CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was preparing for his second NFL season when he saw someone he once met in passing.
Well, it was really through tackling. In a 2014 Ohio state championship game, Burrow was playing for Athens High School as a defensive back, trying to stop Toledo Central Catholic and running back Michael Warren II from scoring the game-winning touchdown.
On the final drive, Warren caught a quick pass and went upfield. Burrow was ready. He launched toward Warren’s legs, stopping the running back’s momentum. Even though Warren stayed on his feet and gained a few more yards, he was briefly shaken up on the play.
Inside the Black Sheep Performance gym in the Cincinnati area this summer, Burrow saw Warren again. And with a big grin, Burrow said Warren told him that was the hardest he’s been hit by someone who made their name on offense.
“That’s what he said,” Burrow said.
Whether it was in high school, in college at Ohio State and LSU or in the NFL, Burrow has earned a certain reputation, unique among offensive stars.
“I think he plays football like a defensive player sometimes,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said, adding that Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor quipped that Burrow plays like a linebacker. “Contact has never been something he’s been afraid of. It doesn’t bother him. I think that’s what makes him unique.”
When the Bengals beat the Kansas City Chiefs to win the AFC championship, Burrow made history. He became the first quarterback to be sacked more than 50 times in the regular season to reach the Super Bowl, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Cincinnati will face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, largely because of its quarterback who relishes the physical side of the game perhaps more than most at his position.
‘Joey’s a very fearless person’
Burrow comes from a defensive football lineage. His dad, Jimmy, was a safety at Nebraska and led the team’s defensive backs in tackles in 1974. Burrow’s brother, Jamie, played linebacker for the Cornhuskers and had a team-high 84 total tackles in 2001.
And even though Burrow was destined to become a quarterback, that didn’t exclude him from playing a little defense, too.
“I think he plays football like a defensive player sometimes. Contact has never been something he’s been afraid of. It doesn’t bother him. I think that’s what makes him unique.”
Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan
In his freshman year at Athens, Burrow was an emergency defensive back in the team’s first-round playoff loss to Jackson because of a rash of illness on the team. As a sophomore, there was a possibility he could have been a two-way player at cornerback and wide receiver before the starting quarterback moved out of town.
Even as Burrow became the team’s quarterback, there were still some conversations between Burrow and Ryan Adams, Athens’ head coach at the time, of whether he would do any hitting at practice.
Eventually, common sense ruled and Burrow worked instead on the prolific spread offense that took southeast Ohio by storm. But when the opposition got better in the playoffs, Burrow would occasionally play defensive back.
“When we did allow him over there on that side of the ball, boy, he embraced it and loved every minute of it,” Adams said.
Burrow, who was listed as 6-foot-4, 205 pounds his senior year at Athens (he’s currently listed as 6-4, 221), held a size advantage that proved to be crucial.
“He was an imposing figure, even if he wasn’t as built up as he is now,” said Jay Kline, the athletic director at nearby Nelsonville-York High School. “He still had that baby face, of course.”
During Athens’ 2014 run to the Division III state title game, Burrow picked off a pass in the second-round win over Tri-Valley. He also registered one tackle in the final against Toledo Central Catholic, and was on the field as Toledo converted three fourth downs before scoring the game-winning touchdown with 15 seconds left in a 56-52 thriller.
Adams, who is no longer the coach but is still a teacher at Athens Middle School, has never watched the tape of the championship game. But he still remembers when Burrow thumped Warren, who eventually went on to rush for 2,918 yards in three seasons at the University of Cincinnati.
“He stuck him good,” Adams said. “There’s no surprise to me about that. Joe’s a very fearless person.”
‘He wants to help the team get first downs’
Ryan Clark sings Joe Burrow’s praises after the quarterback’s second-half performance for the Bengals.
One would think someone coming off a devastating knee injury might want to avoid contact.
But Burrow, who tore his ACL and MCL and suffered other structural issues in his left knee Nov. 22, 2020, doesn’t think that way. When he showed up for training camp in 2021, the former No. 1 overall pick said he wanted to get hit once or twice in the preseason.
