CINCINNATI (AP) — One of Joe Burrow's special skills is extending plays, scrambling to make something out of nothing after the blocking breaks down.
He took a beating through 11 games last season, but it made the rookie one of the NFL's most intriguing quarterbacks early in 2020.
Now playing on a surgically reconstructed left knee, the 2020 Heisman winner insists he'll still be the same multifaceted leader when the Bengals open this season Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
“I'm a football player, not just a quarterback, and getting hit is part of the game,” he said this week. “I’m excited to experience it.”
It's been a while. Burrow continued rehabbing through training camp and was held out of all but one series in the last of three preseason games. He hasn't been hit hard since he went down among Washington pass rushers on Nov. 22 and was wheeled off in a cart.
The always confident Burrow said he never doubted he would be back for the opener, even with the extensive surgery required. Besides getting his knee back to 100%, he spent a lot of rehab time getting his body stronger and focusing on the other aspects of his game, too. He's stronger, and receivers say he's throwing harder.
“I expect to be better,” he said. “I put in a lot of work this offseason that I’m excited to show off, as all the guys have. We're a much better football team."
A season-long wave of injuries contributed to the Bengals limping to a 4-11-1 finish last year.
Improving — and maybe saving coach Zac Taylor's job — could hinge on mitigating the damage to the 24-year-old franchise quarterback.
“He knows it’s a long season,” Taylor said. “We want him healthy. He’s got to manage that, we’ve got to manage that. It’s just part of football. Quarterbacks get hit.”
Cincinnati rookie receiver Ja'Marr Chase helped Burrow and LSU win the 2019 national championship, but so far in the NFL he's known more for his drops.
The fifth overall pick in the draft, Chase dropped passes throughout camp, including three in a row in a preseason game. He said this week that he's got it fixed.
“Lack of focus,” he said. “I didn’t look the ball all the way in. Lack of concentration, just watching the ball come all the way into my hands. That’s what I lacked, and it showed.”
After winning the Biletnikoff Award as college football's best receiver in 2019, Chase opted out in 2020 to wait for the draft.
“I don’t want to blame it on me sitting on my butt all year, but it probably has something to do with it,” he acknowledged. “I’m not making excuses. I need to be a pro and make the catch.”
MEAT IN THE MIDDLE
Nose tackle Michael Pierce will make his Vikings debut, after signing with the team in 2020 but sitting out last season due to coronavirus concerns because of chronic asthma. After finishing a disappointing 7-9, the Vikings made another defensive tackle their prime target in free agency with Dalvin Tomlinson, and they’re counting on their experience, heft and agility to improve a front that fell off badly last year with star defensive end Danielle Hunter absent due to a neck injury.
Pierce and Tomlinson have formed a natural bond, heightened recently by a brunch outing with both of their girlfriends.
“He’s an awesome dude. Great player. He’s taught me a lot, and I’m grateful to have him next to me along with Danielle and everybody else,” Pierce said. “I think we’ll play really well off each other this Sunday and throughout the season. So it’s just kind of chemistry and building.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer makes frequent visits to his vacation home in northern Kentucky, property he bought near the end of his time as defensive coordinator of the Bengals from 2008-13. He said he noticed an uptick in hype lately surrounding the Bengals and the return of Burrow. By Monday, Zimmer had fielded requests from friends and family for 26 tickets.
NEW FACES IN CINCY
Just seven of the 22 players who started the Bengals' final game of last season, a 38-3 loss to the Ravens on Jan. 3, will start in Sunday’s opener. Nearly half — 22 of 46 — who played in the finale, including eight who started, aren’t even on the current roster of 53.
Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy
AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell contributed.
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