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What is causing Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow's rising interception rate?

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CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow dropped back, assessed the defense and let loose.

It was the first drive of Cincinnati’s Week 9 game against the Cleveland Browns, and Burrow threw the ball to the goal line, looking for rookie standout Ja'Marr Chase. Instead, Browns cornerback Denzel Ward darted in front of Chase, intercepted the pass and returned it for a 99-yard touchdown, the first points in Cleveland’s 41-16 blowout win.

The throw was emblematic of a trend that has developed in Burrow’s second season. Through nine games, Burrow was tied for a league-leading 11 interceptions. He ranked third in the NFL in interceptions per attempt at 3.8%, trailing only rookies Zach Wilson and Justin Fields, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Those numbers are in stark contrast to Burrow’s injury-shortened rookie season. In 2020, he had one of the lowest interception rates in the league — 1.2%. The only QBs better were the Kansas City ChiefsPatrick Mahomes and the Green Bay PackersAaron Rodgers -- the two most recent league MVPs.

So, what is causing Burrow’s rise? The answer could hint at an aspect that could lift or level the Bengals in their final eight games.

The risk

The numbers suggest Burrow is looking to be an aggressive playmaker as Cincinnati strives to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

Burrow is part of a cadre of dynamic offensive players the Bengals have added in recent years. Chase joined a receiving corps of Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, each of whom have registered more than 900 receiving yards in one of the last two seasons. All three have made key catches and displayed the ability to create separation.

While Burrow recovered from the knee injury that ended his rookie season, he worked on increasing his throwing velocity, which allowed him to be more aggressive with this throws.

According to NFL Next Gen, Burrow leads all quarterbacks in attempts into a tight window, which is defined as when a potential receiver has one or less yards of separation from a defender when the ball arrives.

On those throws, he has completed 18 of 60 attempts for 196 yards, one touchdown and seven interceptions.

“He’s always gonna have an aggressive nature,” said Bengals coach Zac Taylor, himself a former quarterback, on Oct. 29. “That’s what we want.”

The Bengals have a different definition of tight windows. They classify those types of throws as ones into an area that is usually between zones in a defensive coverage, not just a covering defensive player’s proximity to a receiver, as was the case on Ward’s interception in Week 9.

For Taylor, those types of throws are considered contested targets. And in an interview after the game, Burrow knows they come with risks.

“I think that windows in the NFL are like that a lot and I just missed it inside,” Burrow told “The Herd with Colin Cowherd” after the game. “If I felt like [Ward] was going to make the play, I should have moved on to my progression. That’s one you live and you learn from.”

The reward

The other side of Burrow’s risk is the reward. Burrow is tied for fourth in the NFL in touchdowns thrown (20), trailing only Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady, the Kansas City ChiefsPatrick Mahomes, and Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford. Burrow also made key throws and good decisions to seal victories in Cincinnati’s hot start to the season.

But for the Bengals to make the playoffs for the first time in six years, Burrow knows he must cut down on interceptions.

“Joe is frustrated,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said last week. “He knows what the issues are. There’s not a whole lot of things where you look at his interceptions and [say], ‘That was a really poor decision.’ Sometimes you miss a throw.”

Burrow rarely misses. According to ESPN Stats and Information, just 10.8% of his throws are off target, the lowest percentage in the league.

Given Burrow's accuracy and the quality of his receivers, the biggest way for Burrow to limit interceptions could be as simple as adjusting the level of risk he’s willing to take.

The reset

Finding the right balance Burrow and the Bengals are looking for starts this weekend, when the season resumes with a road game against the Las Vegas Raiders (4:05 p.m. ET on CBS).

Las Vegas is tied for 25th in the league in total interceptions. In fact, six of the Bengals’ final eight opponents rank 19th or worse in that category. That theoretically lowers Burrow’s risk for more turnovers the rest of the way.

Cincinnati is well aware of the issues that need to be corrected. The Bengals also know exactly what the stakes are for the home stretch of the schedule.

“We're halfway through the season,” Burrow said in his post-game news conference after the Browns loss. “We still have a long way to go. Everything is still in front of us and we're going to come back to work ready to go."