Bengals head coach Zac Taylor talks his rookies, how Joe Burrow's enormous talent can sometimes be bad for his coach's health and not his, and why Jim Turner was his only choice to coach an offensive line that on Sunday covered up the Titans with Turner's patchwork quilt.
GH: Going into the bye, this rookie class is really playing for you. Not only Burrow and second-round pick Tee Higgins, but what do you think about these other guys? They all played Sunday.
They get better every week. These reps they're getting right now are going to pay off in a major way. Everyone has played and everyone has been effective in their jobs when they've played. The challenge for them is don't wait until this offseason to reflect back on your rookie year on what you could do better.
Do it during the bye week. Watch every snap that you've played the first eight weeks and find ways where you can hit another level these last eight games. These last eight games I want those to be your year two. We drafted them for a reason. They're captains. They have a lot of talent. They understand how to manage that and we have high expectations for them because they can handle it.
GH: What does Burrow have to do the next eight games?
Keep leading this team to wins. That's it. In the fourth quarter it's been unfortunate because he took us down the field a few times and we had chances to win the game. He did it against the Chargers on the last drive. He did it against the Browns, really, in both games. It's just making sure you're making good decisions and eliminating the turnovers. He's had some pretty fluky ones this year, but just keep leading. Keep being more a leader for us, which he's done and has no reservations. We're kind of poking holes in what he can do better. He's done a pretty dang good job through eight weeks.
He's got half a season in. Anything he's doing that he's doing better than you thought he would at this point?
I have a heart attack every time he takes off running with the ball, but he makes me look good every time he does. There's just that balance you have to continue to find. You have to understand the flow of the game on both sides of the ball. He has to know, hey, our defense needs to protect the ball. They're playing really good. We have to protect the ball. Throw it away. Or, I need to be a playmaker right now. We need an explosive play and I'm going to hold on to this thing a little longer to get that explosive play for the team. That's a lot of being a quarterback, not just managing the offense, but kind of understanding the flow of the game as the game progresses.
I think he does have a pretty good sense for that and I think he understands that every defense is different. Some guys, if you extend plays, they will hunt you down and make you pay for it. And some other teams you're able to create a little more time.
You've got a lot of faith in him. You showed that Sunday. Fourth and five at their 43 with 2:36 left in the half. The defense has been struggling at the end of the half. Is that a product of your faith in Joe, or a product of where you are in the season and, hey we're going to fling it? What is that a product of?
Confidence in the offense. Confident in that moment they're going to make it right and they did that.
That's a big play. If you don't make it, they've got great field position and plenty of time left.
I'll be honest, I don't think that thought really crossed our minds. If we don't make it. It was just give them a call they're all comfortable with and they made it work.
If you feel confident, they have to feel that confidence.
They do. Trust me. They're a very confident group right now. Our stress level to them, there's another level there. We're not there yet. Just because we've done it a few times, we're not where we need to be. And that is something that is preached – and I promise you _ in every unit meeting we have with these guys. We are not yet a championship offense. We're a good offense, but we have another level to go for sure.
GH: And the third-and-eight with 2:08 left in the game, I think a lot of guys would have handed it off and punted up 11. I guess I have to realize this guy's not a game manager. Joe's a quarterback that can make plays and a back shoulder throw from Burrow to Auden Tate is probably like a handoff. Plus, the two-minute warning was coming anyway.
ZT: There's no doubt and we have plenty of receivers he can do that with and you don't know how many seconds the play is going to take. You hope it takes you all the way to the warning. I thought our guys managed it well.
GH: You've been in this league enough. You know it doesn't take much to get hot and get on a roll. Would you like to keep playing because you're on a little bit of a roll or do you like the bye here with some guys dinged, particularly on the offensive line?
ZT: That's how I look at it. Our guys have given us everything they could. It's been a long eight weeks. For the bye to come right now is good for us. It gives them a chance to get off their feet, recover, re-load. I think the bye falls at a really good time.
GH: When you were building your staff, offensive line coach Jim Turner was a critical hire. You were pretty adamant you wanted him and I guess we saw why on Sunday when he and assistant Ben Martin coached four new starters.
ZT: I've coached with Jimmy before. I know he's a great coach. I know what to expect out of him. He's very demanding of those players. They have really bought into that room from top to bottom. They're all on the same page. Great chemistry there. Really proud of the work they've done there.
