With his team a win away from claiming the AFC North title and the Chiefs bringing the NFL's hottest streak into Paul Brown Stadium Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), head coach Zac Taylor's weekly conversation with Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson reflects on how far the Bengals have come since Taylor's first game as head coach in Kansas City in the 2019 preseason opener. Other topics include calling a rare 500-yard game, championship recipes and more.
GH: How far have you guys come since your first game as the Bengals head coach against Andy Reid's Chiefs in that 2019 preseason opener?
ZT: I don't even think you can put it on a scale. I don't think you can ever measure it. A long ways. A long ways.
GH: What thoughts went through your mind after that game against a team that would go on to win the Super Bowl?
ZT: That we have to tackle better. Be much more efficient on offense. Have to do better handling situations that came up at the end of the half. I think we ran the whole gamut there. We fumbled a punt, if I'm not mistaken. You name it, we did it.
GH: When you look at your team now, and I don't want to say satisfied because that's a bad word, but what aspect of the team are you really comfortable with now?
ZT: No moment is too big for our guys right now. They've risen to the occasion in a lot of different games this year. We've been in about every situation you can imagine. At the end of tight games. That's what's going to happen here down the stretch. We're going to be in more of those games. I think our guys have had the right mentality. An aggressive mentality. Getting a stop when we need it. Creating a turnover when we needed it to put a game on ice. I feel confident our team is learning how to close out games when it matters.
GH: That was clearly in evidence Sunday. I thought what was driving your play calling at the end was the Jets game when you guys lost an 11-point lead in the middle of the fourth quarter. At least that's what I was thinking about.
ZT: Don't give the other team a breath. I was thinking more of the Packers-Ravens game, to be honest with you. The Packers played so well on offense. They punted only twice, the first and last possession of the game, and yet Baltimore still had a chance to win it with a two-point conversion. I didn't want to give them any hope.
GH: What was it like calling a 500-yard game? Not many have done that.
ZT: That's a good way to put it. You can feel your guys are in a rhythm. Some of the plays didn't work. Joe just moved around the pocket until they did. And so that makes it a lot easier for the play-caller when there's not a play to be made and they figure out a way to get it done, it makes your job pretty easy.
GH: The most significant thing about this season to me is sweeping Pittsburgh and Baltimore. That's only happened twice this century for the Bengals in what has been the Ravens and Steelers century in the division. That's a big building block.
ZT: We wanted to make hay in this division. We only won one game in the division last year. We needed to take a big step and our guys have answered that bell. And it's not over yet. We've still got a ways to go this year. We can't be complacent where we're at right now. We're still hungry for more but so far it's headed in the right direction.
GH: You've got a slew of two-game winning streaks but haven't been able to get to three and now you really need some streaks.
ZT: What better time than now to create the momentum that we haven't been able to grasp all season? Now's the time to do it. It would be big for us to get this one.
GH: Is there a common bond why you haven't won three straight?
ZT: Each one has been different. The Jets game got away from us at the end for a number of different reasons. The Chargers game, we dug ourselves a hole early. Those are two chances we had for the three-game win streak. Just didn't capitalize on them.
GH: The Chiefs are such an intriguing and good team. What do you have to do to beat them?
ZT: You've always got to plan on scoring points. On defense you have to steal some possessions from them. You want to create some turnovers. Obviously we'd love to hold them to some three-and-outs. But I think a big thing is just stealing some possessions because they do have a high-powered, explosive offense. I know our defense is excited for the opportunity. We'll just see how it plays out.
GH: How do you guys stop Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce? Ravens tight end Mark Andrews had 125 yards last Sunday. It's not like you're the only guys having trouble stopping tight ends. It seem to be a league-wide problem because of the unique matchups are even more magnified with the talent.
ZT: Mark Andrew had eight for 125 against us. The week before against Green Bay he had 10 for 136 and two touchdowns and the week before against Cleveland he had 11 for 115 and a touchdown. We felt like we held them to thirty something rushing yards on Sunday (39) and something is going to give. If you're going to stop the run, then someone is going to have some production. That's why tight ends in this league are difficult to cover.
The great ones are tough to cover because if you're playing zone coverage, they're matched up on a linebacker and that's a tough matchup where you can find a lot of completions. A lot of times these guys are highly targeted, they have a lot of catches. You just want to keep the production down. The overall first downs gained, touchdowns, that kind of stuff. Keep it down. They can be really tough matchups and we've got another one this week.
