After Monday night's did-you-catch-that 27-17 victory over the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor says everyone is getting a game ball.
And why not?
With 25 carries running back Giovani Bernard had his most work in six years and his 83 yards were his most in three years. Quarterback Ryan Finley picked up his first NFL win running for a touchdown, throwing for another, plus a killing third-and-six quarterback draw. Safety Vonn Bell had the hit of the season while getting in on a fumble for the third time in four games. Edge rusher Carl Lawson had a sack and slowed down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's feared quick release with five other hits. Cornerback Darius Phillips had three of the Bengals' 10 passes defensed and …
"It's been a long five weeks, really, since the bye," said Taylor of their first win since Nov. 1. "For these guys to have this type of energy every single day they come in the building, waiting for a moment like this — that's not something we do often — but all these guys they come to work every day. I'm proud of them, and everyone deserves to cherish this night."
So that's 60 game balls?
"However many," Taylor said.
PAT ON ZAC BACK: His players were looking to give Taylor something, too, for this bumpy five-week ride that began back in Pittsburgh Nov. 15. Since then he's not only lost five straight, but his franchise quarterback, his back-up quarterback, his Pro Bowl defensive tackle and his two-time 1,000-yard running back.
Finley, for one, was raving about Taylor's game plan that featured a bunch of zone-read runs for him. His line of 10 runs for 47 yards was better than even anything at North Carolina State.
"I wouldn't say it was as heavy as you saw tonight, but it's a big thing when you can eliminate one guy out of the box that you don't have to block and read," Finley said of his running resume. "It just kind of came about. I thought Zac Taylor called an unbelievable game. It was the type of game we were expecting — gritty at times with a lot of running the ball. It was really well done from everyone involved."
The big run of course was Finley's 23-yard touchdown with 11:21 left that made it 24-10 with 11:21 left in the game. Finley, who pulled the ball out of running back Samaje Perine's belly when he saw Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith crash down on the back to leave the left edge exposed, said they had never run it that way during the week.
"(Taylor) tagged 'read' on it. That's not even a play that normally is a read, but he just tagged the word 'read' on it. He said if everything crashes, just pull it. That's pretty much what happened, and I walked it in," Finley said. "We had not run that play. That was Zac just being really headsy and tagging it on there. Why not?"
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who praised the scheme, was thinking back to the snap two plays before when the Bengals had a third-and-five from Steelers 39 and Finley broke a draw for eight back up through the middle.
"I thought the quarterback-designed runs were significant," Tomlin said. "The quarterback draw, I think on third-and-6 when they went empty, was a big play for them. They had a nice plan, particularly in regards to the quarterback runs. I think that guy had 50 yards and a touchdown. You have to give him credit for that.
"I thought they had a good plan. You have to tip your cap to them, particularly with some of the quarterback-designed runs that were able to keep us off balance and minimize some of the things we were able to do on possession downs."
Bernard praised Taylor for hanging with the program.
"He continues to come in here every single day and motivate guys and make them believe that every single game is an opportunity for us to win," Bernard said. "And that's tough, I've seen it. There's times when I come into the building and I'm like 'dang, we just lost a super close game last week' and we come in to watch film and this and that.
"He continues to encourage guys. For a coach to be able to do that it means a lot. For me personally it means a lot that I can trust him and that he's going to continue to be that same person no matter what's happened. Just thankful that I've been able to be a part of it and to kind of witness everything happening."
BELL-WEATHER: Remember what Bell said last week about Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster's antics of dancing on the other team's logo in pregame?
"He's still young minded. He loves the game. He loves going out there (and) playing," Bell had said. "But it's kind of disrespectful at the end of the day. But they're on top right now so you can't really say nothing right now. We just have to go out there, between the lines, go out there and hit him and let him know where he stands."
Well, Bell hit him and it turned the game. With the Bengals leading, 3-0, in the last minute of the Bengals' dominant first quarter, the Steelers were faced with a third-and-seven from their 48.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger flipped a little one over the middle to Smith-Schuster that needed a big yard-after-catch, but Bell smashed into him like a rag doll, knocked him backward and the ball went flying so linebacker Jordan Evans could scoop it and bring it the Steelers 38. A lightning bolt went through the Bengals bench.
"I think that was a huge play in the game as well. I think he just made a heck of a play, and Vonn has been doing it all year," said middle linebacker Josh Bynes. "He's such an awesome leader, such as awesome player and I've definitely loved playing with him throughout this whole season … It just gave us so much momentum, so much energy."
Bell, who has either recovered a fumble or forced one in three of the last four games, says the play had been called and he talked about it on the sidelines. But he downplayed that it was Smith-Schuster.
"We had a call that freed me up, reading Ben's eyes and just saying, 'Man, go make a play.' We were talking about it on the sideline," Bell said. "I'm not a boastful guy, man. I just go out there and let my play do the talking. It just happened that it comes to that. I'm just playing football, man. Just going out there and trying to make a play."
NUMBERS GAME: The Bengals are 12-1-1 when Bernard runs it at least 15 times. It happened in that Nov. 1 win over Tennessee. The last time it happened before that was two years ago in Atlanta.
"That's a stat I did not know, but that's good to know now," said a joking Taylor. "Thanks for waiting until week 16 to throw that one out there."
The 41 carries are the most rushes they've had under Taylor, edging out the 40 against the Ravens' last season … They had 41 in the 2018 win over Oakland.
Finley's 13 pass attempts were their fewest since the 1987 strike when replacement quarterbacks Adrian Breen and Dave Walter combined to complete five of 13 passes in a ghastly 10-9 loss to the Chargers they got outdueled by Rick Neuheisel.
That's even fewer than in the classic 2000 game Bengals running back Corey Dillon set the NFL's single-game rushing record with 278 despite Akili Smith and Scott Mitchell completing two of 14.
Their 152 rushing yards were their second-most against the Steelers in this century and most in 20 years.