Joe Burrow was far from his best Monday night.
But he was good enough for a Cincinnati Bengals team that rolled the dice on starting its ailing Pro Bowl quarterback. While Cincinnati's defense stifled Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams, Burrow overcame a worrisome first half to lead the Bengals' offense in a 19-16 win.
The night got off to an ominous start for the Bengals. For the third straight game, Cincinnati failed to score a first-half touchdown as its offense dinked and dunked its way to a 6-6 halftime tie. But Burrow and the Bengals' offense showed signs of life in the second half while producing enough points to pick up a desperately needed win.
Burrow finished the night completing 26 of 49 passes for 259 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. It wasn't a vintage effort, nor was it enough to quell concerns over the calf strain that's hobbled him since the start of the season.
But it was enough to avoid an 0-3 start.
“We’re getting there,” Burrow told ESPN postgame of his recovery. “Every week will be better as long as there’s no more setbacks. … Today we got through it.”
Perhaps most encouraging was Burrow's connection with Ja'Marr Chase, who tallied 12 catches for 141 yards. The All-Pro receiver tallied just 70 yards in Cincinnati's first two games.
Bengals took a chance in starting Burrow
The Bengals faced a critical decision on playing Burrow with their season in peril just three weeks in. The other option was to rest Burrow and his ailing calf and start Jake Browning, a practice-squad veteran whose résumé includes a single NFL pass attempt.
With the AFC rival Ravens, Steelers and Browns all off to 2-1 starts, the 0-2 Bengals believed Burrow gave them the best chance to pick up a win. They opted to start him, a decision that wasn't made until game day.
Burrow was a shell of his Pro Bowl self in the 0-2 start, completing 41 of 72 (56.9%) passes for 304 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. His 4.2 yards per attempt trailed his 7.4-yard average in 2022 and league-best 8.9 yard rate a year prior in Cincinnati's run to the Super Bowl. The explosion was gone.
It remained missing in the first half Monday night as each of Burrow's 13 first-quarter passes traveled fewer than 10 yards in the air. Burrow averaged 4.6 yards per attempt while Cincinnati's offense produced four punts and three field goal attempts, two of which were successful.
Burrow shows signs of life in second half
But Burrow led an efficient, 10-play 75-yard drive to start the second half that ended with a 14-yard Joe Mixon touchdown run. Then Cincinnati's second possession of the half produced a glimpse of the familiar downfield success that's been so glaringly absent through the start of the Bengals' season.
On first-and-10 from the 25-yard line, Burrow faked a pitch to running back Chase Brown then rolled to his right. He looked downfield and launched a strike on the run to Chase, who corralled the ball down the right sideline for a 43-yard gain.
“Ja’marr Chase has arrived finally as a playmaker” 😂 pic.twitter.com/Kks1JiHkqv
— BetMGM Canada (@BetMGMCanada) September 26, 2023
That play set up up a 48-yard Evan McPherson field goal to extend the Bengals' lead to 16-7. But it was an anomaly on a night that saw the Bengals reach the red zone just once while tallying 309 yards from scrimmage.
The Bengals' defense deserves the lion's share of credit for Monday's win. It kept pressure on Stafford throughout the night, producing six sacks and two interceptions. Second-year safety Dax Hill was a force, tallying eight tackles, including two for loss, one quarterback hit and this sack of Stafford that set up a third-and-long deep in L.A. territory.
— NFL (@NFL) September 26, 2023
Logan Wilson secured both of Cincinnati's interceptions.
Thanks largely to that defense, Cincinnati staved off the most immediate concern Monday night by stopping the bleeding and picking up a win. But Burrow's health remains an ongoing issue that isn't likely to subside any time soon.