Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson huddled with head coach Zac Taylor to talk Sunday's must-to-do list in the showdown (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Baltimore and last Sunday's mastery of the Lions on both the ground and air.
GH: Pretty straight forward I guess. If there was ever a game to find out where you are, this is it in this game for first place in the AFC North.
ZT: We should measure ourselves with how we'll perform in the division. This is a team that's kind of been the standard in this division for a number of years. They've played in Super Bowls, they've played in playoff games. It's a great opportunity for us to go get some momentum on the road with a divisional game.
GH: In the last two years it's been a struggle in the division stopping the run (allowing an average of 153 yards per AFC North game on 5.2 per carry and rushing for an average of 114 per game), but the way you've built this year's roster it seems to have addressed those two items.
ZT: Yeah, I think our defensive front has done a real nice job stopping the run. It's not just the front. It's all those guys back there behind them as well. And we've got guys who are smart up front on offense. Guys that understand what we're trying to achieve and take the coaching the right way. (Running back Joe) Mixon does a great job putting the ball where it needs to go. Those are some areas that have really helped us.
GH: The running game seems to have quietly improved the last two or three games despite the trauma at right guard.
ZT: It's not always going to get the recognition the passing game gets because everybody loves the explosive plays and touchdowns and that's great. But in the third quarter (last Sunday) there were some great examples we just kept calling runs and runs and runs. They were getting four, eight, 14 yards a pop, really helping wear down the defense. I know the whole team loved seeing that.
GH: What absolutely has to happen in Baltimore to win?
ZT: You have to have possession of the football. That's really where they've teed off on teams taking away the football. Putting pressure on you. They do a good job of stripping the ball. (Cornerback) Marlon Humphrey is the best in the business at punching the ball out. So take care of the ball and we have to take possessions away from them as well. That's the thing you say every week, but against a team like Baltimore, that's truer now than ever. We know what kind of stress their offense can put on the defense. You want your guys to be able to play well on defense and be able to catch a breath and go back out there and do it again because there are a lot of extended plays that happen and that does have an effect on a defense over the course of a game.
GH: This defensive personnel that you have put together, the strong set-the-edge anchors in Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson, the fast linebackers, even switching to a 3-4 hybrid, it seems to be with Lamar Jackson and Baltimore in mind.
ZT: We've got a smart defense and it allows you to do a lot of different things. Our guys play well together, they play well off each other and they'll certainly be tested this week. This is the biggest challenge we've faced up to this point just because of the different ways they can attack you on offense. I know our guys are up for the challenge and they're excited.
GH: This is what you envisioned, right, on defense when you started doling out money in 2020? I mean (tackle) Larry (Ogunjobi) and Hendrickson have been gold up front, haven't they?
ZT: Yeah. It's such a good mixture of guys that were here when we got here. Guys that we added though the draft and free agents we've added. It's just a perfect collection of the right people that we need and they're all executing at a high level.
GH: It always seems where Lamar has hurt the Bengals is on the edge with the option and you're much stouter there now.
ZT: We are. But they're not just one dimensional. That's why he's so good. You try to stop the run and you do a great job there and he can still beat you over the top. Those guys do a great job with their scramble drill mechanics. He's rare. You don't face a guy like him very often and we face him twice a year.
GH: Joe Burrow seems to be rare, too. He's obviously not in Lamar's mold, and he seems to have a different style than a Brady or a Rodgers. He's kind of unique, too, isn't he?
ZT: In terms of mobility, he's similar to Rodgers. Rodgers knows when there's opportunity to run and get some production there with some 10-yard scrambles and getting down and protecting yourself and at the same time he's got that pocket awareness where he extends plays to buy more time for the receivers and play off the linemen's blocks. I don't think he's too far from that mold. Obviously, Rodgers has put together a great 17-year career, so there's no comparison there yet. But you certainly see some traits in terms of their mobility that are very similar to their styles.
GH: Burrow has played 16 games, which used to be a complete season. You obviously figured he could do what he's doing, which is lead the AFC in passing. But is there a category where you're surprised he's ahead in?
ZT: No, I think there are always high expectations for him. He's done a really nice job executing in the red zone. . I think that's one of the things we know. We've been really good in the red zone offense. It starts with him. It's everybody, but he's got to go to the right guy on time and execute the plays when he needs to. We took the sack Sunday, which we need to avoid on the first-and-goal, but that's the first time all season he just hasn't been top shelf.
GH: It seemed like the Lions were playing Cover Two the entire first half and taking the long ball until that third-and-10 with 17 seconds left and Joe hit Ja'Marr Chase for 34 yards.
ZT: They played a decent amount of Cover Two on third down. But, you're right, that's one of the first opportunities we got to take advantage of a one-on-one and they did a nice job of that.
GH: I guess Joe's eyes bugged out when he saw the pressure coming that would indicate man coverage.
ZT: We weren't perfect with the protection there, but we got it started the right way and gave him enough of a chance to be able to put that ball up enough for Ja'Marr to create separation.
GH: Given that they played Cover Two so much, did you feel you ran the ball better than you have against the so-called light box?
ZT: I thought our run game did a real good job that put us in position to do things that we wanted to do. It always isn't going to be pretty early. Sometimes you're trying to sort it out. You've got your initial plan and then get a feel over the course of the game to see how they're playing blocks and what they're trying to do to counter what you're doing. We really hit that rhythm in the second half. And that's with a lot of really good running performances. You've got to get the lead to keep running the ball. So you wait for the dam to break and all of a sudden the two, three yard runs start to turn into six, seven, eight yards. It just allows you to be patient when you've got control of the game the way we did. Otherwise, the last ten plays turn into passes and suddenly you go to 20 carries instead of 30-plus carries. We put ourselves in good position to get the rushing totals (142 yard on 36 carries) we want.
GH: I thought you were unfairly criticized for being too conservative the week before against the Packers. But they can't call you conservative after throwing a touchdown pass last Sunday on fourth-and-one, right?
ZT: Every game is different. You're just trying to win. You build up a plan over the course of the week and if you don't win it gets questioned. That's part of the job we signed up for. I love that part of it. We felt like fourth-and-inches we were going to get it. On third-and-two we knew we were going for it, so you can run the duo play (for a yard) and if not we had this other play in our back pocket that was going to be good as well.
GH: The fact that Trey Hill went back in for Jackson Carman at right guard on that play, that didn't dictate the play, is that right?
ZT: No, we've got confidence in both those guys. Trey Hill got off to a slow start in some areas, but he picked it up. He showed all of the skills we thought we had in him and the game slowed down a little bit for him and he played much better. The first game, there are going to be issues that pop up. I thought he overcame that. He went back to guard (after Carman took sick) and he did a nice job at guard. We moved him to center and he did a nice job at center. He just has to build off of that. We're counting on all those young guys. Him and Jackson. They just have to keep improving every game. That's all we want to see from those guys and they'll be able to help us.