As he prepared to bring the Bengals back to Nashville, scene of last season's 19-16 AFC Divisional win, head coach Zac Taylor spoke with Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson in the run-up to Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Titans.
GH: What do you attribute to the offense being to be able to play so well in Pittsburgh despite so many moving pieces at the skill spots, namely the injuries to running back Joe Mixon and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase?
ZT: When you go by skill position, everyone's been here. If you look in that receiver room, sure people are stepping up and making the most of it, but those guys have been here for a long time. (Tight end) Hayden (Hurst) is really the only new skill player we have and he's done a great job getting up to speed and making a lot of plays for us. When you've got guys stepping up who have been in your building for a long time, then it's easy for them and it's easy for us to have confidence in them.
GH: I thought the Titans game was perhaps the signature win of last season's playoff run given the physical nature of the game.
ZT: Yeah, it was a bloody game and it wasn't perfect by any stretch, but what I remember is at the end of the game, all three phases made plays. Eli (Apple) got the tip, Logan (Wilson) intercepted it. We hit the pass to Ja'Marr on the pinch route to put us in field goal position, and then special teams came through and kicked that kick. In a 30-second span, all three phases stepped up to help us win a road playoff game, which is pretty impressive.
GH: You didn't win it 35-31, it was as physical as it could get.
ZT: Yeah, it was 9-6, 16-6, it was never really a high-scoring game by any stretch.
GH: Was nose tackle DJ Reader's performance in that game one of the best efforts you've ever seen by anybody on a team you've been on?
ZT: He was outstanding. It's hard to compare it with other performances, but you'd have to put it up there. We needed him to step up big in a moment like that, in a game like that, and he certainly rose to the challenge and led us all the way.
GH: With the way Joe Burrow, the offensive tackles and the defense played last week in Pittsburgh, that had to have been one of the more complete games since you've been here, don't you think?
ZT: Yeah, I was really pleased with the number of guys that stepped up and finally got their opportunities and made the most of it.
GH: Is this the best the offensive tackles have looked in your time as coach here?
ZT: I think the tackles did a really good job (Sunday). I think the line as a whole has given us everything that we need. I thought they did a great job in the run game, averaging about four yards a carry through the first three quarters. That was the type of production we needed in that game to keep us moving forward and allowed us to get the explosions in the pass game that we got. I just think that unit really has stepped up and did a great job.
GH: As a drop-back passing team, you've hung with that style of play every game and haven't backed off giving the tackles a lot on their plates.
ZT: With the skill talent that we have, we don't want to let teams off the hook by not stressing them as much as we possibly can. And we've shown that we're willing to get under center, hand the ball off 30-plus times a game. We're not afraid to do that if the game calls for that. I think that gives our guys a lot of confidence that we can play a lot of different styles of play.
GH: Do you think it's a matter of the opener basically being a preseason game and now nine weeks later the offensive line is coming together because of time together?
ZT: I think the first week was a collective effort by everybody, myself as a play-caller, just everybody kind of getting our feet underneath us. Unfortunately, we tried to get back in it and had our opportunities and just didn't take full advantage. But that's the young part of the season, and that's just a part of every season as you're growing in the early part. You have to be able to hit your stride at the halfway point and be playing your best football as Thanksgiving nears and I've got a lot of confidence that this team can do that.
GH: When you went for the field goal on fourth-and-one from the 27 on the second drive against the Steelers, is that what we're going to see now with every game virtually a play-off game? Take the sure points?
ZT: It's game to game. Those are situations we talked through endlessly leading up to the game, the 48 hours really leading up to the game. I don't think you can look at that and be able to preview what we're going to do every week. We factor in a lot of different things going into those decisions and that was the decision we made."
GH: Being on the same page as special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons must be comforting, knowing he's been in all these situations and buildings for 20 years. Like in Pittsburgh.
ZT: Darrin and I talk endlessly about all the different situations that could come up during the week, before the game, and during the game as well. I've got a lot of trust in him and the experience he provides. On top of all that, just playing in that stadium, playing in that environment before with all those conditions. I got all the trust in Darrin.
GH: No Bengals kicker ever made a 50-yarder on that field in Pittsburgh before you had Evan McPherson step up and kick that 54-yarder in those conditions and only leading, 24-23.
ZT: In your gut, I just have a lot of trust in him and usually that pays off for us.
GH: You had to like how Kevin Huber responded assisting punter Drue Chrisman in his NFL debut.
ZT: He did a great job helping Drue every step of the way. That just speaks a lot to who Kevin is. I think he's understanding his situation. He's handled it as well as I could have hoped somebody would handle that situation. He's been right there for me, Darrin, Drue, and Evan and that's great to see.
GH: Did Drue do well enough to get another shot?
ZT: Yeah, I think he did. He stepped up and it wasn't the easiest conditions, and he did a great job for us.
GH: What impressed you the most?
ZT: It's not ideal conditions, on the road in a tough environment. I think kicking for every team in the past has not been easiest there, especially in the elements. I just thought that he held his composure and put us in great position.
GH: What did you think about your defense holding the Steelers to a field goal after TJ Watt's interception?
ZT: It could have been a huge turning point. We had the mentality on offense to go finish the game there on that drive and then the first play turns out the way it did. There was a chance there for it to be a real momentum killer had they capitalized and scored a touchdown, but our defense rose up to it. That was a big moment in the game.
I thought our whole second half defense was really impressive. There's going to be other moments where there's a sudden change and we're going to need them to hold the offense to three points. I was really impressed.
GH: How do you think the secondary played? Are there any concerns? Were they the victim of tight officiating?
ZT: There were some close calls there that didn't go our way, that's just part of it. Some weeks it's going to happen, some weeks it won't. They'll continue to get in sync more and more every single game. We got great leadership back there in the back end and I've got a lot of confidence in that group.
GH: Rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt seems to be as advertised.
ZT: Yeah, he's got the right mentality for it all. He's got the skill, he's got the mentality. Now next, it's just the experience. And he's going to get that every week. Unfortunately, he didn't get all that time in training camp to play in preseason games. He was on IR and missed the first four weeks of the season. He's very young in this league, but we have a lot of confidence that he's going to continue to reach his potential very quickly."
GH: The post-game videos have turned awarding game balls into an event. When was the first time you got a game ball as a player?
ZT: That's a great question. I do not know the answer to that. I think they only gave them if you got the conference player of the week or something like that.
GH: It probably was in high school, right?
ZT: I don't know that we did game balls in high school. I think maybe Iowa State junior year at Nebraska, maybe there was some sort of (game ball). I had a little bit of passing production that day.
GH: Is that hanging around the house, or is it long gone?
ZT: It might be. Yeah, it might be at my house. Believe it or not, we threw for 430 yards and scored 13 points. I don't know how that happens, but that's what happened.
GH: Did you win?
ZT: We might've won in double overtime. It was either single overtime or double. I think the final score was… Let me look it up real quick. 2005 Nebraska vs. Iowa State, Brett Meyer was the quarterback for them. They were the odds-on favorites to win the division. Oh, I'm sorry, 27-20. I think it was double overtime and it was 13-all going into overtime.