No tricks but all treats for center Ted Karras' Bengals offensive line this Halloween weekend after Sunday's 31-17 Thriller exorcised the 49ers' demons.
"A better Halloween than last year," said Karras Monday, still wincing at last year's Halloween Night loss to Cleveland.
How could it have been any better for the always scrutinized Bengals O-line?
Their fiery coach, Frank Pollack, a Super Bowl champion 49er, led them into Levi's Stadium on a Sunday when his old teammates were honored.
Their new bookends, Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown, Jr. and Jonah Williams, the transplanted first-round left tackle on the right, helped each other give lethal reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa just two hits on quarterback Joe Burrow.
The interior of the line, anchored by right guard and Bay Area product Alex Cappa, attacked the NFL's third best run defense for five yards per carry while Karras made sure Fred Warner didn't make one of his game-changing All-Pro plays at middle linebacker.
The Bengals offensive line outmuscling one of the most physical defensive fronts in the game to give Burrow enough time to complete 88% of his passes.
"We needed it. We need another one next week," said Cappa Monday, already eying Sunday night's Bengals-Bills AFC showdown at Paycor Stadium. "It was really cool. Saw some old friends. A lot of college friends. A lot of high school friends. It was really fun. We battled. We executed better than they did."
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said Pollack was also able to reach out when he visited a function Saturday feting the 49er alums before going out Sunday and watching his guys step out the plan the offensive staff had crafted during the two weeks of the bye.
While the pundits pleaded with them to shore up the run game, Taylor, Pollack, and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan headed up a playbook that featured 18 plays with Burrow under center, triple the amount used the entire season.
The numbers on those 18 plays out of the total of 62 weren't particularly devastating. They amounted to about a quarter of the 400 yards the Bengals generated. It was just their very presence.
"They don't know it's pass every time," Karras said, "and obviously we're always going to be a pass-first style offense. But to have that under-center package and to be able to hit (runs) and we had (shot) gun runs, too, it takes a little bit of the edge off. Maybe a D-lineman doesn't already have a pre-determined plan in his head. He needs to read a little bit more to fit his run gap assignment more so than thinking what move is he going to put on me as a one-on-one matchup."
It also gave the run game some diversity. You want an improved run game? How about 134 yards, their biggest day on the ground since last Dec. 11., the second most allowed by the stingy Niners this season?
"I think it was just a lot of variety of runs. We mixed it up a lot," Cappa said. "It depends game-by-game. That's a front where you have to show them different looks. Because you just can't tee off on those guys."
This is the kind of game why the Bengals gave Orlando Brown a $64 million deal and why they drafted Jonah Willims in the first round. Neutralize the best on the edge. Bosa, who recently signed the richest NFL defensive deal, matched up on Brown much of the day and had half a sack. There was no $64 million question.
"They really gave us everything that we needed to win that game," Taylor said. "I thought those guys did a great job giving us the time we needed. Burrow doing a great job with his level in the pocket to make sure he could help. I was really proud of Jonah and Orlando, the effort they gave us and the time they gave us on some tough plays.
"The interior push on a lot of the run-game stuff, the double teams inside with Ted, (left guard) Cordell (Volson) and Alex I thought were really impressive. Some of the balls were spit out on the perimeter on bubbles and, and RPO (run-pass option) throws, but you could see the message they were trying to send in there."
The message was clearly sent on the Bengals' fifth play via Burrow's remarkable alternate reality pocket ability that turned a certain sack and another punt to end another first drive into a ten-yard laser from Burrow to the just-as-surprised-as-everyone-else Tee Higgins and a 7-0 lead beckoned as the drive extended.
"Crazy play. Two different potential sacks," Karras said. "There was a lot of great effort up front blocking. When you watch that clip again, you look for Cappa peeling off Bosa because Bosa had Joe by the collar. Cap peeled him off. Joe had an incredible effort himself, and there were a lot of guys straining to finish and then obviously to have the talent to deliver the ball to Tee Higgins, go down and score, that's your best player making the best plays."
Taylor knew it was a unique play once he got on the plane and saw the play from the end zone on his work pad.
"It's rare to see both sidelines celebrate on the field during the same play, because, certainly, for the right reasons, thought the play was over and you could see the energy on their sidelines to get a big sack on third-and-10 early in the game," Taylor said. "And then you see our sidelines come off when the play's over. That's very rare. I don't know how many times in my life I've seen that, where both sidelines celebrated equally and as loudly on the same play."
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: It's certainly a different kind of night Sunday against the Bills. It's a re-match of last season's Monday night game that was cancelled when Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest and was revived on the field.
Hamlin made the Bills coming out of training camp and while he's played in just one game, he's making a big impact as an ambassador for the American Heart Association.
"It's an unbelievable miracle that it's played out that way. I know that everybody's thankful for that," Taylor said during his Monday newser. "And it was great to see just communities come together for a really positive benefit and it's turned into a lot of good. I think that's what everybody's thankful for.
"I think we're pretty well focused, both teams, on where we're at this season of 2023. (It's) in the back of your mind. But I think both teams will be focused on getting our teams ready to play and going out there and have a special night."
Taylor and Bills head coach Sean McDermott impressed the nation that night with the way they sensitively handled their teams and a friendship has grown out of it. The families have become close and spent time with each other at last spring's NFL owners' meetings.
"Our boys are similar ages. Our wives are really good friends," Taylor said. "I think Sarah and Janie had kind of always been somewhat close and became much closer and (Bills general manager) Brandon Bean's wife as well. I think that they've really connected that way. Really good family that we get a chance to spend time with at the owners' meetings and see everybody run around. I've always respected Sean and our wives have gotten close and our kids are close."
PAYCOR PAYOFF: As he admitted after ending the 49ers' 11-game home winning streak, Taylor likes to fill his team with nuggets to inspire them before games. Like that one last week. And like the one heading to Buffalo to play the Bills in last year's playoffs, when he reminded them the Bills had lost only playoff game at home. Some teams he's been with, Taylor said, couldn't have handled that stuff. But this team loves it.
So no doubt he'll remind them this week that the Zac Bengals have never lost a Payor Prime Timer. The 2020 Monday Night Culture Changer against the Steelers. Thursday night wins over the Jaguars and Dolphins. Last year's Wild Card win over the Ravens. Last month's Monday Nighter over the Rams.
"I've had coaches on other teams that have played us in night games over the last three years praise the environment here," Taylor said. "I think just the fan engagement, the pyrotechnics, all the things that happen is impressive to us and it's fun for us and it gives us great energy, but I think it's really cool for other teams in the league when they come in here. And, on top of that, just our fan support and these night games has given us a huge edge.
"I'm counting on this being the biggest and best one yet. We're on a three-game win streak. We're hitting the middle of the season here. Our guys are going to be amped up. I know our fans are going to provide their best on Sunday night. A stand alone game in front of the whole country to be able to see it and make this game as difficult as possible for their offense to be able to communicate. Because that's a big part in these games. It's a huge advantage. Huge. I mean, I don't know that people will ever realize until they're in a huddle calling a play or at the line of scrimmage trying to communicate."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Taylor wasn't ready to make a call on injuries. He said Pro Bowl sacker Trey Hendrickson had a foot stepped on Sunday. He left, came back in, and Taylor said only that it looked like it would have to be managed …
Rookie wide receiver/punt returner Charlie Jones (thumb) is eligible to come off injured reserve and there's a spot on the active roster now that running back Chase Brown (hamstring) is on injured reserve. Taylor sounded hopeful, but allowed only it's going to be sooner rather than later …