In the wake of their resourceful 31-20 victory over the Titans, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor expounded on the efforts of his offensive staff as they reacted to the morning-of-game news that a fourth offensive lineman would be missing when left guard Michael Jordan was sent home with a non-Covid 19 illness.
Offensive line coaches Jim Turner and Ben Martin were the stars of an impromptu Sunday morning walk through in Turner's office, but offensive coordinator Brian Callahan kept things humming with his low-key California cool as Taylor slipped into his game day play-caller mode.
"You look at a guy like Brian Callahan. He doesn't call the plays, so he doesn't get the praise. The head coach, you get pulled away for a lot of different things," Taylor said. "Brian's always the one that gets the plan started. Just thought this week in particular he did a tremendous job of giving us the nuts and bolts of what we needed to do to win this game. He harped on that all week with the offensive players in particular. You could single out a lot of people, but he's one that kind of is behind the scenes that maybe you guys don't see a lot. He's always done a great job, but this week I thought he did a really, really awesome job."
Callahan is chairing an impressive month the offense began back on Oct. 4 with the 33-25 victory over Jacksonville and has bounced back averaging 31 points after managing only a last-minute field goal in Baltimore. They're on pace for 388 points, fifth most of the decade behind four playoff teams: 2013, 2005, 2015 and 2012.
He believes the key is their success on third down, which is at a stunning 59 percent the past three games and it has led to the Bengals' No. 6 ranking in the league amassing first downs.
"We've been good on third down, but why we've been good on third down is we've been efficient on first and second down. It allowed us to be in really manageable third-down situations," Callahan said Monday, alluding to five third-and-ones. "We have ten third downs of third-and-six or less. That speaks to your efficiency on first and second down and go and make the plays on third down that are there. Those are the toughest plays to make is the whole world knows you are throwing it and our guys are doing a great job being where they are supposed to be in the timing you are supposed to be there.
"When we do that, on top of that, it all kind of fits together."
Back in the day in Bengaldom, Boomer Esiason used to call third down "the quarterback's down," and rookie quarterback Joe Burrow has certainly reflected that lately.
Such as during last Sunday's first drive and an improbable 24-yard completion to fellow rookie Tee Higgins when Burrow moved out of the pocket and flipped a moonball down the right sideline to the wide receiver just before going out of bounds. Higgins repaid him by launching himself over old friend Johnathan Joseph as the Titans dropped back into man coverage.
As he went to the line for a no-huddle-up-tempo snap, Burrow had the protection sorted out in his mind, putting running back Giovani Bernard in place to pick up pressure.
Callahan also explained how the scheme helps Burrow make those hair-trigger decisions.
"We have a lot of flexibility on third down packages … We have a lot of ways that we try to uncover what the defense is doing, or at the very least give us an idea of what they're not doing," Callahan said. "And that kind of eliminates some thinking for everybody. That's one of the tools we have. So you'll see on third down quite a bit we've got guys moving around, starting in empty and going into the backfield, starting in the backfield and going to empty. We'll bring a tight end back into the backfield. We do a lot of things to try to give us the advantage on third down where we think we might need it.
"Joe had a couple options on that play, and that's the one he ended up getting to. Now they ended up playing a max drop, cover 1, so it's man coverage, but they drop guys in so it's a three-man rush and there were a bunch of guys underneath, so it just eliminated all the underneath patterns that we had. We were kind of anticipating a pressure look and they dropped them all out. So Joe bought some time vs the three-man rush and made an unbelievable throw and Tee made probably an even more unbelievable catch on the sideline."
A big player here has been slot receiver Tyler Boyd, tied for fifth in the NFL with third-down catches and seventh in total first downs.
ROOKIE RICHES: Callahan agrees. He expected Burrow to have a good year this season. But if knew in May what he knows now, he would have been head over heels. And he is.
Yet if there's a guy that has taken him by surprise, it's Higgins. And he expected Higgins to be a star, but he didn't think it would like this so quickly.
"Tee has really kind of exploded onto the scene. He had a little injury in camp that set him back for a little bit. Obviously it wasn't anything major. But it takes time to get the stuff all squared away as far as learning and being in the places you're supposed to be," Callahan said. "And Tee's done an excellent job of that. Now he's making all the contested plays. He missed a few of them earlier in the season. Now he's making those, and it makes a huge difference for our offense."
With 488 yards, Higgins is 24 yards off a pace that would make him the third Bengals rookie 1,000-yard receiver, joining the royalty of his idol A.J. Green and Cris Collinsworth. He's third among rookie receivers, but Higgins, Justin Jefferson and Cee Dee Lamb are bunched behind Jefferson's 568.
"To have him playing at the level he's playing at and you add him with how efficient A.J.'s been and Tyler has been his normal productive self from the slot, you've got a pretty good group of guys out there that making a lot of plays," Callahan said. "And then we've got guys that come off the bench and do good things, too, with Tate and Mike Thomas. Those guys have all made plays when they've been called upon. Tee's emergence just makes that room even more dynamic. And I think he's the one I'm probably most pleasantly surprised about so far, as good as he's played."
BELL RINGER: Strong safety Von Bell was all over the place Sunday. He could have had two picks to end the game, he had a big hit that almost caused quarterback Ryan Tannehill to fumble and he had a huge third-down pass defensed on dangerous Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown on the first drive of the second half.
It was Bell's best game as a Bengal, but his most powerful role continues to be as a locker room leader in a group that underwent a coaching transition last year and a roster transition this year. He come out of a Saints program where he had five playoff starts. This 2-5-1 start has rankled him, but he sees a culture forming.
"There are a few flashes there. It just has to be worked on every day. It's a new locker room with new guys who are trying to shift the culture and the atmosphere," Bell said Monday. "It is something that guys have to buy into. You have to believe in it every day and trust it. We are getting to that point where guys are trusting it, trusting one another, trusting the staff and trusting the plan. Once we have all hands on deck, the world is ours. We control it. We have the key and we are driving the bus."
Be sure that Bell had a few words for end Carl Lawson after his neutral zone infraction cost him an end-zone interception, which would have been a nice book-end to free safety Jessie Bates III's pick in the other end zone on the game's first drive.
"I was thinking the game was over. I was like man that's what we wanted. The defense to end the game (and) make the big play," Bell said. "This is what we all wanted. But afterwards when I found out who did it, I was like 'you owe me.' But yeah, we want those plays. We want to step up to bat and make a home run. That's what we have to do. We just have to take away the little things that shoot ourselves in the foot. That's how we are going to push forward."
Bell, the notorious early riser, plans to do so again on Tuesday's off day of the bye week so he can get in a lift. He already took one thing off Tuesday's plate as evidenced by the T-shirt he wore Monday: "#Athlete and I voted."
DAY OF THE ROOKIE: All seven draft picks showed up in the game book in the win with Burrow and Higgins leading the way. Third-round linebacker Logan Wilson had his first NFL sack, sixth-rounder Hakeem Adeniji played all the snaps in his first start at left tackle, fifth-round defensive end Khalid Kareem played a career-high 69 percent of the snaps. Even seventh-round linebacker Markus Bailey made his first NFL tackle on special teams and fourth-round linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither played 22 snaps on defense and half the kicking game snaps.
Here's Bell's advice for them:
"I would advise them to self-scout yourself. Watch every rep that you got these past eight games and really evaluate yourself, your assignment, leveraging, going through the plays and how can you do it better. These last eight games we need everybody. All hands on deck. We need you better than what you did beforehand. How can you improve? That's the biggest thing."