With the historic 41-10 victory over the Steelers in the books, head coach Zac Taylor's weekly discussion with Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson focuses on how he learned to coach AFC North games and how his team's approach on the field and in the front office targeted re-asserting the team in the division mix. Other talking points: Justin Herbert, how the Bengals interior offensive line met the Steelers challenge and crafting free agent bonanzas.
GH: Did you guys have a sense against the Steelers like you did last week against the Raiders on how the game was going to go?
ZT: The divisional games are different than any game you play. You go in with a game plan, but it's usually pretty grimy and rocky. Typically, there's going to be a lot of adversity and a lot of momentum switches. Fortunately for us there weren't many momentum switches. I thought our guys did a really great job with their approach all week. They were relaxed, no one was uptight playing a divisional game, a big one, and guys went out there and played loose and that's what final score was.
GH: I know coaches read about the AFC North, they follow it, they play teams in the AFC North. But did you have to coach some AFC North games to get a grasp and a feel for it?
ZT: I think so. I think that's accurate.
GH: It's a whole different animal.
ZT: It really is and now we're in our third year and just everybody has a lot more confidence. We've really got the schemes ironed out in what we want to be in all three phases. The players believe in it. A lot of them have continuity in these schemes and we've got the talent to match it. There's a lot of confidence going on and we feel like we have a better understanding of what our division brings and the type of football you have to play when you play these three teams.
GH: After talking a looking at what you did in division games the previous two years, what did you feel like you had to do?
ZT: Teams do a really nice job running the ball in this division. You have to have a great plan there defensively. Offensively, you have to be able to protect your quarterback and that might mean doing a better job in the run game. It might mean just being really aware of these pass rushers because they've all got them. As our plans have continued to evolve over three years, we've got a better understanding of what approach to take in these games.
GH: Is that one of the reasons maybe you went after Frank Pollack to coach the offensive line?
ZT: He's one of the best offensive line coaches in the NFL. It made sense when we had an opening there to go look at the best and Frank certainly fits that.
GH: He's got a history in the division and, just like you, I'm sure what you ran with the Rams wasn't all that different than what Frank runs in the run game.
ZT: No. There are a lot of the same backgrounds. He's worked for people and I've worked with people. It's not like anybody invents this stuff out of thin air. We've all kind of been in the same families and studied the same stuff and so then you come together and just make the Bengals offense. Frank does a great job blending what he does and what we do making it what we're going to do in 2021.
GH: It just seems like you've said, 'Hey, let's see if we can run the ball, maybe stick with it a little longer than we have in a division game.'
ZT: The flip side is that our defense has been playing so well. It allows you to play the game you believe you can play. You're not just giving up a bunch of points early on that forces your hand a little bit. When we talk about complementary football, that's what we're talking about. The other side of the ball doing its part while, however you want to look at it, allowing the other side to do the things it has to do win the game. That's been encouraging to see.
GH: When you rebuilt this defense in the last two offseasons, the emphasis was on stopping the run and you've been able to do that in division games and get your offense in more favorable spots. Look at how it's panned put.
ZT: Sure. And (director of player personnel) Duke Tobin and his guys have drafted really well. You've got pieces to build around with Sam (Hubbard) and Jessie (Bates III). Two years ago we got all those linebackers and this year you get a chance to plug in other guys around them to complete the defense. It's been fun to watch unfold over three years.
GH: You couldn't keep existing in this division giving up five yards a carry and only running 15 times a game.
ZT: That's a tough recipe for success.
GH: And you lived it. But the Pittsburgh and Baltimore games this year have been the complete opposite.
ZT: Our players have done a really good job with their approach to those games.
GH: When you game plan against Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert this week, does it help that you spent so much time with him for a week coaching the Senior Bowl? Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was also there. Does that help you game plan?
ZT: No, I wouldn't say that. We were around him for probably three days. I wouldn't say that gives you much insight there.
GH: It certainly blows up the theory you have to send scouts and coaches to watch a guy throw since you weren't able to see Joe Burrow throw in person because of COVID.
