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Quick Hits: Why Bengals Are December Dominators; Higgins Looks To Tee It Up Again; Defense Looks To Repeat History 11 Years To Day In Pittsburgh

CB Mike Hilton stands during practice at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Wednesday, December 20, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
CB Mike Hilton stands during practice at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Wednesday, December 20, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

There are a few good reasons why the Bengals' Zac Taylor should be in discussion for NFL Coach of the Year.

Here's one.

Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (shoulder) is the only Bengal who didn't practice full Wednesday, the biggest workout of the week in prepping for Saturday's game (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in Pittsburgh.

With Chase yet to practice and Thursday's final practice of the week coming, it's a big hole to fill, as is the season-ending quad injury to Pro Bowl-worthy nose tackle DJ Reader.

But the remaining roster that healthy this late in the season continues to validate the player-friendly regimen sketched out by Taylor and implemented by his strength and conditioning staff headed by Joey Boese and assistants Todd Hunt and Garrett Swanson.

"It's the structure of how we do things. Zac talks about this with the team.  Everything we do is structured around playing our best football in December, January," said captain and left end Sam Hubbard. "We've definitely tried to lighten the workload early in the year. You don't need to be winning the Super Bowl in May and June. OTA practices are more about technique."

If Wednesday's injury report doesn't validate pushing back the off-season workouts by a couple of weeks or the alternating days in training camp (two days on the field, one day off), the wins do. The Bengals are riding a nine-game winning streak in December dating back to 2021 and since that season they're 16-4 in December and January, not counting the 2021 regular-season finale where the starters sat.

"There's also the training room staff and the front office and scouts," Boese said Wednesday after another shorter practice.  "It's a connected team. In the end, it comes down to players. We've got a lot of good players. They've found us players and given us players who think football is important and they're passionate about it."

The Bengals put together this three-game winning streak in a 12 scant days. "Hard to do," Boese said. Taylor shaved about 15 to 20 minutes off the last two practices after giving them two days off following Saturday's overtime victory over the Vikings.

It's a glimpse of how Taylor manipulates schedules with the help of the daily GPS data culled from each practice and charted into a narrative by Hunt and Swanson. You might say Taylor has that Marvin Lewis gift of "I see better than I hear."

"Zac has a great feel. He knows when to pull them back and amp it up," said Boese as the Bengals come off that punishing stretch. "It's life in the NFL. We've changed up some things with the tempo of practice. Whether it's walk-through, or jog through, or full speed. We've backed some guys off the last couple of weeks, backed off some workouts in here. It gets back to Zac and how he manipulates what we do on and off the field."

 Boese also has a good enough relationship with the players that he can sense after a game if there's a position group that's beat up or how a player might feel after getting tweaked. And he knows he can communicate with Taylor because Taylor relies on him.

"That's what I mean about being a connected team," Boese said. "Communication with all areas."

Bengals defensive line coach Marion Hobby, who played in the NFL for three seasons in the early '90s before becoming one of the top assistants in the college and pro game, is charged with rotating his guys during the games so they stay fresh and he'll be adjusting without Reader.

"(Taylor) does a good job all year. He does a great job making sure players are fresh and coaches are fresh," Hobby said after Wednesday's practice. "And he sticks to his schedule. If things aren't going good, he stays with his schedule. You see some guys, things aren't going good and it's, 'We have to change this, have to do that.' But he's very consistent. And our players respect that."

TEE----EEE----EEE: With Chase looking like he may not be able to go, all eyes are on Higgins after his monstrous fourth quarter last Saturday of two touchdowns, four catches, and 61 yards.

"I don't think anything changes for me. I just have to go out there and be the receiver I am," Higgins said after Wednesday's practice.

On Saturday, that was immense. His leaping jump ball catch at the goal line followed by his blind reverse pivot to sweep the ball over the pylon for a 21-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jake Browning that allowed the game to be tied at 24 with 39 seconds left caught the eye of Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan.

"Probably the best one I've ever seen," Callahan said this week when he met the media. "The way Tee broke the route off, came back to the ball, beat the DB to the spot, getting both feet down, and then whatever that circus act was where he like spins back. I can't even move my arm that far.

"That was just one of those just totally freakish plays. I mean it was unbelievable. I'll remember that one for a long time, just for the sheer physical freakiness of it all. Guys don't make plays like that very often."

Higgins only puts the catch in his top five. But he was impressed when he saw it on tape.

"That's a crazy play. I'll probably never get another opportunity to do that again," Higgins said. "It was a crazy play. But you have to just continue to play and keep going forward.

