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Bengals Notebook: Monday Meetings; Taylor Eyes Another Late Shot With Burrow; Hendrickson Could Play Sunday; Mulling New Punt Returner

Joe Burrow caught fire late against the 49ers.
Joe Burrow caught fire late against the 49ers.

This is why head coach Zac Taylor likes his Bengals team as it begins its can't-lose-anymore Final Four of games beginning Sunday in Denver.

And maybe he didn't even know it. But after he met with his captains Monday, the defensive backs met with themselves. Which is not unusual for that group, but it tells you something about these guys because of Pro Football Focus' top 10 Bengals defensive players in Sunday's 26-23 overtime loss to the 49ers at Paul Brown Stadium, six are defensive backs.

"We kind of just let each other know that we've got a lot of talent on this team and we just have to be more disciplined," said cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who typified their grit with the second highest grade despite playing on an injured foot that drove him out of the game in the fourth quarter.

"We have to meet more, talk about more film stuff because… at the end of the day this game is a game about units and units that want to be the best on the team," Awuzie said. "Wants to be the best in the league and I think we have the talent as a defensive back unit to be one of the best in the league. Every game we take very hard on ourselves. I think it was a good message from a lot of guys speaking up just how we can be better."

It was the kind of loss that can send a team reeling on a Monday morning and Taylor emerged pleased with the temperature he took with the captains.

"What's special about this team is everyone is accountable," Taylor said of a captains meetings where coach and players "regrouped."

"Tremendous leadership of having accountability and confidence to accomplish things with the right attitude we need the team to have."

The message wasn't exactly complicated. On Monday there were 27 days until the Jan. 9 season finale in Cleveland. Every one of them matters.

"Take all these lessons we learned from these tight games and find ways to finish these games off," Taylor said. "Losing in the manner that we have and we fight hard and make it a good game but you got to find a way to finish off these close games."

Awuzie spoke for the DBs.

"It's just a hunger. We're seeing that we're making plays and we've been not … far away from making more plays and impacting the game," he said. "Whatever situation we're put in, we think that we can win. And we're starting to see it on film."

SECOND THOUGHTS II: Taylor was right.

Right after the game Sunday night he predicted he wouldn't sleep very well mulling how he called the Bengals' last two or three plays of overtime. He may have even had a dream about a Joe Burrow bust in Canton. it was one of those days when Burrow blistered his way to Pro Football Focus' highest quarterback grade of the week.

"Two things can be true," Taylor said Monday. "You can believe in your run game and your running back and offense line and you can also put the ball in your quarterback's hands because in 15 years we think this guy, we think we are going to look back and he's going to be a Hall of Fame type quarterback. Give him a chance to win the game."

So, yeah. Instead of run running back Joe Mixon on second down from the 49ers 22 for three yards, Taylor would have taken a shot if he had to do it again.

And, let's face it. With four wild games left, he probably will.

"Put the ball in his hands. Give him the second down and third down to go get the touchdown and maybe you walk off the game with a walk-off touchdown and the game is over," Taylor said.

GEORGIA ON HIS MIND: One of the reasons Taylor thinks Burrow can get to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is that ridiculous 17-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase on fourth-and-five as he was getting chased out of bounds to the right sideline.

It was also a heck of a play by Chase on the back line because he suddenly he had to turn when he saw it rifled at him after Burrow noticed the defenders' hips flipping the other way.

"It kind of goes back to a similar play they ran against Georgia. You think back to a scramble he had and Ja'Marr caught it the other way coming across the end zone," Taylor said of the LSU tandem's college days. "That's one that stood out. The moment I saw that I said, I've seen this before. It did register with me how the ball was thrown and where he caught it because I was concerned he was throwing the ball back across the middle because that was where Ja'Marr was breaking and I didn't love that.

"But then I saw Joe throw it and Ja'Marr pull out and the ball was perfectly placed, it was a tremendous catch. Whether it has been talked about or not his ability to stay in bounds and not go out of bounds there because he can't come back in and touch it is pretty remarkable."

It was the kind of play that even had the pros gaping. Wide receiver Tee Higgins couldn't help it on Monday.

"When he threw it I was like, who in the … is he throwing the ball to?" Higgins said. "I looked back and the next thing I know Chase is catching the ball and I'm like, 'Ok, I understand.' He knew his guy, he gave him a chance and Chase made the play."

HIGGINS ON THE MARCH: Higgins, now on pace for 1,000 yards (1,061), says he's only thinking about making the playoffs. But when he went over 100 yards (114) for the third straight game Sunday, it was noteworthy enough that he mentioned to Chase on the sidelines that it was the first time in his life he remembers going for 100 in three straight games.

Asked if he knew who the last Bengal to do it was, he said, no and then got a bad hint: "Your guy.

He actually has two your guys. He wears Chad Johnson's No. 85 and he grew up watching the Bengals because of A.J. Green.

He guessed Johnson, but it is Green when he went five straight games with 100 in 2013.

"That's the challenge? Is that you challenging me?" Higgins asked. "Hopefully I can. So, we can see if we can keep going."

THIRD THOUGHTS: Yes, Taylor discussed going for a two-pointer in the fourth quarter. But not with 1:19 left when Evan McPherson kicked an extra point to tie at 20. But before the touchdown with 9:20 left that cut the 49ers lead to 20-12.

"You go for two … to go to 20-14, then score the touchdown and win the game with an extra point," Taylor said. "If you don't get it then, you are going for two and counting on getting one of the two two-point conversations. There wasn't the situation you are talking about because I felt good about where our team was at. That conversation came up briefly the touchdown before and I just elected to kick the extra point."

