As he headed into a rare fall weekend that didn't involve a game, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor spent some time with Bengals senior writer Geoff Hobson reflecting on halftime adjustments, Joe Burrow's natural classroom work ethic, Mike Hilton's impact and the challenge of facing a good friend next Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium who also happens to be Packers head coach Matt LaFleur.
GH: You obviously made some effective halftime adjustments Thursday night and you haven't had many comebacks from halftime deficits. Is that part of the evolution three years in now? With their knowledge of the scheme, is it easier to make those adjustments at halftime?
ZT: It's a little bit of that and it's a little bit of, you know, sometimes the first half might come down to three plays. Three plays killed three drives. It's more about, 'Hey, listen, there's nothing necessarily they're doing that we haven't prepared for. Here's the initial plan in the second half.'
You can tell when a first half hasn't gone your way when I'm not even through my first ten calls I want to get off my call sheet. You still have three or four of them left, just because of the situations you put yourself in. Generally, that tells you it's not a time to panic and rip up the game plan. Lets' just calm down and make this first possession count for us in the second half, which our guys did and we're able to get it going from there.
GH: It did look like you went in a pretty different direction in the second half with all the heavy formations and the runs.
ZT: That was part of the first half plan. We didn't get enough plays to get to the fourth run on the call sheet until the third quarter. You want to call those things on first and second on normal and we were more second- and-nine and second-and-10, so you don't get to pull that stuff off the call sheet as quickly as you want to.
GH: You've been around quarterbacks and coaches in this league for a decade on the cutting-edge stuff. Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is a good friend. Where would you put Joe Burrow when it comes to Xs and Os. A graduate degree? A doctorate? After 14 games, where is he?
ZT: He's as far along as you need him to be. I think that's the best way to put it. It's hard to put him up against other quarterbacks who played 10, 18 years in this league. He's as far along as we need him to be. There are still going to be some things that pop up that he has yet to experience. What? Fourteen games or something at this point? There are some quarterbacks in the league with over 300, 400 games. There are things that come with experience. But he puts himself in really good position to be prepared and able to execute when we need it.
GH: Is he a grinder? Does he study a lot? Or does it just come naturally to him?
ZT: Both. I think he's got a really high baseline of football IQ. Maybe because his dad is a coach. He grew up around the game. Maybe he's just built that way. It's hard for me to say, but he also puts in the work. You're there on Saturday talking through situations. He's clearly prepped and that's stuff he does with (quarterbacks coach) Dan Pitcher and that's stuff he does by himself. It's always comforting to know he's ready to go.
GH: What is the most impressive thing he did Thursday night? Any play or any checks stand out?
ZT: It doesn't always work out, but he got us into two good checks against pressure looks. One of them was probably a zero-yard gain and one of them was the one to C.J. (Uzomah). It doesn't hit like you always want it to. Sometimes it's about avoiding disaster. The play you've got on vs. the look is going to be disastrous and the quarterback gets us back to a zero-yard gain. That happens a lot. That's good football. I thought he was just really accurate. The offensive line gave him time. He made some plays with his feet when he needed to and created some off-schedule throws. Two of them he has to throw away and one of them he hits C.J. for a big play. It's not always going to be perfect, but he makes it count when he can.
GH: I mean, Coach, the guy is hitting 73 percent of his passes.
ZT: That's pretty good. It starts with the quarterback and then it really circulates to all ten guys around him at the same time. He knows he can trust that people are where they're supposed to be. He trusts he's going to have the protection. We've got the run game going to take pressure off the quarterback, too, and people have to worry about that. We're in a good spot through the first four games, but it only gets harder from here.
GH: C.J. talked about the culture after the game and you talked about now having the right guys in the building. Some, like, C.J., and Tyler Boyd, were here when you got here. Mile Hilton seems to be symbolic of the guys you brought in. Just a fabulous fit culturally,
ZT: Loves football. Always upbeat. Always brings great energy. He's got a high football IQ. Guys feed off his emotion and he's really fun to be around.
GH: He kind of took over Pittsburgh Week with a couple of different speeches. Do you think it helped?
ZT: It didn't hurt. You hear the guy's passion and he's trying to put us in a position to win. It was good to hear his voice that week.
GH: I thought it was a great thing by you to let him go take the last snap on offense. The kneel down in Pittsburgh. Did you have that in mind?
ZT: Nah, spur of the moment. He was right near me as I was calling for the personnel. I just said, 'Hey, go back there and make sure nothing goes haywire.' Usually receivers are sent there behind the quarterback.
GH: LaFleur seems to get a lot of heat even though he wins a lot of games in Green Bay, your next foe.
ZT: You go to two NFC championship games and people are mad at you. It's pretty wild. He does an excellent job. He pores over every inch of tape that's available to him. He puts his team in a great position. He works his tail off. He's a very honest communicator, which I think is really helpful for the guys that he coaches. He's been around a lot of great players. He had the offensive MVP with Matt Ryan. He had the offensive MVP last year with Aaron Rodgers. He's been in the Super Bowl with Atlanta. He's been in two NFC championship games with Green Bay. He's got the experience to match it. He's just got a really good background. He was in the (Gary) Kubiak system for a long time. The (Kyle) Shanahan system. He was with (Sean) McVay. He's had a chance to learn from all the right people.
GH: Pretty much the same guys you've been around.
ZT: There's a lot of crossover with people we've worked with, influences we've had in our lives. I'm happy Matt's had the success he's had.
GH: There are some similarities with what he's running up there.
ZT: It's all influenced by the same backgrounds. You just have to do what fits your personnel best. I can watch the tape and probably guess how they call it and what their intent is. I think that's the biggest thing. Understanding why they're doing what they're doing with the motions and the different play action and things. Once you get to your own team, it starts to branch off to the Green Bay Packers offense and the Cincinnati Bengals offense.
GH Is there anything that he's liked that you took from him?
ZT: We talk to each other every couple of weeks and talk about opponents and talk about things they're doing well. More so in the offseason. When you know you play a team early in the season, we don't spend a lot of time getting into the depth of how we're running our offenses, just because we know we're playing each other. Once that game ends and the only time you'd see him over the next four years is in the Super Bowl, you can be a lot more frank with your conversations.
GH: You probably haven't talked to him in the last month? You just kind of know what you can and can't talk about and when?
ZT: Not about scheme. Not about personnel. Just about different odds and ends. I've gone through this with my brother many times.