After the Bengals' 24-17 win in Sunday night's Wild Card Game, head coach Zac Taylor not only continued his tradition of handing out playoff game winning balls to local bars, but he made sure he passed out a compliment to one of the game's overlooked stars.
When Taylor reviewed defensive end Sam Hubbard's epic tie-breaking 98-yard fumble return in the fourth quarter, he noticed how linebacker Germaine Pratt stood up Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley on the botched quarterback sneak from the 1. That gave middle linebacker Logan Wilson a better shot at punching out the ball and Taylor texted Pratt his appreciation.
"Just making sure he deserved credit on that," Taylor said at his Monday press conference. "Obviously, Logan to get that ball out and Sam to finish it all off is big time but you want to make sure guys get the credit they deserve, too. When I watched it for the first time and could see Germaine had a big part of it also, it was worthy praise."
SEEING RED: Hubbard's fumble return, the longest in postseason history, overshadowed some hellacious red zone defense that won it. Twice the Ravens' physical run game had a first down on the three and only got three points.
"They always make it hard. We know that," Taylor said. "When we go into teams that are good in the red zone, particularly in the low red zone, how much of a challenge it is and how much time and attention it takes to find a way to score points. Our defense is one of those teams, I'm sure, that teams watch. It's a pain in the butt. They do a great job of not giving an inch."
Go back to the last 16 seconds of the first half and the Bengals, leading 9-7, trying to hold Baltimore to a field goal without one of their starting cornerbacks. Eli Apple would return in the second half after a neck injury, but he was replaced here by rookie safety Dax Hill.
On first down from the 3, free safety Jessie Bates III didn't take the bait on a potential throw-back pass and hung with Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews in the middle of the field for a one-yard loss.
On second down, Huntley tried to fit it into wide receiver Demarcus Robinson at the right pylon and Wilson got in the passing lane.
On third down on the same route, safety Vonn Bell and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt had wide receiver Sammy Watkins bracketed for an incompletion and how big was that to hold the Ravens to a field goal?
Then check out the three snaps before The Play.
"There's so many plays in the sequencing of that big play down there for the goal line fumble," Taylor said,
First, Bates made it all possible running down Huntley at the 2 and preventing a 37-yard touchdown run.
"He wasn't doing a lot of the zone reads that we've normally seen out of Lamar (Jackson). They had a good play schemed up, got us out on the edge," Bates said. "That's what safeties do. Making sure nobody gets behind us as a defense, doing my (one-eleventh)."
So on first down from the 2, Huntley tried to flip a play-action pass to fullback Patrick Ricard and defensive end Cam Sample stretched his hand up to barely disrupt the trajectory.
On second down, Bell, with help from that man Pratt, took on a Bus in 237-pound running back Gus Edwards and stood him, up just outside the 1, and prevented him from stretching the ball over the plane to set up Sam I Am.
No wonder Bell and Bates always end up being factors inside the 20. During Saturday meetings, they break up the red zone so thoroughly one talks about the first 10 yards and the other talks about the last ten. Detail men.
"We have a presentation in our defensive room. I think Vonn does a really good job of doing the high red and then I have the low red," Bates said. "That's why we're so good at it. Because we have conversations. I'm up there, everybody goes and we pick a couple plays and we go through film and we talk about what we see and just how everything plays out. Things speed up. I always tell people (to) slow your feet down, speed up your mind because things just aren't going to run past you. You've got to speed up your mind and process where we are on the field and what exact call that we're in. It's just a smart team."
Adding to the smarts is first-year linebackers coach James Bettcher, a two-time NFL defensive coordinator in charge of the weekly Thursday and Friday red-zone presentations that Bates calls "super detailed."
"We always joke around it's long as hell. The tape is long, but it's just super detailed," Bates said, "It's just something that every time we get down there as a defense, you got a choice to make. Either you're going to complain about it and give up seven points or you're going to force a field goal or even get a turnover."
O-LINE STATUS:Taylor, whose four playoff wins give him more than Mike Vrabel and Matt LaFleur and as many as the man he faces in Buffalo Sunday (3 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in the Bills' Sean McDermott, knows No. 5 is tied to the health of his offensive line.
On Monday he declared left tackle Jonah Williams day-to-day with a dislocated kneecap that forced him out of the game late in the first half Sunday, lumping him with right guard Alex Cappa (ankle), inactive against the Ravens.
Williams is the third starting offensive linemen to leave a game injured in the last three weeks and they're looking at starting their third straight different offensive line if Jackson Carman replaces Williams in Buffalo.
