The Browns are preparing as if they're facing a veteran quarterback on Thursday night.
The opposing quarterback, however, is only one game into his NFL career. Joe Burrow, the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner and 2020 first overall draft pick, will be playing his first game against the Browns on Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium as both teams attempt to secure win No. 1 of the season. It's the first of many meetings the Browns expect to have against the newest AFC North quarterback, but they're not treating Burrow like any normal rookie.
"Joe Burrow is obviously a good quarterback," LB Sione Takitaki said Monday in a Zoom call with local reporters. "He did some good things in the last game. I feel like we have to definitely be aware of his arm. He can throw that ball. I feel like today we are going to get a little bit closer on it as a group, start watching tape and start analyzing, game planning and stuff. We will see exactly what is going on."
A year ago, Burrow was making his quick ascension to the best player in college football and on his way to a landslide Heisman selection. His 60 passing touchdowns last season were the most by any player in NCAA history, and he was nearly impeccable in the College Football Playoff as he led LSU to a National Championship.
Burrow, an Athens, Ohio, native, knows how to win. He put the Bengals in position to do that last week against the Los Angeles Chargers, but kicker Randy Bullock missed a 31-yard field goal that would've sent the game into overtime. Burrow finished 23-of-36 for 193 yards and an interception. The Bengals, though, were never out of the game.
"He's a really good young player," head coach Kevin Stefanski said. "He had as good a college career and as good of a year as you can have. We have our work cut out for us. He can make all the throws."
Burrow can make all the runs, too. He had 13 rushing touchdowns as a college player and scored his first NFL touchdown Sunday on a 23-yard run after displaying a veteran-level of patience in waiting for a block past the line of scrimmage to find a rushing hole.
He doesn't quite possess the dual-threat abilities as, say, Lamar Jackson, who rushed seven times for 45 yards and threw three touchdowns last week against Cleveland, but the Browns know that containing Burrow's scrambles will be just as important as limiting his throws.
"He's definitely a capable runner," said CB Denzel Ward, who practiced against Burrow from 2015-17 as Ohio State teammates. "Joe is a great player, a great quarterback. He makes great throws and great decision-making. I'm looking forward to going against him."
Ward isn't alone as a Browns player who played or practiced against Burrow in college. CB Greedy Williams, LB Jacob Phillips and S Grant Delpit all faced Burrow in practice at LSU, and LB Mack Wilson had an SEC battle against Burrow in 2018.
Ward, however, is the only player from that group currently healthy. Williams missed Sunday's game and hasn't practiced since training camp, while Phillips suffered a knee injury Sunday and is uncertain to play Thursday. Delpit is out for the season with an Achilles injury and Wilson has been out since the first week of training camp with a knee injury.
The injuries certainly don't help the defense, but Ward isn't making any excuses for Cleveland. They need to find a way to stop Burrow no matter who's on the field.
"We are missing those guys, but guys have to step up and we have to be able to do our jobs when guys go down," Ward said. "That is the National Football League. It's the next man up."
Thursday could be the first of many heavyweight bouts between Burrow and the Browns. The defense isn't underestimating what Burrow can do from the pocket or on the run, but they need to bounce back after allowing 38 points to the Ravens in Week 1.
A 1-1 start looks much better than 0-2, and a win against Burrow will be crucial in the scope of the Browns' full season.
To do it, though, they must treat Burrow like a veteran, not a rookie.
Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Bengals Thursday