As the Bengals prepped for Sunday's Battle of Ohio against the Browns at Paycor Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), head coach Zac Taylor chatted with Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson.
GH: Do you think this team's personality stems from quarterback Joe Burrow?
ZT: It certainly helps when you've got a guy like that leading the charge. Like I said, he's going to go for the throat. The team can feed off that. They know that we've always got a chance with him at the helm, so that certainly helps our defense like, 'Man, if we can just get a turnover here, we'll go score,' and that's what Germaine (Pratt) did, and that's what the offense was able to do.
GH: You guys played that game on Sunday with no panic. There was more than a little adversity. The failed fourth-down attempt in the red zone. The touchdown drop by Tyler Boyd. Patrick Mahomes hitting a couple of bombs. It wasn't easy, but you guys have been there.
ZT: Yeah, I think our guys were very comfortable with the moment. That's when our guys, really, I feel, are at their best. When it would be able to appear the pressure's on, but it's not. Our guys, they're very prepared, very confident, so those moments don't become too big for them. They really embrace it. They're ready to make the play if the opportunity comes their way. That's just how you feel coaching the team. You've got confidence because they're so confident. It allows you to play aggressively on defense, aggressively on offense and special teams, and gives us an opportunity to go win.
GH: Your team's time of possession has been impressive during this four-game winning streak. Really, all year. Is that a product of how well you guys are running the ball, strategy, defenses? (Excluding OT, the Bengals are fifth with 32 minutes per game, up more than 90 seconds from last year, and they're at about their average in the last month.)
ZT: We've certainly seen a lot more overall two-safety zones. Whether that's Cover 2 or Cover 4, mixtures of that. I think that's a little more around the league, also. We certainly for a while there were the top team that faced that (type of defense). They're just trying to limit the explosive plays. We are willing to be patient and pick our moments to push the ball down the field.
Our overall efficiency has been, I think, top-two in the league on normal downs, so that's led to some really good drives. We believe we can move the ball that way and score points, and consequently it does eat up a lot of time on the clock. It gives our defense a rest and can limit the other team's offense as well.
Any time you can have the other team's offense sitting on the sidelines, it's a benefit to us. As an offense, it feels like you're just sitting over there on the bench for a while and you're out of your rhythm, so that's been a byproduct of how we've been able to play on offense.
GH: Has this been the best running game you've had since you got here?
ZT: I think so. I think it's the best rhythm, I think it's the best identity that we've had. We found a blend of the run game that I think really matches with our pass game right now, and it's been ever evolving. It's going to continue to evolve. It's worked out well for us.
GH: Do you think the identity we were talking about comes from the offensive line?
ZT: I certainly think our offensive line has really played at a high level. We've had confidence in them all season, but these last couple weeks in particular, it's allowed us to do a lot of different things. It's allowed us to hold on to the ball and take shots down the field, it's allowed Joe to get all the way to No. 5 in his progression, and it's opened up some really good running lanes for the backs. Again, I think that they're doing a heck of a job and giving us great opportunities to move the ball.
GH: I guess it's no coincidence that the sacks have gone down and the yards per rush have gone up.
ZT: Right. They've done a great job of keeping him clean, and obviously he's a very mobile quarterback so when there's blocked pressure, he's got a great sense of where to move and help those guys. He also does a good job getting the ball out of his hand very quickly. I think he's one of the top three quarterbacks in time to throw, and that's important to help those guys, as well.
GH: The run game has appeared to open up Burrow's running game in a way. It seems to give him more space.
ZT: Yeah, it's hard for me to say. His runs have mostly come on scrambles. He had three quarterback sneaks, one draw for the touchdown, and those are the only called runs. Then he had seven scrambles from there.
GH: When you decided to throw for the first down on third-and-11 on the final drive to try to win the game under two minutes, was that a product of analytics, a product of not wanting Mahomes to get the ball back, or was it a decision from your gut in that game?
ZT: I think it was (my) gut in that game that we need to finish this game off, whether that's running the clock out or scoring a touchdown. Kicking a field goal, fine, it puts you in a good position up six, they've got to score a touchdown. But you have the ball in your hands and you have a chance to win the game, and that's what we wanted to do.
GH: If it was a different type of game, maybe you do kick the field goal if you're going against a less explosive quarterback.
ZT: That's possible. It's just hard to predict. The Ravens had their backup quarterback in the game (Sunday), and they went 91 yards and scored the only touchdown of the game in the last four minutes of the game against a great defense. Those moments are always a little bit different. It doesn't necessarily reflect how the rest of the game has gone. One big play can put you in a bad position, so we just wanted to go win that game.
GH: Was the winning touchdown pass to running back Chris Evans something you pulled out of your back pocket, or was that practiced throughout the week? He only played two snaps on offense.
ZT: No, we definitely practiced that during the week. We understand that there's a chance that they're going to play some form of match coverage down there, and when you get into a non-standard formation with a receiver in the backfield and the back (split) outside … that can create some issues. We had an urgency to break the huddle and get our feet set and snap the ball on the first sound to create that stress. It was a complicated play. The back ran a shallow cross, he literally just ran four yards across the field. When you can force that miscommunication, it provides an easy touchdown.
GH: That play was kind of a hurry-up which probably added to the confusion for the defense, right?
ZT: Yeah, that's the purpose, to not let them see the formation and have time to adjust. That's the purpose of the timing of the snap count.
GH: So, you had practiced that play all week as if it was going to be a red zone play?
ZT: Right. We break down the field position pretty detailed when we get down there. You wait for the right spot, the right yard line area to call the play, and it just so happened to be around the hash we wanted it on and the yard line we wanted it on, as well.
GH: About as wide open a touchdown as it could be.
ZT: Yeah, it can happen that way. There are teams that do different variations of that around the league. And again, if you catch the right coverage, then that's the idea. There are certainly zone coverages where they can pass everything off and it turns into a dead play, but we caught the right one.
GH: Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons says punter Kevin Huber is like an extension of himself on the field. Now that Huber is on the practice squad, is he essentially a lower-tier coach?
ZT: There's irreplaceable experience there, 14 years of punting in this league and all the nuances that come with that. Obviously, Darrin does great at what Darrin does. To have somebody there that can spend that extra time with Drue (Chrisman), I think it's invaluable.
GH: How do you think Chrisman has punted in his first three games?
ZT: I think he's doing a great job. That Tennessee game, he did a great job being backed up a couple times and helping us get out of there, putting our defense in a better position. (Sunday) he had the 40-yarder inside the 20 and that was his lone attempt. He's done a great job with (kicker) Evan (McPherson), and so I think he's risen to the challenge and done a nice job.
GH: It seems that Chrisman's also been playing well as the holder.
ZT: Yeah, their chemistry has been good there.
GH: Are you and Darrin of the mindset now that around the league punting for distance is more important than punting directionally?
ZT: There are some big-legged punters out there right now. I don't know that I can give you the best overlay of where the entirety of the NFL is. Darrin watches all those every week from every team. He's got a better sense of that. But we've certainly played two in the last two weeks. I think one's leading in gross and one's leading in net, and then Drue's obviously got a big leg as well. It's certainly been on the radar these last couple weeks.