Higgins has more yards against the Steelers (435) than any other team and in his two games in Pittsburgh he's gone for 16 catches and 263 yards. They've never lost Chase and Higgins together, but they are 3-1 without Chase and starting in 2021 in games played by starters, they were 3-0 without Higgins until last month's three-game losing streak with a hamstring injury that also included the transition from Joe Burrow to Browning.

The Bengals have never had both Chase and Higgins in a game in Pittsburgh, but are 2-0 there.

"We don't change anything we do. We just keep being who we are," said Higgins of keeping it going despite injuries. "Just keep playing complementary football and Bengals football."

ALL OUT RUN: It seems like the last time the Steelers lost three straight home regular-season games is 11 years to the day of Saturday's game, Dec. 23,  2012, when the Bengals got a winning field goal from Josh Brown with four seconds left in a 13-10 win that was a play-in for the playoffs.

Don't look now, but here are the big, bad Steelers again after losing back-to-back home games to lowly Arizona  and New England in something that is pretty close to another play-in game

Except the Steelers quarterback is not Ben Roethlisberger. It's not even Kenny Pickett, who beat them a month ago, 16-10, here at Paycor Stadium in Browning's first NFL start, which roughly seems, well 11 years ago.

Mason Rudolph is making his first start in two years and comes in with five NFL wins in 10 starts, two of them against the 2019 Bengals and in one of those at Paycor, he needed to be rescued by Duck Hodges in the Steelers' 16-10 win.

So Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who knocked down three Ryan Finley passes in that game playing for the Steelers, knows exactly what head coach Mike Tomlin is saying this week as the Bengals play their first game without anchor DJ Reader in the middle of their line.

"He's standing in front of his guys (and saying) 'We are going to run the ball right at the Bengals.' Especially without DJ," Hilton said. "I want our guys to be prepared and to get physical. Turn that run back early and make them one-dimensional. Just know it's coming. Obviously,  they're going to run the ball downhill.  Probably run it 20 25 times. Whether they have success or not, we have to make sure they have no success. Make sure they're one-dimensional and take away what they really want to do."

The Steelers were able to do what they wanted to do to such an extent the last time they played the Bengals that they had their best offensive day in three years with 421 yards, 153 on the ground even with Reader in there.

It's been a season-long challenge for the Bengals, ranked next-to-last defending the run, but they seemed to be rebounding with consecutive sub 100-yard games after playing the Steelers. But when Reader went down last Saturday, the Vikings' 27th-ranked run went for 143 yards.

Yet defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is adamant that his run defenders took a step back. He focuses on two misplays by safety Dax Hill and rookie cornerback DJ Turner II.

"We didn't take a step back. When you break it down, when you analyze it:

"There's a run. We got them backed up and everybody does their job. DJ Turner's there to make the tackle and he doesn't make it and it's 37 yards. There is no gap, there's nothing. It's crack replace. He has to tackle the guy or it's 37 yards," Anarumo said.

"And we don't hit the proper gap for 28 yards. So when you're under pressure and you're out of a gap, you're in trouble. And so those two accounted for 60 some-odd yards. That was more annoying than anything, to be quite honest with you. I'm not sitting here throwing anybody under the bus. DJ knows he has to make that play. Dax knows he has to hit the right gap. It's just something that happened and so we can be better for sure. Those things are easily corrected. It's not a physical issue."

Anarumo remembers how Rudolph beat them in '19. In one game it was with bootlegs and 159 yards rushing. In the other game, it was a lot of that, with Rudolph basically lateralling on simulated runs and was 24 of 28 for 229 yards.

 "We're playing one of the storied franchises in the NFL, it's a playoff game. We need it. They need it," Anarumo said. "We just had one of our best walkthroughs (Tuesday) we had all year in terms of guys locked in, communication, everything. And that was my message this morning very firmly. I don't think there's a person in this building that would ever take the Pittsburgh Steelers lightly."

The Bengals are hoping to ride the momentum of the last two snaps in Saturday's overtime with tackles Zach Carter and B.J. Hill stoning the Vikes' QB Sneak with inches to go for a first down. Anarumo  said this week he didn't go with a five-man front on the plays because he was thinking back to the fourth-and-one on the Rams' last drive of the Super Bowl and their successful handoff to Cooper Kupp out of the slot on a sweep on the way to the winning touchdown.

"I had the Super Bowl in my mind with a jet sweep on fourth and one, which they had kind of set up a little bit. So, we had something where we felt like we were good inside versus the sneak," Anarumo said. "It's like a six-man front. The two edge guys are prepared for a jet sweep either way, and then the guys inside are prepared for inside run or sneak. So we feel good about that. And I thought Zach Carter in particular got great jump and BJ, those were the two guys inside that just kind of got in a crease of the two of the center and were able to get knocked back and then everybody kind of just fit in behind. So it was great. It was awesome."

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