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Bengals' injury situation latest test for Joe Burrow

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Marcus Spears sees Super Bowls in Joe Burrow's future (2:01)

Marcus Spears lays out the blueprint for Joe Burrow to have sustained success in Cincinnati and win Super Bowls. (2:01)

CINCINNATI -- The degree of difficulty for Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow went to a new level toward the end of a loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

As Burrow led the Bengals downfield in hopes of pulling off a comeback win, starting right tackle Bobby Hart went down because of a knee injury. Hart was the third starting offensive lineman to leave the game with an injury, leaving Burrow with a string of backups in front of him with the game on the line.

That didn't stop Burrow. He capped the drive with a touchdown pass on fourth-and-1 that was almost good enough for his first comeback win in the NFL.

Burrow's most recent performance signals even though he's not yet at the halfway point of his rookie season, he may already be good enough to adapt to adverse situations.

In fact, when the offense started to deteriorate around him, Burrow actually got better. In the second half, he had three touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks and finished the game with a career-high 406 passing yards.

"You can call any play and trust it's going to be executed," Bengals coach Zac Taylor said after the game. "You're going to find explosives on non-explosive calls. He's going to extend plays. He's good with his feet. He makes everybody around him better."

Burrow's mistakes in the 37-34 loss came early against Cleveland. He threw an interception two yards from the goal line and held the ball too long, according to Taylor, which resulted in at least one of his four sacks on the day.

But Burrow was able to keep pace with Cleveland's Baker Mayfield, who set a franchise record with 21 straight completions, including none on any dropbacks in the final three quarters. Burrow threw for a career-high 406 yards, completing 35 of 47 attempts with three touchdowns.

The circumstances made the performance even more impressive.

Not only was he chasing the game for most of the afternoon, but he lost two of his best offensive linemen early. First, starting left tackle Jonah Williams left for the day with a neck injury. Then center Trey Hopkins was ruled out with a concussion. Hart went down three plays before Burrow's 3-yard touchdown throw to Giovani Bernard to put the Bengals ahead with 1:06 left.

Even though Williams and Hopkins missed the majority of the day, Taylor said he didn't adjust the game plan to account for their absence. It said as much about Burrow as it did the three backups who came in -- Fred Johnson, Billy Price and Hakeem Adeniji.

"I was proud of those guys for coming and playing the way they did," Burrow said. "They played their tails off for us and stepped up when their number was called."

At the beginning of the season, the line's ability to protect Burrow was one of the big question marks.

In 2019, the Bengals ranked next to last in pass block win rate, an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen Stats. Those concerns increased this season as Burrow was sacked a league-high 14 times through the first three games.

Some of that stemmed from the offensive line's shakiness, especially as the Bengals looked for a right guard to replace Xavier Su'a-Filo. But some of the sacks could also be attributed to Burrow, who occasionally held the ball for too long as he tried to find open receivers and extend plays.

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After struggling with that early against Cleveland, Burrow settled down and found a steady rhythm. He was not sacked in the second half and was 15-of-22 passing for 172 yards and two touchdowns despite being dropped four times during that span, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

It was another indicator of his development throughout his rookie campaign.

Second-year tight end Drew Sample said Burrow is becoming more at ease as he sees more variations in defensive schemes, blitz packages and coverage looks.

"He's always been great, but just feeling more comfortable with that, I think he has been doing a really good job," Sample said. "It's fun to have that guy on our side."

Burrow could have a slew of depleted options again on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans (1 p.m. ET, CBS). Hart has already been ruled out and the status of Hopkins, Williams and star running back Joe Mixon will be determined later in the week.

Against the Browns, Burrow showed he can adapt when necessary and can be the quarterback the Bengals need for their long-term future.

"He's special, man," Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green said. "That guy is going to be a great one."