As the teams set to face off again Sunday in Pittsburgh (3-6), Burrow is in a much better place. The Bengals (5-4) have won five of their last seven games, three of their last four, and the offense is coming off its best outing of the season in a 42-21 win over the Panthers.
Burrow has completed more than 70 percent of his passes each of the last four games, including a high of 81.0 percent for 481 yards passing and three touchdowns in a 35-17 win over Atlanta in Week 7.
“Just healthier, for one,” Burrow said when asked about the difference in him now compared to Week 1. “I’m not coming off an appendix surgery. I’m just going to be smarter with the ball. I’m not going to throw four interceptions. That’s an outlier for me. So, that’s my plan going in.”
Asked if he wishes he took an extra week to get ready for the season, Burrow said the appendectomy didn’t impact his performance: He was healthy enough to be out there but just didn’t play well. Burrow missed the first three weeks of training camp but returned to practice Aug. 14 and said he wasn’t sore or experiencing any setbacks in his recovery.
In the opener, Minkah Fitzpatrick picked Burrow off on the second play and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown, and that set the tone. Two drives later, Alex Highsmith forced a fumble with a sack and Cam Heyward recovered. Early in the second quarter, T.J. Watt tipped a pass and caught the interception, and the next possession, Cameron Sutton intercepted a pass intended for Ja’Marr Chase.
The fourth interception came in the fourth quarter with the Bengals trailing 20-14. Ahkello Witherspoon picked off a fourth-down pass intended for Tyler Boyd.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor didn’t think the turnovers were related to missed time in camp or Burrow’s health.
“One of them was a fourth down trying to fit into a tight window,” Taylor said. “One of them was a D-end picking it off. One was Minkah (Fitzpatrick) making a great play, the second play of the season. That’s what you deal with Week 1 of the season – what are the changes that you’re going to see and how they play things? None of that goes into the appendectomy I don’t think.”
It wasn’t just the four interceptions and sack-fumble that cost the Bengals in the opener. A blocked point-after could have been the difference in regulation, and Evan McPherson missed a 29-yard field goal attempt in overtime after a high snap. Burrow’s four interceptions came without pressure but he was sacked seven times, and the offense never got into a rhythm.
Cincinnati got off to another slow start the next week at Dallas and still had a chance to win the game but fell short again on a walk-off field goal. Burrow has just two interceptions since the opener and one lost fumble.
“I don’t know if it changed the way that I play,” Burrow said. “It just kind of reminded me how to win games. You have to treat each game individually. You can’t go out and just have a stock performance each week, every game requires something different of you to go out and get the win. I think we’ve been really good at that the last five to seven games.”
Burrow said he’s happy with how the offense has played overall since the 0-2 start.
The key stat he looks at to evaluate himself is his completion percentage, which he views as the area he should be excelling most because of how accurate his arm is. He ranks third in the league at 70.0 percent, and the Bengals rank in the top 10 in almost every offensive category.
This week is another opportunity to show how far Cincinnati has come, and Burrow has a chance to prove the opener was truly an “outlier.”
“Joe has really done a good job this year of adapting his play style,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “He’s excited to play Pittsburgh again. ... I think he’s proven over the course of his career that when he plays teams multiple times, he tends to figure out what he does wrong the first time and solving those problems the second time.”
Bengals at Steelers, 4:25 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7