Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan got a few big-picture questions Monday after the Bengals fell to 5-6 heading into December without their quarterback. But with the AFC playoff picture still bottled up like I-75, he can't budge from next Monday night's game at AFC South-leading Jacksonville.
With six games left, Callahan sees an opening for an outsider like the Bengals barging in at the last second when another team invariably folds.
"It's going to be a wide-open run here at the end. I just think there's a lot of teams that play each other," said Callahan, knowing the Bengals play five of them. "The AFC is tight. There's going to be teams that lose games and we just want to be in position. Put ourselves in position to have a chance. And that's our focus at this point."
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor is again turning to his locker room. He sees it as a deep well of character.
"I sit there in the team meeting, I stare at the guys, and I feel really good about guys wanting to pull through this," Taylor said Monday, "and making this a special season and overcoming this adversity because this is a time of year where you can look around and you can see the character of teams it shows loud and clear."
He's turning to character guys like defensive captain DJ Reader. Reader didn't want to talk big picture, either. Or about Pittsburgh last Sunday. He just wanted to do what Reader does. Shoot straight. The big nose tackle always sheds cliches and gets to the A Gap quickly. He preferred to talk Jacksonville.
"I hate that whole cliché look in the mirror thing, but we just have to bond together," Reader said. "Just understand it's going to take all of us to get a dub and how important it is and all the things that go into it. Just be ready for the moment.
"I don't question anybody's effort on this team. Just having those tough conversations with each other. Understanding what it's going to be and what it's going to take for us to get better."
INJURY UPDATE: Taylor sounded hopeful he'll get back two guys who didn't play Sunday and have middle linebacker Logan Wilson after he sprained his ankle late in the game. Wilson walked around the locker room Monday with no problem. As for wide receiver Tee Higgins (hamstring), Taylor sounded encouraged late last week before he missed his third straight game and said Monday he thinks he's trending up. No 1 cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt (quad) sat out his first game of the year Sunday. A Monday night game should help.
"We'll see what he can give us this week as it goes," Taylor said of Higgins. "He'll continue to work with the trainers with Wednesday a bonus day (a walkthrough instead of practice). Cam Taylor-Britt fits in that category as well. We'll see how (Wilson) progresses through the week. Those three guys will all have a chance."
DIVISION QUESTION: During his weekly scribe session Monday, Callahan broached one big picture question when he was asked if the Bengals would consider an offensive style more like the other teams in the division in order to protect Joe Burrow and get the clock back, given that Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cleveland complement great pass rushers with a running game that controls the clock.
In four AFC North games this year, the Bengals have allowed an average of 174 rushing yards while averaging 76.
"I think we've had a pretty successful style of football that suited us. Quarterbacks are going to get hit. They all get hit," Callahan said. "It's hard to block these guys up front. That's part of it. We've been a controlled passing game. We've been good at it. We've been efficient. This year has not followed the same trajectory the last two years have. And so we look at those things at the end of the year and determine what the next best move is. There's always an explanation for why things are the way they are. Obviously, Joe's injury early in the year was a big part of a lot of our issues. And so it's hard to answer that question fully, but we'll look at all those things when the time comes."
Taylor added he's pleased with his staff.
"I couldn't be more pleased with the people that we have and who we're doing it all with," he said. "This game is what you look at it because of how few rushing yards and few attempts and all that. I get it. We've got to be better there. But I do believe that we can turn that corner pretty quickly and have more efficiency and more success there. "
But now, they say, the task at hand is Jacksonville.
RUN GAME: For Taylor, last Sunday's offensive woes came down to 41 plays.
The Bengals couldn't get a running game going to support quarterback Jake Browning in his first NFL start with 11 attempts, the second-fewest in Taylor's five seasons. But a game like Sunday doesn't come along very often, either. Those 41 plays were the second-fewest in his tenure and the third-fewest for the Bengals this century.
"When you have in the low 40s of plays, that's the lowest you are going to have in an NFL game. It really magnifies everything that happens," Taylor said. "If you are able to convert two of those drives or one of those drives (in the first half), it gives you an opportunity to maybe do a little bit more and find a rhythm because sometimes in the run game in a game like this, you are going to get some ones and twos and threes and then maybe you can come back to a run and make the correction and get an eight to 15-yard gain. That's kind of how it happens in games like this.
"I just felt like that opportunity never really got to us with how the second half played out … That can't be an excuse. We have to find ways to get out of it and have some success earlier and give ourselves an opportunity by converting some of those third downs to where now we can get back to some runs … We didn't give ourselves a great chance with the limited opportunities we presented ourselves and we have to find a way on Monday night to be better."
CHASE BROWN LOOMS: After running back Joe Mixon had 16 yards on eight carries for his fewest yards since 2019, Taylor defended him. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said their game plan was to stop the run and force Browning to beat them, and Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase said injured Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was telling his replacements to run downhill.
It sounds like rookie running back Chase Brown may get a shot soon. A hamstring injury has limited him to two carries and three catches and he didn't get a touch Sunday in his first game off injured reserve.
"Chase had some plays in the game plan that were his that we didn't get to," Callahan said. "We need to find out what Chase can do for us because I don't know. That's the answer at this point. And we do need to find out."
JA'MARR ANSWERS: Callahan says Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase played the kind of game Sunday that great players play. He caught two unbelievable deflections for 41 yards and he added a Ripley's Believe it or Not catch when he came down with both a 25-yard ball and Steelers cornerback Joey Porter Jr.'s mouth guard.
"That was a really pretty fantastic catch. Really throw and catch," Callahan said. "We need Ja'Marr as our best player on offense to do what he did yesterday. He made a bunch of huge plays. He came up big when we needed him to. He pulled his weight yesterday for what we needed from him. And that catch was pretty ridiculous, catching it through the guy's mouthpiece as he ripped it off his helmet. A great catch. It was a great throw. It was a big play when we needed one."
BOOT HILL: Browning is known for his mobility and ability to throw on the run, but the Bengals rarely rolled him away from that Steelers rush. His 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Drew Sample came off a boot, but don't think they're not going to use him that way. It depends on the foe.
"Bootlegs against Pittsburgh are really challenging because those ends don't really mind much. They just run to go hit the quarterback," Callahan said. "And so you watch the movement tape against their defense and it's a bloodbath for quarterbacks They're getting hit on every naked (bootleg) they run.
"There's a place for those. Those can be easy throws. They're generally not versus Pittsburgh. The touchdown was a version of a naked that was kind of schemed up the way that we worked exactly the way we hoped it would work. There's plenty of room to continue to add those things. The movements and matching it with the under-center game and all that stuff that that can help a lot of things."