In the wake of Sunday's Opening Day 27-24 overtime win over the Vikings at Paul Brown Stadium, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor sat down with Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson and talked about the loneliness of fourth-down calls, the fruits of the majority of his players now familiar with the details of his third-year program and the philosophical tweaks on each side of the ball.
GH: Joe Burrow's improvised 32-yard loft to tight end C.J. Uzomah to set up the win seemed to be a third-year-in-the-program moment.
ZT: I agree with you. You do that the first year and maybe early in the second year, it's not as detailed. We've spent a lot of time talking about that concept family in a lot of different ways and we're being more detailed with it and our guys executed.
GH: Even defensively with linebacker Germaine Pratt, a third-year player coming up with the play at the end with his first career forced fumble and recovery.
ZT: Look at all those guys. Logan (Wilson). Pratt. Jessie (Bates). Sam (Hubbard). All these guys that have been here (two and) three years. The first year we weren't great at getting the ball out. Second year we were slightly better. This year it's been a huge emphasis and the guys have really taken it to heart.
GH: We've talked about how the core of the team is now the young vets. The 24-, 25-, 26-year-olds. They've played a lot of ball for you and they seemed to keep their head about them on Sunday despite their youth.
ZT: Especially if you look at the linebackers. Those are the young guys of the group. But Logan (Wilson) played a ton of football for us last year. Akeem (Davis-Gaither) and Markus (Bailey) have really made strides. They feel more comfortable in year two because they got real reps in the preseason and the offseason they never got before. You just see all those guys stepping up.
GH: Linebackers coach Al Golden told me early on in camp he thought Pratt might be the most improved linebacker. He just seems to get better and better and there he was making the play of the game.
ZT: I don't mention him in the conversation because I don't look at him as a young guy any more. This is his third year in the system and to me he moves and plays like a veteran and acts like a veteran. I don't put him with those guys that we drafted a year after him. He's just doing everything that he's asked to do as well as he can. A tremendous person and great approach.
GH: Anybody who played with Pratt at North Carolina State raves about how smart of a player he is and how much tape he watches.
ZT: That's the scouting report you got on him coming out of college. Dave Doeren (his head coach) spoke very highly of him and said he was the leader of that defense and that team. As smart as a football player as he's come by.
GH: The stunning thing about the last fourth and-1 call is that it wasn't a pass, but that it was a long pass.
ZT: There were more options than the long pass. That's just the way it played out on that snap. Gio (Giovani Bernard) scored a touchdown here against Cleveland with two minutes left that was a short (three yards) pass. It's all part of the play.
What made the last play on Sunday work?
ZT: I think the moment probably caused (the Vikings) to all suck up there. They had 11 guys tight to the line of scrimmage and we had four guys out for a route. With all the crossing patterns and all the man-to-man coverage they were playing, somebody is bound to run into somebody else. They have to stop the run first and foremost. It's fourth and a centimeter. When you reverse out and show the ball, then you have to have their vision in the backfield a little bit. Even though they're playing man coverage your eyes probably need to be on the receiver. You just know how it works. Our guys were detailed with how they need to do things and C.J. popped open.
GH: It's a long pass, but a high percentage play in your guys' mind.
ZT: We've done it enough. We have confidence in our players executing it.
GH: It seemed like all the things that have broken the heart flipped on Sunday. The big turnover. The 14 points before they touched the ball at the end of the first half and start of the second half.
ZT: The double whammy. It gives you a lot of momentum and then play the game as you see fit from there.
GH: Some would say you gave them the momentum right back with the failed fourth-and-one call late in the third quarter. But it seems to me you were playing for more than that game. Two weeks from now in Pittsburgh. January in Cleveland…
ZT: It all works together. We're thinking, let's break this game open. Let's go down the field and score and break it open.
GH: With that fourth-down try from you 30 you didn't get, are you thinking when Pratt gets the fumble, 'Pratt just saved my butt,' or, 'We've got a shot to win the game?'
ZT: We've got a shot to win the game. You never know how it's going to look. Just keep trust in your team. The dam breaks eventually. Here we are. We made a turnover, they got a big stop and the offense finished it off and the special teams finished it off. It's good to see all three phases.
GH: You came into this year losing half of your games by virtually one play. Has that spawned a just-go-for-it – approach?
