Best of the Zoom news conferences before the Bengals practiced Wednesday:
NO MORE LAUGHS
With his Bengals set for Saturday's Wild Card Game (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) against the Raiders at Paul Brown Stadium, running back Joe Mixon remembered the old days:
"Back then, everybody used to laugh at us on the schedule, 'It's just a stat week' and now (there isn't any) laughing. (There isn't any) playing and joking no more, they know what's going on, they know how (we're) coming.
"Everybody was sleeping on us, everybody was not wanting to count us in … Now, we (have) all the right pieces here, we (have) the things that we need to be able to play in games like this and where we're able to compete for championships. That's what Zac (Taylor) brought these guys in to do."
LOCKER ROOM LITMUS TEST
The culture in the Bengals locker room has been cited as one of the best components of the Taylor Era:
Safety Jessie Bates III: "You can feel it in the locker room. Guys got a little pep in their step walking to meetings and stuff like that, it's a good feeling. It's hard to explain because there is a lot of work that goes into it."
Mixon: "Everybody is bought in and that's one thing leading up into this playoff game, you just see around the locker room, on the practice field, the vibe around here is different. I've never been around it, it's very special to be around and it's really a privilege to be around these guys."
Assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons has been here longer than anyone. Now in his 19th season running the Bengals kicking game, his eight playoff appearances stretch back to 2005:
"You can't tell these guys that they can't do anything. These guys believe in each other, they believe in what we're doing, and that's half of it. We've been bought in for a couple of years. We just haven't had all the pieces in place. Now, some of the acquisitions we've made this past year, they've come in (and) shown their worth … it's a really, really good locker room."
NO TRICK OR TREAT
After a 34-31 Halloween loss to the New York Jets, long-time Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd, Mixon and Bates came to the post-game press conference together. They talked about team unity and accountability after the less-than-stellar performance.
Bates: "That seems forever ago but, it means a lot. I didn't stay in the locker room and smoke cigars with Joe (Burrow), Joe (Mixon) and Tyler Boyd after the Chiefs game but it definitely hit a little different … to finally have some success, have something to show for is really cool, that's just a small part of it us taking accountability after a big loss."
BIG PRAISE FOR THE BIG GUYS
Mixon praised his two guards, veteran Quinton Spain, who has been on the left, and Hakeem Adeniji, a 2020 sixth-round pick who has worked his way back from a pectoral injury suffered during the spring and has made the last nine starts at right guard. After injuring his ankle against the Chiefs, Spain has returned to practice this week full.
Mixon: "Quinton Spain and Hakeem Adeniji, those guys come to work. To be honest, all of our front line, they all come to work … as soon as you come here you got guys that are looking to do that extra."
"Yesterday we were in practice, and you've got Quinton Spain, he's leading Jonah (Williams), having Jonah doing the right things. Jonah is very accountable … you got guys like Hakeem, where say if it was a mental mistake he's going to take initiative to do all of the right things on how he's going to correct it."
The Bengals added offensive line coach Frank Pollack back to the coaching staff this offseason. Pollack was with the team in 2018 before leaving to work with the Jets. When he was here, Mixon won the AFC rushing title with a career best season that he surpassed this year with 1,205 yards, third best in the NFL.
Mixon: "With us getting Frank back, is (that) we don't care who's across the board from us. We're going to run at you, we're going to dare you to stop it. That's just his mentality, that's his mindset and I'm all for that."
SPECIAL TEAMS SURPRISES
The Bengals kick and punt returner positions have been in flux since wide receiver/returner Alex Erickson left in free agency and safety/kick returner Brandon Wilson tore his ACL in a loss to Cleveland Nov. 7. However, the answer for both positions may be nailed down. Veteran wide receiver Trent Taylor, obtained in free agency, has been solid returning punts the last four games, and sixth-round running back Chris Evans returned the first kicks of his NFL career last Sunday in Cleveland.
Simmons: "Ball security has been the biggest deal. I trust that Trent is going to make a good decision and he has. He really had no experience returning kickoffs until we put him back there to do it in the Denver game … I've been happy with what Trent has done from a decision-making standpoint back there as a punt returner.
"We were fortunate to get the opportunity to take a look at Chris last week, too, as a kickoff returner, just to see what type of element that he could put into it, so we'll keep looking at that throughout this week to see which one's the best one for us.
"There's some things he's got to clean up with this still. You always like a big body back there who can run, who's big and tough and powerful and can break tackles. He just doesn't have a lot of experience doing it. We'll have to figure out if it's the right timing or not to put him back there in one of the bigger games of the season. But I was very happy. Cleveland was the No. 1 kickoff team in the league in terms of drive start, and he had two returns for a 29-yard average. So I was very pleased with what we did."
SIMMONS: "I tell the returners the No. 1 goal that you have on any return play is that at end of the play you pick the ball up and give it to the official."
In 19 years, how many prospect interviews has Simmons sat in during the NFL's annual scouting combine in Indianapolis? Not enough to forget who the best was.
Simmons: "I remember sitting in (Burrow's) combine interview, when we did that a couple of years ago and there was no question in my mind that it was the single best combine interview I've ever sat in on. The recall and the competitiveness that he showed in the 15-minute meeting was off the charts.
"We looked at video plays just throughout the course of the season. He had no background as to what plays they were. But he could tell you exactly what portion of the game it was, exactly what situation in the game it was. 'Hey, this is in the third quarter. I think we're down by three. I think this is a third-down play. Here's what's going to happen,' and his recall was incredible
"There's a very different feel with him out there and I'm damn glad he's on our team."
SIMMONS ON TAYLOR:
"He's done a hell of a job this year. He really has."
ON HIS BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT:
"I think it's his team management. When he first came in here, he was really just an offensive guy. He'd dealt with quarterbacks. Then it comes down to him learning how to call all the plays, and there's just so much more that goes into it. He's learned how to manage the whole team. I think that's where he's done a really good job this year, is learning how to manage the team, learning how to manage situations within a game. There's a lot of communication that goes on on the headsets, in a variety of ways. Trust me, all these situations are talked through."