ZT: I should take a step back. When a guy is the No. 1 pick, he's typically the No. 1 pick. I do think it's critical to watch guys when they're not in that top bracket to go see them throw. I shouldn't undersell that. I would also say having Herbert, who was a clear top ten pick, he didn't show any major weakness. Maybe there were some other guys on our team or the other team that being there would help you see, "oh, he's struggling with this.' But Justin didn't have any of those traits that were a weakness.
GH: The two most important tackles of the last two weeks may have been by your wide receivers after turnovers. Tee Higgins prevented a touchdown in Vegas and Tyler Boyd made sure Minkah Fitzpatrick didn't get anywhere with that interception last Sunday before the half. Doesn't that kind of sum up their mentality that you see blocking in the run game?
ZT: I think so. Ja'Marr (Chase) was going to be the next guy in line to make that tackle (on Fitzpatrick) with his effort. But he was unknowingly going to get clipped by somebody that he never saw coming and he might have scored. We didn't have our offensive linemen in place and Minkah is a good speed guy. That was a heck of a play by TB. You're talking 24-10 if he returns that for a touchdown.
GH: I'm sure every Bengals fan of a certain age was thinking Fitzpatrick was going to take that back, it was going to be 24-10, the Steelers get the ball to start the second half and here we go. But it never happened and I thought a key thing, too, was how you guys responded to T.J. Watt taking Burrow to the turf on the Fitzpatrick interception. In years past in this series, the Steelers have used a play like that to turn games, but your team didn't fold.
ZT: That's what we're about. We're going to stand up for our teammates and our players. We're going to feed off the plays our players are making. Mike Hilton turned it around with that pick-six. That really, really just catapulted us into a different realm in that game. The energy in the locker room at halftime was really good, but controlled. The messaging from the players was really good. It wasn't this game is over. It was we have to do our part in the third quarter. That was kind of our message.
GH: Did anybody say anything really good at the half?
ZT: No. I just think everyone was level-headed. Everybody understood that's not the post-game celebration at halftime.
GH: The offensive line seems to be giving you what you need.
ZT: They've really set the tone in the run game. Our standards remain higher. There are things we can be better at, continue to be more explosive than we are. But I just think their chemistry right now is really good between those five guys. We've got good depth behind them and those guys are setting a tone with their physicality and doing a great job with their assignments, playing together and really allowing us to do some really cool things on offense.
GH: The interior guys seemed to respond Sunday. Center Trey Hopkins and guards Quinton Spain and Hakeem Adeniji.
ZT: I thought Trey played well this game. Quinton is physical. Once he locks you up, it's over. He does a really nice job, particularly on the front side and some of those back side runs, too. Hakeem has just looked better every game. The more reps he gets, the better he's going to continue to get. He's got a really high ceiling.
Riley (Reiff) and Jonah (Williams) are doing a great job protecting those edges for Joe and really keeping a good pocket. We ask the backs and tight ends to help the edges to take same pressure off because these are elite pass rushers and they've done a good job when we ask them to do that.
GH: After a game like Sunday's, the guy I think about is Steven Radicevic, the director of pro scouting and point man in free agency. Look at it. Hilton. Trey Hendrickson. Larry Ogunjobi. D.J. Reader. Chidobe Awuzie. It's amazing what the new guys have done.
ZT: Absolutely. It's a lot research done by Steve to make sure we're adding the right kind of person. Yeah, we want guys that are talented but also guys that fit what we're trying to build here culture-wise, so Steve has done a tremendous job identifying those guys and the coaches also watching and researching getting their background information on the guys, too. It's really been fun to see these guys added to the puzzle and fit right in seamlessly.
GH: Hendrickson seems to be a tremendous culture fit.
He just loves ball. He loves practicing. He loves celebrating with his teammates. He's relentless and that's what we want our defense built around. If you can use one word to define the defense, it's relentless and Trey certainly fits that description to a tee.