With Paul Brown Stadium emptying out for the bye week, Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson caught up with head coach Zac Taylor and they discussed how Cincinnati is set up to make the stretch run its own, Joe Burrow's NFL-leading 11 interceptions and potential lineup changes.
GH: Eight games left. The big thing to me, it seems you have remind everyone in spite of the last two games, it's still right there.
ZT: We control our own destiny for the next eight games. Seven of these people are right in contention with us in the conference. We're not playing five NFC teams. We're not crossing our fingers that the other AFC teams are going to lose. We get a chance to play them head-to -head, see where we stand and see if we earned an opportunity to play through January.
GH: Are we watching the evolution of an up-and-coming team? Two weeks ago you were on the cover of the Newsweek. Now you're on the opposite end of the barrel. A break-through win in Baltimore followed by unexpected losses. Are those growing pains?
ZT: I don't know if it has anything to do with an up-and-coming team. I look around the league and there were probably a lot of surprising games last Sunday. A lot of teams have been humbled, it's just how you handle it. I don't know many teams that have gone to the playoffs or gone to the Super Bowl and didn't have some adversity over the course of two, three, four games over some stretch of the season.
It's not uncommon what we're going through. We just have to make sure we handle it the right way and respond the right way. I used the example of Denver. They lost four out of five and they came out 30-0 last week at Dallas, one of the better teams in the league. Sometimes it takes just that one performance that gets you back on track.
GH: Any adversity hang with you from the season you went to the Super Bowl with the Rams?
ZT: Our adversity came in December. We had been undefeated and then we went on the road and didn't play well and maybe lost two out of three. So there's adversity in every stretch of every single season and I don't think any team has been immune to it. It's all about how you handle it and respond.
GH: Do the number of Joe Burrow's interceptions (an NFL-high 11) bother you?
ZT: They would if he was making bad decisions. He's really not. You put them into different categories. Is it a poor decision? Is it an inaccurate or late throw? Was someone on offense supposed to be in better positon to do their job? Because a lot of it is trust in these systems. And then sometimes the defender just makes a great play. There's been several times they've fallen into that category. Defenders make good plays and sometimes the ball's tipped in there and we've had a couple of tipped ball picks on plays that the quarterback has to own. But at the end of the day those are the ones he's going to quickly brush off and move on from because he knows he doesn't have much control over them.
And there are those throws that are an inch or a foot behind or in front of a receiver more so than it needs to be and the ball gets tipped up and picked off. That's just part of being a quarterback. You have to be able to learn from anything that you can control. I think there are a lot of interceptions on his resume this year that I don't necessarily pin on him for a variety of different reasons. And I feel really confident where he's at and how he's taken care of the ball.
GH: Aren't interceptions hazards of the quarterback's occupation?
ZT: Yeah, sometimes you might have four or five that are flat out unlucky, where the ball gets tipped or the defender makes great plays. I think back to the Chicago game and two of those were just tremendous plays by (cornerback) Jaylon Johnson and (linebacker) Roquan Smith. The quarterback was on time. Decisive. Really good location with the throw and two guys made outstanding plays. If they're not high end caliber players, they don't make those plays. Those are going to go on his resume, but I told him after the game, 'I can live with those. You were decisive. You went where we talked about going with the ball and those guys turned around and made plays.' Those are things I don't want us to lose too much sleep over.
GH: After Burrow threw the red-zone pick in Baltimore, you said you were glad he made that mistake in a win. What about the red-zone pick against Cleveland? Is that the same kind of thing or a different animal?
ZT: That was a different animal.
GH: What did you tell him after the Cleveland game?
ZT: Each one is different. We just talked through the things we can control and make sure we're always on the same page with everybody and we move on. We know we have to take care of the ball if we expect to win these games. Especially against really good teams in this division. As tight as these games are going to be and if we don't we're probably not going to win. There's no question we're going to have to earn our way through the last half of this season. Our guys are built for it and they're ready for it.
GH: The defense looked like two completely different groups of guys between the first seven games and the last two. Any concerns?
ZT: You look at two things. We're up on the Jets, 31-20. We get a stop there to end the game, then we feel pretty good about our performance. But when you don't, the last eight minutes of that game are really going to get magnified and often times that's what the games in the league come down to. We didn't end that game very strongly, so you open yourself up to a lot of criticism.
And against the Browns, the offense gave them 16-20 points. We gave them a pick-six, two field goals where they got the ball in field goal territory off turnovers and then we had the turnover on downs on our side of the field and we'd like to hold them to a field goal and we gave them a touchdown.
So there's 20 points right there and the defense has to own a 41-point performance when in reality they actually played pretty well on two sudden changes and held them to field goals. That's part of the league, but we try to put that into perspective for our guys.
What we can't do is give up two explosive plays for touchdowns. If we can do a better job in quarters coverage on one of the post routes and get the guy down on the ground on the long touchdown run, then we feel like we'll have a pretty solid performance in there. But unfortunately that's not the way it played out.
GH: Any personnel changes on defense you mull over the bye? You've got some veteran cornerbacks you recently claimed off waivers that have played a lot elsewhere.
ZT: I think what we'll do is see how those guys fit our scheme and see what their strengths are. The better thing to do is to involve them in some smaller roles to get them involved in the same system and the communication aspect of things and we'll just see if anyone expands their role going forward.
I think what's smart is we've added veteran corner experience and anyone who's been around this league long enough knows that in November, December, January, that's going to pay dividends having a lot guys there for a variety of reasons. So it's good to get some guys who have played ball in the NFL before.
GH: So it sounds like you're not ready to make changes on the corner with Eli Apple. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has indicated he could have had some help on the 60-yard touchdown pass.
ZT: Playing corner in this league is very difficult. You're going to have to cover some really good receivers, you're going to be put on an island, you're going to win some and lose some. You have to be able to bounce back and put that one behind you. We've got faith in Eli Apple and expect him to continue to step up.
GH: The personnel move on the other side of the ball, putting Hakeem Adeniji at right guard in place of Jackson Carman, that seemed to work out the way you hoped since he's getting another start. You guys must have been really confident in him because he had practiced for only two weeks coming off his injured shoulder.
ZT: Correct. He's been attentive. He's been in meetings, he's been working really hard to get himself in shape to the best of his ability. That's a credit to (director of rehab) Nick Cosgray. That's a credit to our strength and conditioning department. That's a credit to Hakeem staying focused knowing he'll be ready when he gets an opportunity when it's thrown his way. It wasn't perfect. But there was enough there to show he's on the right trajectory and we want to make sure he gets another opportunity.
GH: Did you want Jackson to take a breather and watch it? I know he's been up and down and has been very good at times, particularly in Baltimore.
ZT: Yeah, I think it's good for a rookie. He's been in the mix and it's good to take a step back and look at it from a different perspective but still stay ready. We're counting on Jackson. We're going to need Jackson. He'll have another opportunity at some point and he's got to be ready for that.