INJURY UPDATE: Best news of the day had to be Taylor having a positive feeling about double-digit sacker Trey Hendrickson being able to play Sunday after he missed Sunday's second half with back problems. He'll be limited early in the week, but it sounds like he'll have a chance to extend the NFL's current longest sack streak to ten in Denver, which would be the next longest of all-time and one shy of Chris Jones' NFL-record 11 set in 2018.

Look who he's tied with in third place. Bruce Smith, Kevin Greene and Dwight Freeney. Two Hall-of-Famers and Freeney figures to get in, too.

INJURY UPDATE II: Exactly how tough is Awuzie? After injuring the bottom of his foot making an interception at the end of the first half eight days ago and missing the rest of the game and then not practicing until last Friday, he went until he could go no more against the 49ers. And that meant into the fourth quarter on 58 snaps, or 82 percent of plays. Veteran Vernon Hargreaves III then took his most extensive snaps as a Bengal and in 14 snaps (one run) he didn't get targeted on 13 pass plays.

"I think Chido played as much as he could yesterday," Taylor said. "We will have to manage him during the week and see where he is at. It's a positive outlook on him."

Awuzie went to the field early Sunday to put himself through a workout to make sure he could go.

"We have a lot of dogs and it just brought it out of me," Awuzie said. "Took a lot of prayer. I really went in just saying I'm going to play my best as long as I can and it turned out to be until the fourth quarter. I'm just thankful I was able to be out there and make some impact plays and be out there with my teammates."

INJURY UPDATE III: Taylor couldn't be quite as optimistic on right tackle Riley Reiff. Reiff went 44 plays into the third quarter before re-aggravating his ankle injury that forced him out of last week's game. Isaiah Prince took the final 26 plays off the game. He had a rough assignment coming off the bench cold against sack ace Nick Bosa, a guy he practiced against at Ohio State. PFF had him for allowing two sacks and two hurried throws in 19 passes.

But Taylor took the blame on one of the sacks.

"We've got confidence in him, he did some good things on the edge," Taylor said of Prince. "I think he's gone against him many times in his career so you could see some confidence in that and he won some and there was a couple where Bosa got us. Part of that is me too we gave up the sack. It's a long developing play and I put the tackle one-on-one against Bosa, I think I can help him more there."

KITTLE AFTERMATH: PFF's forensic study on 49ers tight end George Kittle's 151 yards showed he was covered by seven different defenders on his 13 catches on 15 targets. Patrolling the middle of the field, linebacker Germaine Pratt had him on four catches for 60 yards. Pratt and strong safety Vonn Bell each defended him on an incompletion.

"It wasn't anything special. If he was lined up on the outside he had to deal with (the cornerbacks)," said Awuzie, who never had him, according to PFF. "He's a great player. He made a couple of great catches. He's a menace blocking.

"It was regular programing. We've definitely done more stuff to take a guy out of a game, but we were confident in our coverages to stand up in man and then switch over to zones. That's just our regular programming."

AWUZIE DEFENDS BELL: One of those captains and one of the DB leaders, Bell, suffered a crushing taunting penalty on a successful third down defense at the end of the half that turned a field goal attempt into a touchdown.

Taylor highly values Bell on and off the field, but from what he could see it was in line with how the NFL is calling what is a very subjective penalty. Even if Bell simply scooped up the football and pointed it at 49ers center Alex Mack as he ran by him.

Awuzie objected to the sheer randomness of it all. About a half-an-hour later a 49er defender got in Bengals running back Joe Mixon's grill and got nothing.

"That's just a ridiculous call on my end. I just don't really think that was a taunting penalty. There's things in the game, it's just gamesmanship, it's not necessarily like flexing on somebody or standing over them or stepping on them," Awuzie said. "It's just such a ticky-tack type of call. It's kind of hard to judge what is taunting because later in the game you see the guy hit Joe Mixon and stand over him and flex on him and there was no taunting call. So what is taunting exactly? And it's affecting games and we see it across the league that it's affecting games so it needs to be more accountability for that call. I don't think it should be called as often as it is."

CHANGE COMING? No one is going to be surprised if Darius Philips doesn't return punts for the Bengals in Denver next Sunday. Not after he muffed two punts in the first half last Sunday and gave the 49ers 10 points.

Taylor and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons haven't made up their minds yet and don't have to until Wednesday's practice. The only reason Phillips did it Sunday is because injuries to linebackers Logan Wilson and Markus Bailey forced practice squad elevations of two backers and they couldn't go get anybody else.

So rookie kick returner Pooka Williams, Jr., who made his debut last week, wasn't available and that left Phillips as the only guy who returns both punts and kicks. The guy who returned punts last week, wide receiver Trenton Irwin, was thus inactive.

Irwin would seem to be the first option. Also on the practice squad is veteran punt returner Trent Taylor, a 5-8 wide receiver with 49 career returns. Simmons also knows that the seven punts Irwin has handled (four fair catches) this season are his first in the pros after doing it for a year at Stanford.

"I think he handles the ball fairly cleanly. He just doesn't have a ton of experience after the catch and getting the ball, getting positive yardage after the catch," Simmons said. "He just hasn't done it much. I think you saw his inexperience. I think he fair caught one, maybe, at the 5-yard line against Detroit. Again, those are things that you have to work through. That just shows our inexperience right now or lack of experience at that position. But I think he's somebody that catches the ball cleanly, that catches the ball well. He's got a good feel, got a good handle on that. Again, the decisions have to be made on who's active and who's inactive."

But this isn't the first time Simmons has thought about punt return. He's been thinking about it since March, when his punt returner for the last five seasons, wide receiver Alex Erickson, signed with the Texans. Erickson, now with the Panthers, was extremely reliable. But even he fumbled five punts in the last two seasons, but didn't lose one.