moved from his spot at the snap of the ball, and was waiting for the throw in that exact hole, his body facing the sideline as Boyd sprinted directly at him.
The defender's positioning should've alerted Burrow that the former All-Pro safety jumping the route was imminent. It didn't. Burrow released the football -- probably a touch late too -- and it was one of the easier picks Fitzpatrick will have all season that doesn't involve a tipped pass.
It was as if Burrow was locked onto Boyd before and after the snap. Sure, it would've been advanced quarterbacking if Burrow noticed Fitzpatrick lurking and either delivered the ball much earlier and closer to the sideline or not thrown it at all.
But it's not asking too much for Burrow to showcase advanced quarterback capabilities after the season he had in 2021.
The next interception I'm highlighting presents another example of Burrow not reading the covering defender correctly and throwing the football far too late. The accuracy wasn't really an issue.
Again targeting Boyd, from a perfectly clean pocket, Burrow saw Steelers defensive back Cameron Sutton outside his receiver's skinny post down the seam. At first glance, the throwing window looked like it'd be huge. Easy pitch and catch. But Sutton's leverage allowed him to see Burrow preparing to make the throw which gave him a clear path to the football by rounding off his initial coverage drop to drive underneath the throw.
Had the throw been made a half-second earlier, Sutton wouldn't have had enough time to get underneath the route for the interception. Also, Burrow needed to realize Sutton isn't a player on a foosball table, only capable of moving in straight lines. Even if Burrow didn't notice Sutton's alignment and was late with the throw, a pass with more velocity would've saved the play for Cincinnati.
The Bengals quarterback didn't check any of the boxes needed, and Sutton made a great play on the football for the interception.
Burrow's final pick occurred because, again, of a late throw. In college, as a rookie, and during his breakout in 2021, Burrow seemingly acknowledged his lack of a rocket arm by making a litany of awesome, anticipatory throws. That doctorate-level skill is part of why he has been so good over his last three seasons of football.
Here, on fourth-and-6 in the fourth quarter, Burrow looked for his trusty slot receiver Boyd on an 8-yard stop route. Run 8 yards, foot in the ground, turn around catch the football. Move the chains. Nickel corner Arthur Maulet had obvious inside leverage and followed Boyd's route to the sticks.
Because it's zone across the board for the Steelers, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was able to stare at Burrow and peel off his primary assignment to make a play on the ball if an opportunity arose. And that's precisely what he did.
The ball needed to be out of Burrow's hand's much earlier. Maulet slid parallel to the sidelines the entire route, not allowing anything back to the inside, so Boyd clearly could to turn back to the outside. That's where the throw needed to be too. As the video shows, the ball wasn't thrown with anticipation, which gave Witherspoon ample time to see Burrow committing to throw and drive on it for the interception.
Burrow ramped the RPMs on that pass, it was just delivered far too late.
It wasn't accuracy problems. And yes, Burrow was sacked seven times. A concern for the Bengals offensive line. But this is the quarterback who was sacked more than any last season, and it hardly mattered, particularly down the stretch and in the playoffs. Burrow was a tick or two or three slow processing coverage in Week 1, and the Steelers made him pay almost every time. Maybe it was offseason rust after all, plenty of it.