INDIANAPOLIS – No one should question Joe Burrow’s toughness.
Justin Houston has pored over the video of the next quarterback in his crosshairs. He’s seen Burrow get hit, get hit some more, and get up. He’s been impressed.
“From the situations he’s been in and the games I’ve watched so far, I think he is a tough guy,’’ Houston said this week. “It’s hard to rattle that guy. He takes a lot of big hits and he stays in that pocket and continues to make good passes.’’
The objective of Houston and the Indianapolis Colts’ defense is to keep those hits coming Sunday when Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals visit Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Bengals invested the 1st overall pick in the April draft on Burrow, placing their future in the hands of the Heisman Trophy-winning, national championship quarterback out of LSU.
Through five games, he’s given every indication he’s the real deal. The Bengals are just 1-3-1, but Burrow is completing 65.2% of his passes with six touchdowns, three interceptions and an 86.3 rating.
The issue is the punishment he’s taken. He’s been sacked 22 times and hit another 29 times. In a week 3 tie at Philadelphia, Burrow was sacked eight times and hit on another 10 occasions.
He’s been sacked or hit on 10% of his drop-backs and on pace to be sacked 70 times. That would be the third-most in NFL history, trailing Houston’s David Carr (76 in 2002) and Philadelphia’s Randall Cunningham (72 in 1986). It’s worth noting Carr’s record came in his rookie season and as the 1st overall draft pick.
The Texans never got it right with Carr. Along with his record total in ’02, he went down 68 times in ’04, the third-highest total in league history. He was sacked 249 times in 76 games with the Texans, and the physical abuse took its toll.
The Bengals have too much invested in Burrow to allow that to happen, and they know it.
“You don’t want your quarterback to get hit as much as he has,’’ offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said recently. “Some of those are on protection, just pure pass protection.
“Some of those are on him and the style of his play. The play is never over for him. He does everything he can to keep it alive.’’
The 6-3, 221-pound Burrow is the Bengals’ second-leading rusher with 85 yards on 23 runs/scrambles.
Second-year head coach Zac Taylor recently told the Cincinnati media Burrow’s stubbornness to give up on a play “makes Joe the player that he is. He’s not afraid to take those hits and put himself in those positions because it means explosive plays.
“There is a balance of being smart and putting yourself in that position.’’
It remains to be seen if Burrow finds that balance as the season unfolds. Perhaps he’ll start getting the ball out of his hands quicker. Perhaps he’ll realize the constant pounding is detrimental to himself and the team.
Until then, the Colts will go about their business of making things as difficult as possible on him. And that means turning up the pressure.
“Usually with the younger quarterbacks, pressure really gets to them obviously, especially coming to this league,’’ tackle DeForest Buckner said. “So pressure and tight coverage really gets after them. You try to do that with any quarterback you play, but especially with the young ones. The pressure really gets to them.
“You’ve seen it over the course of the last couple of games; we watch it on film. Obviously, pressure gets to him. You just need to do a good job up front dominating rushing whether it’s with four or five, with six.’’
It’s also important to keep Burrow in the pocket. In last Sunday’s loss at Cleveland, Baker Mayfield did serious damage in the first half – 228 yards, two TD passes – in large part because frequently he rolled out of the pocket. The New York Jets’ Sam Darnold also had a degree of success when he broke containment.
“We have to do a better job of keeping those guys in the well when we do have good coverage and tight coverage with the ability not to scramble and not to extend plays and then throw the ball down the field when the coverage breaks down,’’ defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said.
The Colts rank in the middle of the pack with 11 sacks. Houston leads the way with 3.5 followed by Denico Autry’s 2 and Buckner’s 1.5. They’ve also been credited with another 15 QB hits.
But first things first.
“You’ve got to earn the right to pressure the quarterback,’’ Houston said.
That means limiting the effectiveness of running back Joe Mixon and putting the onus on Burrow. The 6-1, 220-pound Mixon is tied for 5th in the league in rushing with 374 yards.
Another No. 1
For those keeping track at home, a quarterback taken 1st overall will start as a rookie against the Colts for a sixth time. Indy is 4-1 in previous meetings.
They handled Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston in 2015 (25-12), San Francisco’s Alex Smith in ’05 (28-3) and Houston’s Carr twice in ’02 (23-3 and 19-3). The only loss came against Carolina’s Cam Newton in ’11 (27-19).
In those five games, the rookie QBs were rather underwhelming: 81-of-143 for 763 yards, one touchdown, six interceptions and a 56.4 passer rating.
Oh, yes, the Colts piled up 23 sacks in the five games. They were major contributors to Carr’s league-record total with 10 in the two games.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.