GH: What do you think is Jimmy's best attribute? Why do you think you get along so well?
ZT: There's not any gray. He's consistent who he is from day-to-day. I think they really appreciate that because he's very honest. You always know where he stands. You always know what he expects. He's going to tell you when you do a good job. I've got a lot of trust in him. Early in the season we had a lot of kinks to work out. We had a lot of guys playing next to reach other for the first time, but the last three weeks, regardless of who's been in there, especially when you're talking about protecting the passer, they've done an outstanding job of keeping guys off of Joe.
You look at the six sacks they've given up in the last three weeks and Joe would be the first one to tell you, on about three of those he was out of the pocket and should have gotten rid of the ball. One was on (a bootleg with no blocker) where he ran out of bounds for zero yards and it was a sack against Cleveland. They take a lot of criticisms for things that aren't always their fault and they've done a nice job the last three weeks.
GH: After one of those training camp practices where Turner lined up everybody everywhere, he came off the field and said, "This is about the time they start yelling at me on the radio." But, like he said, there was going to be a time he was glad he moved guys around. That was certainly the case on Sunday.
ZT: There's no doubt. Over the course of a 16-game season, guys are going to have to be flexible and they've responded the right way.
GH: You talked about that meeting you had before the game when you found out left guard Michael Jordan was sick and couldn't play. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said he just got the sense looking into Quinton Spain's eyes that he was ready even though he joined the team Friday.
ZT: I would agree with that. You've seen him play enough ball where he's ready to play. My concerns were things he just couldn't control. Knowing the cadence. A new cadence getting thrown at him that we hadn't talked about in the middle of a game. Or a tempo code work that we threw at him that he didn't know. Not his fault. He hasn't been here long enough. Those where things that were my concerns. But I think Burrow, Billy, Jimmy and Ben did a great job managing that over the course of the game with him.
GH: Where is your defense right now? Everything seems to be feeding off the offense.
ZT: I'm proud of the job they did on Sunday. We gave up some rushing yards, which a lot of teams have done to them. But we created a red-zone turnover and should have had another and came up with huge third-down stops at big points in the game.
It's not always sexy, but you see it on every clip. Eleven guys running to the ball, swarming the tackler when one of the guys has him in their grasp. Making plays on the ball when it is in the air. Create some pressure on the pocket. We definitely did that Sunday, in particular, to force Tannehill's hand a little bit and, really, held them to 14 points. We shouldn't have lined up in the neutral zone and we should have had a turnover and you walk away holding them to 14 points, which is pretty danged good.
The way our defense allowed us to play with a lead, it allowed us not to have to call certain things on offense and make sure we took some pressure off the offensive line, which we hoped to do.
GH: Is that your style? Go for it and go out and get the lead?
ZT: I want that to be my style. Get the lead so you can open up the whole playbook on offense, take the pressure off the defense, force the other team to throw it a little more and those guys can rush the passer and make some plays on the back end.
GH: They say you're a pass-first offense. But on Sunday you kept the ball for nearly 36 minutes and Giovani Bernard ran four yards per on a lot of carries, 15 carries. It seems like the pass can open up the run. Or certainly passes that control the clock.
ZT: Not all passes are created equal. There are plenty of throws based on coverage, we'll be able to collect four yards here. Sometimes you call those in place of a run, if you don't like the front, don't like the matchup and what pressure you're going to get, hey, call a pass because someone is going to be open, we're going to collect four to eight yards, the clock is going to run, we're going to possess the ball and it's another way to manufacture a run look. That's kind of been our mindset sometimes.
GH: There was much written and said about last week being such a critical game for the locker room in the wake of the Carlos Dunlap trade. I never really got the sense that it was some kind of Armageddon, but at some point do guys start wondering even if that noise isn't all that real and you needed a big game like this?
ZT: It was just an opportunity for us to prove ourselves against a really good team. They went to the AFC championship game last year, they were 5-1 this year. It was a chance to earn a little bit of respect, not that that's what we play for. But in some regards it's important for our guys to feel validated for the hard work they've put in and beat a good team. It is meaningful. But at the end of the day we play for each other. We do our best to block out the outside noise because we knew how close we've been and we just needed to finish and that was really our first opportunity to do that.