“It doesn’t really feel like football till you get hit a little bit,” Burrow said. “That’s how it’s been for me since eighth grade.”
Of course, that didn’t happen. Dating to the team’s OTAs in the summer, the Bengals tried to eliminate any chance he might make contact with someone else, and they held him out of all but one series of the three preseason games.
Cincinnati knew it could only protect Burrow for so long. In Week 2 against the Chicago Bears, Burrow was sacked five times and threw interceptions on three consecutive passes. But he was able to throw two touchdowns and help the Bengals claw back into the game.
Though Cincinnati lost, it was an example of his trademark toughness. Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said he kept checking on Burrow in that game to see if he was OK. Each time, Burrow shook him off like he was fine.
“That’s one thing I don’t worry about is his toughness,” Boyd said in the days following that loss. “He’s as tough as it comes.”
Sometimes, Burrow can be too tough for his own good. Against the Green Bay Packers in Week 5, Burrow dove headfirst on a third-down scramble despite being well short of the first-down marker. He took a big hit, went down and was taken to the hospital for a throat injury that hampered him the next couple of weeks.
“He’s got an aggressive mentality,” Taylor said. “He wants to help the team get first downs, but at the same time, that’s part of protecting our football team is we need him out there playing and not exposing himself to some unnecessary hits.”
Burrow has gotten better about learning to slide and shy away from big blows. He has also strived to find the balance between extending plays — and the risk of potential contact that comes — and throwing the ball away.
When Adams, his high school coach, gets the opportunity to talk to his old quarterback, he often tells him to go down without any incident.
“I said, ‘This isn’t the Alexanders and Meigs County schools of southeast Ohio that you’re playing, buddy,'” Adams said.
But when the hits come, Burrow usually perseveres. After the Tennessee Titans sacked Burrow nine times in the AFC divisional playoff game, he still fired a 19-yard pass at the end of regulation to set up the game-winning field goal. The nine sacks tied the NFL record for the most in a winning performance.
“He’s able to just move on to the next play and it doesn’t affect him,” Taylor said.
‘And sometimes you get the s— knocked out of you’
Early in his college career, Burrow showed teammates and coaches that he could take a hit from someone who would go on to be one of the best in the NFL.
During a spring practice early in his career at Ohio State, Burrow was leading the second-team offense against a Buckeyes’ first-team defense that included All-America defensive end Joey Bosa, who would later win 2016 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year as a member of the Los Angeles Chargers.
“The way that we can show our toughness is to stand in the pocket and make throws. And sometimes you get the s— knocked out of you and you gotta get up and just go on to the next play.”
Even with his teammates teeing off on him, Burrow shrugged off the contact. He tightened his chin strap, stood in the pocket and kept on going.
That toughness has continued into the NFL and earned the admiration of Tom Brady, who hosted Burrow on his “Let’s Go!” podcast after the Bengals beat the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. Brady praised Burrow’s ability to take a hit, get back up and keep rolling.
“The way that we can show our toughness is to stand in the pocket and make throws,” Brady said. “And sometimes you get the s— knocked out of you and you gotta get up and just go on to the next play.”
Burrow’s willingness to take contact will be tested against a Rams front that features defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The All Pro was second in the NFL in pass rush win rate among all players, according to ESPN Stats and Information and NFL Next Gen Stats.
As a team, the Rams — who also boast 2015 Super Bowl MVP Von Miller — led the league in that category. Meanwhile, the Bengals’ offensive line finished the season ranked 30th and are trying to figure out whether rookie Jackson Carman, second-year player Hakeem Adeniji or perhaps someone else will be their starting right guard in the Super Bowl.
“Certainly our guys back down from nobody and we’re excited for the opportunity, but they’ve got a tremendous team over there now,” Taylor said.
If there’s anyone who isn’t going to back down from the challenge, it’s Burrow, the quarterback who doesn’t shy away from contact.
“It’s just part of football and I’ve always loved that part of it,” Burrow said. “Wouldn’t feel like a football player if I didn’t.”