For the second time in three days Monday at Bengals training camp Zac Taylor was a happy head coach who saw his much improved defense dominate virtually every snap.
But he was also a disappointed play caller for a lethargic first offense that turned it over twice while barely nudging down field and challenged them to step it for Tuesday's first day of pads.
After Joe Burrow's long, hard day against this emerging defense was punctuated by his first interception of camp on a deep throw into a zone, Taylor took his offense aside and gave them a challenge for Tuesday's first day of pads.
"They should be fired up about that. You saw what happened. The defense had the momentum and energy and kept it all practice," Taylor said. "I want them to be fired up when they go to bed tonight and be ready tomorrow when we put the pads on."
Taylor had a caveat. They are still in installation and he believes learning from Monday's mistakes "will serve them well when the season starts."
In training camp, one man's frustration is another man's celebration and the defense exploded and rushed the field when linebacker Germaine Pratt ranged through a zone to pluck Burrow after he read his eyes to the middle of the field.
The play capped a furious opening of camp for a much-maligned defense that bears no resemblance to the one that finished 26th in yards, last in sacks and in the bottom ten for percentage of ending drives in turnovers last year. Pratt indicated the accountability of the secondary has been contagious.
"We're just having fun," Pratt said of the difference. "The accountability the defensive backs have had for each other has helped the linebackers. We want to get better and helping them being in the window (of pass defense). We're playing more as a group."
On Friday, the defense kept the first offense out of the end zone in red zone and on Monday no one got in. Besides Pratt's pick, free safety Jessie Bates III stripped rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase in seven-on-seven after Chase made a catch over the middle, middle linebacker Logan Wilson walked in untouched to blow up a screen on Burrow, strong safety Ricardo Allen blew up running back Trayveon Williams on a pass in the flat, nose tackle D.J. Reader knocked down a Burrow pass and free safety Vonn Bell just may be the player of camp with two more passes defensed.
Taylor didn't want to get all broken up about it. After watching his defense force just 13 fumbles last season, he'd like to see more of it. Just not from his offense.
"You walk a fine line there," said the head coach looking for turnovers.
Take a bow Mike Hilton, the symbol of this breath-of-fresh-air defense as one of five new free-agent starters if you count cornerback Trae Waynes after he was lost all last season. Hilton is the free-agent slot cornerback who brought from Pittsburgh steel-edged tackling and blitzing, not to mention an evaluation chart listing gaffes ranging from missed assignments (MAs) to loafs that the defensive backs parcel out to each other in a kind of kangaroo court.
Steelers cornerback Joe Haden, who has 10 wins and four interceptions in 17 games against the Bengals with Pittsburgh and Cleveland, is helping another team in the AFC North.
"This is just something I learned from guys like Joe Haden, who I played with for a couple years. He kind of designed this fine system for some guys in the secondary, you know loafs, missed assignments, dropped interceptions, things that really show what we're about," Hilton said. "As a defense, the secondary, you want to make sure your loafs and everything are as minimal as possible. So I brought that over. Guys have invested in it, and I feel like it's been working well for us."
Bates has said Hilton is going to be his best friend because of the things he'll be able to pick up from Hilton after playing on a top five defense. Hilton calls Bates the best safety in the NFL. Even better than his old Steelers teammate, Minkah Fitzpatrick. ("He just doesn't get the respect he deserves.") Even when Hilton was playing for the Steelers last season during the Monday Night game Pittsburgh lost to third string quarterback Ryan Finley, Hilton could see himself in stripes.
"Just seeing the guys they had over here. It started with Joe (Burrow). When you have a guy that you can build around for the next 10 plus years, that's definitely an exciting feeling," Hilton said. "And you know, just seeing the growth of this team over these last four years that I've played them. They might not get the respect that we deserve around, but we feel like we're coming to that turning point where guys are definitely going to respect us as a team."
There are two pools going for the defensive backs this training camp. A series of friendly wages goes into one pot for the DB that gets the most interceptions. Another is the mistake kitty, which Hilton says got up to $2.500-3,000 in Pittsburgh and is socked away for an end-of-camp secondary party.
It will cost you. Bates says you owe $20 for a "loaf."
"It's not having that burst. The ball is on the other side of the field you don't have to run 54 yards to do that," Hilton said of a loaf. "Give me a 10-yard burst or just show that you are putting in some effort to get to the football."
There couldn't have been many loafs Monday. Even the second-teamers got into the thing with sophomore linebacker Markus Bailey getting his hand on a ball for the second time this camp when he stripped running back Jacques Patrick.
Whatever is going on over there on the other side of the ball, it's a heck of a lot different than last year. Burrow never had a day like this last camp, a grinding 9-for-20 passing effort and he didn't get a lot of help with the fumbles and Wilson's pressure on a mistimed screen. Plus, Tee Higgins had a drop all by himself over the middle as the defense buckled down after Burrow hit seven of his first 10.
"(Burrow) is the leader of the group and it's frustrating for all of us when we're not having the success we anticipate having," Taylor said. "I expect all these guys to be frustrated today."
PLAYER OF THE DAY: SS Vonn Bell
He just got it on Friday. He did it again Monday by knocking away a pass ticketed for the triple-covered Tyler Boyd in the end zone. A few minutes later he batted a ball intended for Higgins across the middle.
This guy has been terrific ever since he got here last year and he's just getting better at the ripe old age of 26.
"To come in here last year to a new team and be voted a captain tells you everything you need to know about him," said safety coach Robert Livingston. "He's in his second year in the system, so he's more comfortable. He does so many different things for us. Training camp is all about working on your game, what you feel you need to get better. That's what he's doing. I know he's going to look at the tape and be mad at himself for not finishing off those two balls and picking them."
PLAY OF THE DAY: LB Germaine Pratt
Pratt said he followed Burrow's eyes to the pick and just simply stayed in the deep zone.
"We were in cover three and Tee was running a vertical. I just went hook to hook in the middle … As linebackers, we just want to get better every day and get more turnovers."
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
TE C.J. Uzomah on how the locker room chemistry is different this year from past year:
"It's not like I'm bashing on how it was. I'll say this, too, with everybody being in the locker room together again, that definitely helps because now we can just shoot the crap and do certain things. But it's a back and forth banter now as opposed to I'm going to say something and you're going to take it personal and then we're going to be, 'Can I talk to you, can I not talk to you?' How is it going to be at practice? Are you going to throw a punch? Are we going to get into a little scrap right now? What's up? Now I can kind of mess with Trey (Hendrickson) and be out there at practice and nothing is going to happen.
"That's the NFL. It's your job. It's not college anymore. It's not high school, but now I feel like we have that chemistry in the locker room. I think that plays a big role in being successful."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Taylor shook up the first offensive line for the first time this camp, putting the young guards in there for the first time with the 1s. Michael Jordan went to left guard for Quinton Spain and rookie Jackson Carman went to right for Xavier Su'a-Filo. It won't be the last summer switch.
"We're looking for the best combination of the five best guys," Taylor said after Monday's workout. "I'll let different guys have different opportunities working next to different people."
Rookie kicker Evan McPherson was 5-for-6 on field goals, missing the last one wide right from 56.