GH: It seems to be a trend in the league where these guys have the upper hand in pretty much every physical and scheme matchup.
ZT: It's little more difficult to project these guys coming out of college. That's why Kyle Pitts was so highly rated this year because he was clearly a weapon that's going to be an asset in the NFL because of the matchups. A lot of times, you don't get to see that on the college tape. You're projecting how a guy is going to develop and you end up taking him in the mid-rounds. Pitts was such a clear, this- guy-is-going-to-be-a-monster when he walks in the door.
GH: I guess with Kelce you say, let him get his catches, just make sure he doesn't kill you.
ZT: We'll have an overall plan to limit these guys. They have more than him. They do a really good job complementing each player with different packages. It will be a challenge.
GH: You guys didn't have a punishing ground game against Baltimore. But you had a ball-control game. It wasn't a classic AFC North possession ball control game. Maybe you're re-tooling what an AFC North offense looks like.
ZT: I just think you have to look at, you could hand the ball off for the four-yard gains or you can spread them out. We felt like there was good space there and some really good opportunities for what is essentially just a long handoff. Some of the ways that Burrow gets it out of his hands quickly and some of our guys can work in space.
And so you feel like, in a sense, you're calling runs when maybe it doesn't look that way on the stat sheet. But his quick check downs to Joe (Mixon) and Samaje (Perine) a couple of times at the top of his drop, even. And how different is that than calling a run and calling a swing pass for four yards? There are different ways to do it.
GH: Some of the throws to Ja'Marr Chase looked like runs.
ZT: If you hit him on some quick stuff. Joe hit him on the back side of a screen. One time we had a screen called and we just gave Joe a kind of yes-no option over there to Ja'Marr and he took that one and I think that was the one that was second-and-15 and he got the first down on a quick hitch. A screen is generally a safe completion on a play that's going to counter pressure if they bring it. Instead, he just took the five-yard hitch route to Ja'Marr and Ja'Marr got us 15 yards. It doesn't get any simpler than that.
GH: It's a run.
GH: I mean, the guy averaged more than 11 yards per pass, so clearly those kinds of passes were productive.
ZT: Sure. Even TB's (Tyler Boyd's) touchdown isn't a complicated play. He's No. 2 in the progression. Joe just re-sets and hits him 14 yards down the seam and it turns into a whatever-yard touchdown. I think our guys have done a really good running after the catch. Joe does a really good job with the ball location that allows for that. And our receivers have done a really good job making one guy miss and then there's a lot of space and they're maximizing the run after catch there.
GH: The Burrow Blueprint. It's interesting how this team has been built. There has been a school of thought out there that once you draft a quarterback No. 1 overall, you don't have to spend draft capital on wide receivers. You can get them in the middle rounds or sign a guy. But you guys have turned that on its head with Tee Higgins at the top of the second round last year and this year taking Ja'Marr in the top five instead of the left tackle. What's the philosophy there with three elite receivers because Tyler already had a 1,000-yard season when you got here?
ZT: We want to be explosive. We feel like that's how you're going to win championships. Being explosive. And just the way the offense is built and the way the team is built, you couldn't pass on a premier playmaker that scores touchdowns. That really stresses defensive coordinators. We like to think it puts teams in a bind. We've got three receivers that we feel like can win every one-on-one matchup they're in.
Who are you going to take away? If you're going to take away Ja'Marr by double teaming him, that's fine. Those other two guys are going to work, we'll hand the ball off to Joe and if you're going to take away Tee, then you're leaving Ja'Marr one-on-one. For us, it's champagne problems. Sometimes we like to see what they'll try to do and then it's up to the other guys to go win.
When guys can win faster than your average receiver, the quarterback doesn't hang on to the ball as long. The protection, to an extent, can be minimized because you feel like you can get the ball out of his hands a little quicker. You can look at it a lot of different ways. Ultimately our philosophy was we wanted to be more explosive and stress defenses.
GH: And Mixon hasn't had a lot of huge running games, but he's quietly been there both running the ball and catching it. He's on pace to have the team's most scrimmage yards of all-time.
ZT: Look at Sunday. He had 65 on the ground and 70 in the air. If we know we're getting 135 total yards out of our running back, that's a great day. People just look at the rushing number. But the impact that he has in the low red zone and the pass game is real. And the way he hits those corners when he gets the ball on those swing routes and those check downs, the corners have to tackle him and then they're sore for a play and then the next play they have to cover Ja'Marr, Tee and TB. It all adds up and he certainly has an effect on the defense.