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When Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell went out for a walk ahead of the 2020 NFL Draft in his neighborhood, he passed Bengals owner Mike Brown who was also out for some exercise.
Days before the Bengals selected quarterback Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick, Brown asked Fickell what he knew about Burrow from his time coaching him at Ohio State.
Burrow and Fickell overlapped in Columbus for two seasons in 2015-16 before Fickell accepted the head coaching job at Cincinnati. Burrow was the scout team quarterback, Fickell was the defensive coordinator so the two got to know one another well. A year later, Fickell tried to recruit Burrow to Cincinnati when he entered the transfer portal before ultimately choosing to go to LSU.
Fickell, who said his comments came well after the Bengals had done their homework on Burrow, told Brown what they surely would have already learned by then.
“The intangibles of Joe are off the chart,” Fickell told Brown. “Of what I know of him, (he's) tough and a competitor. I know if there’s a pickup basketball game, he might not look like the guy you pick first but I would tell you, you better think about picking him first because he’s a winner.”
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As the Bengals get ready to face the Titans in the AFC divisional round, Fickell is particularly drawn to the matchup for a few reasons. Fickell is close friends with Titans head coach Mike Vrabel from their time as teammates at Ohio State together. He’s also devoted to the city of Cincinnati and has seen Taylor lead the resurgence of the Bengals over the last three years.
Fickell was late to the party in finding out the Bengals would be facing the team coached by one of his best friends.
Talk about mixed emotions heading into a game.
While Fickell and Taylor have met before, the COVID-19 pandemic has limited their interactions. In a normal year, Fickell would attend an organized team activity (OTA) or a minicamp practice and Taylor would likely attend Cincinnati’s pro day. With both the Bearcats and Bengals on the rise, Fickell believes his program can benefit from what Taylor’s team does.
“It’s been awesome,” Fickell said of watching the Bengals over the last three years. “Football is a really big thing in our city both college wise and now the NFL wise. Something I thought we can both feed off each other. Recruiting is such a big deal in our world that when there is an incredible energy and vibe about pro football too, it helps us big time. Selfishly speaking just because what it can do for us and help us with our program it’s a great thing. But again, I’m a fan any way.”
Fickell was planning to make the trip to Nashville with his kids but the timing didn’t allow for it to happen as they have basketball games he wants to attend.
When asked what stands out most about the Bengals in the few games he’s been able to watch, Fickell said outside of the offense led by Burrow, the energy within the fan base around this team is apparent. Fickell would know firsthand how challenging it can be to win the fans over and build a true home-field advantage. Prior to Fickell’s arrival to Cincinnati, Nippert Stadium rarely drew the crowds the size they did over the last two seasons.
“I just think the energy, that’s what to me is what is so unique,” Fickell said. “You see things start to take off… yes, they are playing well (but) when you start to get the energy, the momentum, your stadium behind you, I think it’s a huge benefit in a lot of ways.”
Fickell was recruiting in Nashville recently and was able to visit with Vrabel. Prior to the conversation, Fickell didn’t realize the amount of injuries his team endured in the regular season. The Titans were one of the most injured teams this year and were still able to secure the AFC’s No. 1 seed, speaking directly to the coaching job Vrabel did to get several players ready to go. In early November, the Titans had fielded 82 different players in one season. One of the biggest hits Tennessee took from an injury standpoint was to Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry who suffered a foot injury. Henry will be back for Saturday’s game against the Bengals.
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“It told me a lot of what I’ve always thought about his teams," Fickell said. "He does it in a way it’s a system of guys that are tough, physical, hard-nosed players. “Obviously when you insert a lot of different ones they’ve got quite a culture and environment of winning and that’s what’s impressive as anything to me.”
Fickell will be watching the game from his house in Cincinnati with the same questions and intrigue many fans and pundits have ahead of the matchup.
“I would be curious to how the Titans play the Bengals offense,” Fickell said. “What do they do with Ja’Marr Chase? I’m curious to see how Shane Bowen (Titans defensive coordinator) and them play Chase because they know they still want to be able to get pressure on to the quarterback, so I’ll be curious to see how they play that.”
As a defensive-minded head coach, Fickell is curious to see what game plan Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has in store to limit Henry and the Titans’ potent rushing offense.
“And then I’m curious to see how much and how well the Titans can run the football,” Fickell said. “How do the Bengals go about trying to limit that running game for Tennessee?”
Those questions will be answered for Fickell and the NFL world soon enough.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati football's Luke Fickell talks Bengals, Joe Burrow