After two tough seasons that both began with heartbreak, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor tweaked his script in Sunday's opener at Paul Brown Stadium and was rewarded with the biggest victory of his 33 games in the numbing 27-24 overtime victory over the Vikings.
After 16 brutal one-score games during his tenure, Taylor emerged Sunday with a desire for his team to dictate the terms. Fourth-and-short was really fourth-and-the-rest-of-the season.
"I think everyone's more aggressive," said linebacker Germaine Pratt after forcing the game's only turnover that ended up winning it. "I mean, Coach called going for it on fourth-and-one on the 30-yard line. That's aggressive. That's the head coach making decisions, and telling us that we came to win. We're letting our bullets go this year. We ain't holding back nothing."
After a season Taylor lined up quarterback Joe Burrow primarily in the shotgun formation, he may have exceeded last year's total of his plays under center Sunday. Taylor often had Burrow behind center Trey Hopkins as running back Joe Mixon rushed 27 times for 127 yards. It was the third time in his career Mixon hit at least 27 carries and the Bengals' total of 36 rushes were their fourth most in the last three years. They remain a three-receiver team, but they seemed to show a little more double tight end looks with C.J. Uzomah playing three-quarters of the snaps and Drew Sample a little more than half.
"We felt we needed to get under center and see what front they were going to play and stay with the running game," Taylor said. "They changed up the front, so over the course of that game, a lot of stuff they hadn't shown as much in the preseason — some of that odd stuff — we just had to kind of get our bearings straight. It took away a little of what we wanted to do in the pass game under center, but we just had to adjust to the moment."
After the Bengals generated the fewest sacks in the league last season, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo dialed up the pressure with what looked to be more frequent blitzes from more different looks and saw three sacks and eight quarterback hits from seven different players. The defense that has allowed the most rushing yards over the past three seasons swarmed downhill to stone 1,500-yard rusher Dalvin Cook on just 61 yards on 20 carries. Anarumo also rolled out a three-safety look a quarter of the time with Ricardo Allen playing 21 of the 83 snaps in an alignment we saw some last year but hardly at all in the preseason.
"I've got a lot of faith in those guys," Taylor said of that re-stocked defense that played as advertised. "When you add guys like (Mike) Hilton, one of the best pressure nickels in the league. Vonn Bell can bring it. Jessie (Bates III) can bring it. All of the linebackers are very disciplined. So you feel good about that."
Taylor not only mixed up his schemes, but he kept the Vikings guessing with two fourth-down calls. One won the game, but both sent a message.
Before Burrow hit tight end C.J. Uzomah on a 32-yard pass on a fourth-and-inches in the last minute of overtime, Taylor was being second-guessed from here to Norman, Okla. for going for it from fourth-and-one from his own 30 late in the third quarter with a 14-point lead. The misfire put the Vikings back in the game, but his players heard him loud and clear.
"It's not my job to be surprised. It's my job to execute. We didn't get it done on that one, but luckily our defense pulled up there at the end," Burrow said of the first fourth. "They had their backs up against the wall. I don't think we win that game last year. I think that's the difference."
Here's another difference:
In nine games last season the Bengals allowed points in the last two minutes of the first half that always seemed to negate deferring the coin toss. But on Sunday they did the deed themselves with Burrow's 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase and took a 21-7 lead without Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins touching the ball when they cashed the second half's first drive on Mixon's two-yard touchdown run.
"It's something we talk about all the time. That's why you defer at the coin toss, because then you have a chance to get the ball twice without them having the ball," Burrow said. "That's what the Patriots have done for so long. They score before the (end of the first) half, and then they get the ball back (to begin the second half) and go down and score again. You get the opportunity to get two scores unanswered. So that was pretty big."
Everybody knew a game against Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer's defense was going to be ugly and grinding and Mixon appreciated how Taylor stuck with him. Until the Bengals could sort out Minnesota's new nuances, Mixon had just five carries for 14 yards in the first half after a first quarter they had 14 yards on 11 plays.
"In the first quarter, it was pretty much a run, pass, pass, run. I thought Zac did a great job with balancing out the run and the pass today because the play-action (plays) were hitting," Mixon said. "Even in the quick game with drop backs, receivers were getting open. For the run, it was basically completing the pass. I thought we did a hell of a job today. At the same time, the other runs were hitting, too. We had a variety of them. The linemen were blocking their asses off, everybody on the perimeter was blocking, and the tight ends were doing their thing, too. It was great."
Taylor has always said each game plan is going to be different. On Sunday, different was good.
Burrow agreed that the under-center look probably took Minnesota a bit by surprise.
"It probably did," Burrow said. "We were really running the ball well in certain situations. I think we went over 100 yards and it was really a team game. We threw the ball well, we ran the ball well, and overall the defense played great."
But Taylor saw it as more than fourth-and-short.
"That's just the message we send our team. We're going to be aggressive," Taylor said. "We're not going to sit back and just hope the other team gives it to us. Sometimes it's not really pretty. Sometimes people are not going to be happy with the call, and each game is different. But today we just wanted to be aggressive and go take a win in the first game and send a message for the rest of the season. I feel that we did that."
Heck, not even Taylor was happy with the first fourth-and-one. Not when it got Minnesota back in the game. "It was good for us," Zimmer observed when asked if he was surprised Taylor went for it. Taylor went with extra tackle Isaiah Prince on the right side, but Zimmer went extra, too, and Mixon got nothing.
"We felt like we could go steal a victory right there. We're up 21-7 and if we can just bang home the momentum right there with a fourth-and-one," Taylor said. "I should have had a better play call. They loaded up that front pretty good, made some substitutions. Not our best call there."
But message received.
"He went for it on fourth-and-short twice, which means he has confidence in us, and we have to go out there and make the play," Uzomah said. "We should've made the play the first time, and we didn't. And so he had confidence in us to doing it again, and we snuck out and got one on them. I think that builds a relationship and a trust that he has in us, and that we need to have in him. If he's going to call that play, we have to go out and execute because he's putting it all on us."
Mixon walked out of the building calling his coach's play calling "Very fearless."
"At the end of the day, that's what I think what moves us as players is he actually wants to go for things like that," Mixon said. "That was definitely a gutsy call. Zac, he's just out there doing whatever he can to put us in great position."
It blew up and came within a fumble of costing them the game. But Taylor seemed to be playing a longer game in a game decided in the last second of the 70th minute. He saw it as fourth-and-long view.
"I just told our team we're going to be aggressive, man," Taylor said. "We're going to go for it on fourth-and-one and try to take the game and we're going to be aggressive on defense and try and send a message and end it right there too. I take don't back any decisions, maybe my play calls specifically."