ZT: I think we've always lived by that. Sometimes it takes some time to get it exactly how you want to do it and our guys believe in what we're doing. And they put it on the line for us. We're not going to fear failure. We're going to attack these teams. That's just the message we're sending to our group in the 17 games we're going to play.
GH: Jessie Bates said you called up the group after the Vikings scored from the 30.
ZT: I know what can go through a defensive player's mind when the ball is on the 30-yard line. I'm no dummy. I know what goes through these guys' heads. There's always going to be initial frustration. There's no surprise about that. I wanted to be very clear that we're going to be aggressive. And the other side of it is I've got great faith in our defense. That we're going to put them in tough spots at times over a 17-game season and that we know they can stand up.
And I liked the (all-out blitz) call there (on Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousin's 24-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Adam Thielen on fourth-and-four). A Pro Bowl player made a great play. Really, we're an inch away from Logan probably getting a hand on it, just an inch off of the throw and Mike Hilton is in perfect position to knock it down. They happened to make that one play.
GH: I'm curious what Sam Francis' analytics said on fourth-and-1 from the 30 in that situation?
ZT: In that moment, it's kind of a tossup. Fourth-and-1 is considered go-for-it even if you're all the way back there. It's just whether or not you feel you need to do it or not. A lot of times when you're doing something like that, you have to be consistent over the course of time. So we went for it on fourth-and-1 going in (earlier in the game) and we scored a touchdown a couple of plays later, where if you decided to kick a field goal there's a four- point swing right there. But we're going to get it. Fourth and-1. Score a touchdown and you know what? We didn't get it when we were backed up and they go and scored a touchdown.
So it's essentially a three-point swing because we got four points and they got a touchdown back. It all balances out over time. You feel like if you're aggressive over the course of a season it bring you more wins. You just can't do it once and never do it again. You have to continue to be aggressive and understand the moments.
GH: It might have been 56,000-1, but you said after the game you stand by it.
ZT: There are some lonely moments sometimes when it doesn't work out. You have to stick by your guns and continue to be aggressive and that's the way we want to play football.
GH: It looked like you went to the drawing board over the offseason. Joe Burrow was under center a lot more. There seemed to be more of a mix with double tight ends. Is that just a one-game thing or a tweak in philosophy?
ZT: Our approach can be tweaked each game. We have a lot of respect for that defense. We wanted to do a great job staying in manageable situations. 12 personnel (two tight ends, two receivers) is one way to regulate what you're going to get from the defense a little bit because they were pressuring us a lot on second-and-seven plus. We felt like we were making a lot hay in the run game. We felt like we had some good protections and play actions we can run off it. That was really the game plan for this week.
GH: Joe being under center enhances the run game, right?
ZT: You can build a lot of things off that. The naked bootlegs, the play-actions, the various screens. (The Vikings) played more odd front than they've shown in the last several years. That does limit a little bit what we were planning to do with some of the screens and play-actions, but I thought our coaches did a great job adjusting and our players handled it well.
GH: Joe hasn't been under center very often in his life. He seemed to respond well.
ZT: It's a long season. You have to be able to attack different teams differently. There are plenty of games we're going to open it up and spread it out and let him do what he's done over the course of his lifetime. And there are the games you're just going in with that game plan you put in that's going to put you in the best position and that's what we're going to do each week.
GH: It looked like he'd been under center his whole life.
ZT: Oh yeah. He's been doing it over the last two years and spent a lot of time doing it. He's very comfortable.
GH: You used the tight ends more then you usually do (double tight ends 26 percent of the time and the 32-yard fourth-down conversion to tight end C.J. Uzomah came with three tight ends.)
ZT: Often times they go underappreciated, but they did a really good job in the runs and protection. They're really smart, savvy players who always put us in a really good position.
GH: On defense, too, it appeared that your coordinator Lou Anarumo tweaked his own philosophy with a liberal use of five-man fronts and different blitz looks. He also used three safeties about a quarter of the time, something he did do a little bit last year.
ZT: I think you've got to adapt to grow and find out what schemes fit best with the personnel you have. I feel like we got a lot of real work done during this training camp that put us in position to start the season strong.
GH: It looks like Lou is blitzing more, although the stats say he was right on last year's 31 percent.
ZT: You're able to blitz more when you feel great about your coverage and with the guys you've got up front in one-on ones. That's not to say anything about the last couple of years, but you just feel really good about the group we put out there. It's a more veteran group. They've come of age. When you've got young guys that have come up in the system, new guys we've added to the package, these guys have played a lot of football.