Williams dislocated the other kneecap in Baltimore Oct. 9 and missed the last six snaps of the first half before returning to play the second half and not missing a game the rest of the year.
The second-year Carman, who played left tackle for national champion Clemson, played his first 28 snaps of NFL tackle Sunday after playing four snaps this year at guard following a rookie year he played 462 snaps inside before offensive line coach Frank Pollack replaced him with Hakeem Adeniji in last year's playoff run. Adeniji is now playing right tackle for La'el Collins, out for the year with a torn ACL.
"(Carman) has been working at tackle over the course of the season. Frank does a good job of repping all of those guys trying to get them all ready," Taylor said. "You can never predict which side you're going to be on and that's just part of life being a backup offensive lineman. And so he's done a good job of embracing that and being ready for his opportunity.
"I thought he did a nice job. Especially being thrust into there. He's got to practice both sides during the week. He's practiced a lot of guard this year as well. So I thought given the opportunity he had against a tough defensive line, I thought he handled it really well."
Right guard Max Scharping started for Cappa and made his third playoff start after playing just 23 snaps this season. Despite the shuffling, Taylor likes the experience of his potential new starters. Adeniji started all four postseason games last year and Carman rotated with him in the AFC title game.
"That's really no different than game to game in terms of matchups and who is across from us. You don't feel any different about it because that's something you're always taking into account," Taylor said. "Anytime we're calling a play on a hash or preparing for a guy that's an interior guy or an exterior guy, we always try to factor that into to give our guys the best opportunity.
"And finding help where we can when it makes sense sometimes it's more beneficial to get four to five guys out on the route instead of helping. That's part of what we got to deal with starting today and formulating those plans."
SCOUTING BILLS: Ever since Joe Burrow Super Bowl nemesis Von Miller went down, the Bills pass rush has been middle of the pack. With the Bengals possibly breaking in two new tackles in the AFC Divisional, according to Pro Football Reference, three Bengals edgers (Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Joseph Ossai) have more quarterback takedowns than Bills leading edger Gregory Rousseau. The Buffalo pressure comes from inside with tackles Ed Oliver and DeQuan Jones the leading hitters.
Buffalo is one of the sites Bengals center Ted Karras is quite familiar after his six-year run in the AFC East. Communication is going to be at a premium.
"Buffalo is one of the most interesting and hostile places to play as visitor," Karras said. "You drive through the tailgates and there are all sorts of colorful gestures your way. There might be some skin. Interesting things happen in the Buffalo parking lot. On the field, it's very loud. That'll be something we practice and respect. We haven't gone silent (count) in a while. We'll be back to the silent count and with a couple new guys in there we'll have to really rep that this week.
The perpetually upbeat Karras foresees no problems, but he realizes he could have a new left tackle next to a rookie left guard in Cordell Volson.
"I told Cordell, we're going to have to lean on you more than ever now to communicate and be able to express what you see with your tackle. There's a certain element of communication when a couple of guys are out, but we're going to get it done," Karras said.
"The great thing for how we prepare and how the guys have bought into what we're doing, it's not too much of a change. You're expected to know what to do and how to do it. And (offensive line coaches) Frank and Derek Frazier do a great preparing us to get ready to play."
NO MORE OPTIONS: Playing the Ravens is hard for a variety of reasons. The leading candidate is the run game, which is basically an outlier, an old-school-pain-in-the-neck option that is juiced with pro talent. After preparing for it and playing against it the last 12 days, the Bengals are glad to be rid of it.
"We won't have to play triple option football against the Ravens this week. We'll have our hands full with Josh Allen and all those guys and what they bring to the table," Bates said of the Bills quarterback and company. "So we're excited to play normal football. The triple option thing was something that we're happy that we got over it. And now it's time to focus on Buffalo."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Count defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo along with most of the 66,000-plus at Paycor who had never seen anything like Hubbard's return.
"My biggest fear was I saw Sam running and I wanted to make sure they got Mark Andrews blocked, because they were closing on him," Anarumo said. "Then I was worried. Did he cross the plane? Are they going to bring it back? That was my thought. I'm always thinking, 'What's negative here?'"…
Karras, who has played 109 NFL games, hasn't quite seen what Taylor does with the bar game balls.
"Zac's amazing. He has created such a good culture here for us, it fits so well with the city," Karras said. "And he does such a great job with gestures like that, to you know, to integrate this amazing fan base." …