Best of the Zoom news conferences after the Bengals practiced Saturday ahead of their Super Bowl LVI berth on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles against the Rams at SoFi Stadium
HEAD-ON WITH THE RAMS
The Rams have superstars scattered all over the field. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr., on offense with defensive tackle Aaron Donald, linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Jalen Ramsey on defense. And the Bengals are ready to take on the stout lineup.
Tight end Drew Sample: "There are really no weaknesses on their defense. We know that's going to be a challenge. We wouldn't want it any other way at this level. … (On offense) we try to be balanced. We tried not to force it. But, we know we're going up against a good team. We're ready for that and we have some extra time to prepare. We're excited, we wouldn't want it any other way. We want to go against the best and they definitely are the best."
BACK-TO-BACK BIG PLAYS
In the AFC championship game Sunday, running back Samaje Perine caught a pass and ran it for a 41-yard touchdown in the second quarter to cut the Chiefs' lead to 21-10. On the ensuing drive, cornerback Eli Apple stopped Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill on a goal-line stand as time expired going into halftime. Both plays were crucial in swinging the momentum in favor of the Bengals.
Perine: "It cut the lead down. … I feel like those two plays go hand-in-hand. Going down 21-10 going into half versus 28-10, whatever it would have been, if Eli wouldn't have made that tackle. Those are both huge plays. So I feel like one isn't bigger than the other. I feel like they were both great plays and they both eventually led to us getting the win."
'NEXT MAN UP'
Tight end C.J. Uzomah was carted off in Sunday's AFC Championship game in Kansas City with an MCL injury. He would return to the sideline on crutches and has yet to practice. But he's hoping to be back for the game. So Sample is filling in until further notice.
Sample: "Obviously when a guy like C.J. goes down and your initial (thought) is just shock. You would never wish that upon anyone. He's one of the leaders of this team. He's a spark plug for us. So just that instant reaction is you don't know how severe it is, things like that. You never want to see that happen to a guy. … For me and the other tight ends, I don't think there's any flinch in that kind of situation.
"You prepare every week like you're playing every snap and (tight ends coach James Casey) does a great job of making sure everyone's prepared. It was just no different than a normal game. Just maybe a little more tired, out there (with fewer) rotations, things like that.
"I'm always ready and things like that happen. It was obviously tough because of what C.J. means to our offense and our team. But for me it's always just kind of next man up and that's just kind of how the NFL goes."
SAME OL' JOE
Through the highs and lows of this season, there is one constant that never changes: quarterback Joe Burrow.
Perine: "(He) hasn't changed since he got here last year. He's always been a leader. He's not going to yell or curse you out or anything, but he's going to tell you when you do something wrong. He's going to tell you when to do something right.
"He's going to pull you to the side and tell you how he wants a certain thing done. It's not in a disrespectful way or anything. That's who he's been since he's been here and I feel like that's why everyone has clicked with him and gotten behind him so quickly.
"It's only been his second year. It's just because of the way he carries himself. He doesn't try to be something that he's not and he's not a loud 'rah-rah' type of guy. When he talks, people listen just because he's straightforward, straight to the point. We all have the same goal and that's obviously to win a Super Bowl. We've gotten behind him quickly because we know that he's the guy that can get us there."
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Perine and Sample are the latest to speak about the Bengals unique locker room chemistry.
Perine: "I just think it's a top-down thing. Starting with the coaches. The coaches treat you like a professional. I don't know exactly how to put it, but … it's more like a family than a job once you step into this building. That's from coaches, players, staff, whatever it is. Everyone acts like a big family and there's no hierarchy. Everyone acts like we're peers and I feel like that's the biggest thing."
Sample: "It speaks a lot to the coaching staff and the type of guys that they were able to bring in, whether that's through the draft (or) free agency over the last three years. … They wanted it to be a close-knit team. I think that everyone has kind of bought into that and that's kind of been the culture since I've been with the Bengals the last three years and it's continuing to evolve. … It's very low ego, everyone just wants to come and do whatever they can to make the team better.
"For me … this is the group that I want to be in the Super Bowl with."
TIGHT TIGHT END ROOM
The tight ends had each other's backs after Uzomah went down.
Sample: "Mitch (Wilcox) has done a great job … being able to come in and really seamlessly insert himself into playing maybe more on offense than he has. He does a great job on special teams. … He doesn't get a ton of practice reps, but then being able to translate, especially on one of the biggest stages and AFC championships, to come in and not really miss a stride was great for him.
"We have a really good group. Every day, coming to work, trying to get better, trying to improve. Just having the knowledge that we get from (Casey) having played for a long time. Being able to be kind of a close group. It's been good this year."
There's no need for a hall monitor in Paul Brown Stadium, but if there is then defensive tackle D.J. Reader is the man for the job.
Perine: "D.J. Reader is a guy who will quickly tell you if you're out of line on something. … Jessie (Bates III) is another guy but, he's more of a pull you to the side type of guy. With D.J., he'll come straight up to you in front of everybody if you're out of line with something and let you know about it.
"But, like I said, this year in particular we've had one goal and that's (to) make it to the Super Bowl and everyone's been dialed in on that goal. So we haven't really needed it this year."
More from Perine: "We've gotten to a point where we don't need policing because we know what we're supposed to be doing, where we're supposed to be. For the most part, we're there … Just us being able to be accountable to each other that's the biggest thing that's helped this team get this far."
BACK IN THE 'MIX'
Perine watched his old Oklahoma teammate and backfield mate Joe Mixon selected to his first Pro Bowl this season with a career-best 1,205 yards on 292 carries with 13 touchdowns.
Perine: "I think the biggest and most obvious thing is him being able to stay healthy. He had a nagging (foot) injury last year. I think if he wouldn't have gotten injured when he did last year, he would have had a great year as well.
"Him being able to stay on the field, that's by far the biggest part and just being decisive. He's coming into his own about just being a decisive runner. It doesn't always have to be the right read, but it's a decisive read and he just hits the hole and goes. That's one of the biggest things."
WIDE ZONE AND GO
With the addition of offensive line coach and run game coordinator Frank Pollack, the team switched to a wide zone running attack and it has paid off. The Bengals rushed for 1,742 yards on 436 carries for 16 touchdowns in the regular season. That's their most rush yards since the season before Mixon was drafted in 2016.
Perine: "(The wide zone is) who Frank Pollack is and from day one that's (what) we knew going into it that's what we were going to be. Once you get something that you major in, as he would say, then it doesn't matter what the defense lines up in. It doesn't matter because we know that we're going to find a way to get some yards out of it. "It may not be a big play every single time, but we know that we're going to get some yards out of it because that's what we do. That's what we major in.
"We've seen however many fronts and we've practiced a variety of different ways. So we have a pretty good idea of how to still make the wide zone very much useful, no matter what defense we see."
The Bengals are loaded with players who happened to have shared a collegiate locker room at some point in their careers. For Sample, he has the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl against his former college teammates. Safety Taylor Rapp, defensive lineman Greg Gaines and offensive lineman Coleman Shelton.
Sample: "It's pretty cool. To be at this stage and have guys that I was close with back at (Washington). … We all kind of keep in touch here and there. It's hard obviously during the season sometimes, but I've talked to talk to them a little bit here and there. It's always cool … especially at this stage to be able to know that a guy that you kind of came out with (in the draft) has a similar opportunity."