Head coach Zac Taylor sits down with Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson in their weekly sitdown that takes a look at the massive changes in his roster since the last time the Bengals played the Steelers on Nov. 24, 2019.
GH: You talked this week about you and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan looking back and seeing how different things are from a year ago. You sound encouraged from what you see.
ZT: We don't spend a lot of time thinking about that. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't cross our minds every now and then. The last time we were playing these guys and just kind of where we were personnel wise. Guys were still feeling out the system and what our expectations were. Now here we are a year later and guys have way more confidence. We have a full grasp of what our identity is and guys are playing with a whole lot of confidence.
GH: Go back to that last Pittsburgh game and you didn't have Joe Burrow, A.J. Green, Drew Sample …
ZT: Tee Higgins
GH: Whoever pays left tackle is an upgrade. Big difference between then and now.
ZT: You can't help but look at it that way when you go back and watch the games from last year. It hits you right in the face.
GH: You've talked about the Steelers defensive continuity this week. The last time Ben Roethlisberger played the Bengals, the last game before you became the head coach, he'll see only three starters that also started that 2018 finale.
ZT: We've got a crew we're getting comfortable with and they're excited to go on the road.
GH: How do you get defensive continuity in a season you just haven't been healthy up front on a line that has gone through so many guys?
ZT: I thought our guys played well last week. I know there were a lot of rushing yards there. We got a comfortable lead and they kept running the ball and that took time off the clock and we'd rather give up that than the chunk plays at that point. It will be good to get (defensive end) Sam Hubbard back. He's another addition up front that we really missed. His energy, his leadership. We feel like we're getting healthier on that side of the ball and our guys are getting confidence with each snap. I expect them to have a good showing.
GH: Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither, two of your rookies in the middle of the defense, a spot where the Steelers hurt you last year, those are two more guys you didn't have at this time last year.
ZT: We're really encouraged by the progress those guys are making in the linebacker room.
GH: With your first Covid hit of the season occurring last week, the protocols have been amped up and the big thing is you have to get them in and out of Paul Brown Stadium this week with just 15 minutes in the locker room.
ZT: We flipped it and made Monday the off day and Tuesday a walkthrough. Usually we break up a walkthrough and have lunch and then go to practice. We just erased some of that down time and extended that period. They have to be really efficient with their time in the building and make sure they stay distant. But our guys handle all that the right way, so I'm not really concerned about it.
GH: You have to meet virtually. Is that a fly in the ointment to prepare for the Steelers?
ZT: We've become really good at it. There have been times we've done these virtual meetings dating back to training camp and the offseason. Our coaches know how to use the tape and keep the players engaged, give them the information they need. This isn't a big distraction for us. We have plenty of time to get the plan in place. We feel good about it.
GH: It looks like you're back where you were with the offensive line before the Tennessee game. You really don't know who you have where.
ZT: That's the way it goes. Next man up and we'll be ready to go. We'll see how we go about it. We've got a lot of confidence with the guys in that room.
GH: The fact you came through the Titans game like you did up front has to give a boost to their confidence.
ZT: We have played plenty of linemen in the last year-and-a -half and we've made it work. We don't have concerns there.
GH: Will you have running back Joe Mixon for Sunday?
ZT: We'll see. We'll test him out these first couple of days and get a great feel for where he's at.
GH: All your injured players seem be in that boat heading into Wednesday's first practice of the week.
ZT: There's nobody I would outright rule out right now.
GH: You spent the bye week self-scouting and I know you can't reveal any of that, but is there anything you found that surprised you? Maybe something you didn't realize until you had time to sit down with it?
ZT: No, because there are plenty of times we go back and review the last couple of games anyway. It's not this big, grand scheme evaluation thing that just takes place once every eight weeks. There's a lot that goes into it after a two-game stretch, a four-game stretch and we're always getting the information on the tendencies we need to break. Now you get a chance to go back and physically watch it instead of just looking at the data that tells you one thing. That's helpful to configure your plan.
GH: Here's one notion. You finally have the four pre-season games out of the way. You finally have the extended scrimmages and camp work out of the way. Now you have an old-fashioned opener eight games into this new-look season.
ZT: That's one way to look at it. The bye came at a good point. The guys have some confidence. They feel good about the direction they're headed. Now we just have to capitalize on that momentum we've created.
GH: How do you get a sense Bengals-Steelers is so big here?
ZT: Just from people coming up and telling you. It is great. That's what is so great about sports. It's what is so great about living in Cincinnati. The passion they feel towards their team, other teams. That's why you coach. You want to be a part of that passion. And you better win some football games if you want it to be all on your side. That's just the way it goes. You have to earn that. You have to build it. We're excited to continue to do that. I wouldn't want to have it any other way. We want to build a winner that wins championships that the fans are proud to support. That's the direction we're headed.