Bengals' Joe Burrow-Tee Higgins connection growing stronger by the week

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has quickly learned something about fellow rookie Tee Higgins.

If Burrow throws it in the wide receiver's direction, there's a high probability something good will happen.

One of the plays that didn't count in a 31-20 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday was a prime example of that. In the second quarter, Burrow threw a hopeful ball for Higgins near the back right corner of the end zone. Even though Higgins didn't catch it, he elicited a pass interference penalty that put the ball on the 1-yard line, setting up a touchdown on the next play.

At the midway point of their rookie seasons, the connection between Burrow and Higgins has been very effective for the Bengals and strengthened in recent weeks. And it appears the connection between Cincinnati's top 2020 draft picks will be at the core of the franchise's rebuilding project.

"[Higgins] is a great player," said Burrow, who is judicious with praise. "We've had a couple months now to really understand each other."

As the Bengals (2-5-1) have found their offensive form, Higgins has been the most productive receiver. He has 336 receiving yards in the past four games, the third-highest total in the NFL during that span.

On the season, Burrow and Higgins have combined for 33 catches for 488 yards and three touchdowns. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, their total expected points added of 34.4 ranks seventh in the league among quarterback-receiver tandems (the Burrow-Tyler Boyd connection leads the NFL with 47.5 total EPA).

Heading into Cincinnati's bye week, the rapport between Burrow and Higgins is vastly different from what it was at the beginning of the season.

Higgins was hampered by a hamstring injury during the preseason and saw limited action in the Week 1 loss to the Chargers. The former Clemson standout had zero targets and was on the field for 22% of Cincinnati's offensive snaps.

In Week 2, Higgins was given the starting spot as the third wide receiver over former first-round pick John Ross, who is in the final year of his rookie deal. Higgins' target rate increased as he got more familiar with Burrow. Against the Titans, the synergy between the pair was evident.

On a third-and-5 in the first quarter, Burrow scrambled to his right to extend the play. On the original route, Higgins broke to the right sideline and turned toward the line of scrimmage.

But when he saw Burrow stalling for more time to throw the ball, Higgins flipped his hips and reversed course upfield. Burrow lofted a pass to Higgins, who leaped over the defender, extended his arms to catch the ball and tapped both feet in bounds to complete the 24-yard gain.

It perfectly illustrated the budding chemistry between the rookies.

"We're right there with it," Higgins said last week regarding his communication with Burrow. "That's where you want to be with your quarterback. You want him to have trust in you -- just throw up the ball and go up and get it."

The duo's effectiveness is also having ramifications on two significant levels. From a short-term perspective, Higgins gives the Bengals' offense another reliable weapon if a defense deploys most of its resources to stop Cincinnati's more high-profile weapons in A.J. Green, Boyd and Joe Mixon.

But as with everything in 2020, the long-term outlook is most important. And the early returns suggest Higgins will live up to his billing as the franchise's next big-time receiver. That also reinforces the decision to decline the fifth-year option on Ross' rookie contract and could give Cincinnati extra incentive to trade Ross before the deadline at 4 p.m. EST on Tuesday.

Over the final eight weeks of the season, the Bengals are looking to set the foundation of their rebuild and provide optimism for a playoff push in 2021.

Sunday's victory over the Titans was another reminder that any grand plans about the future will revolve around Burrow and Higgins.

"We have a couple [of] great players on this team," Burrow said. "I'm excited for the future with Tee."