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Zac Taylor Brings Historic Bengals Into Playoff Paycor: 'I Expect Our Guys To Come Out On Fire'

Zac Taylor before Sunday's regular-season finale.
Zac Taylor before Sunday's regular-season finale.

On Sunday night in the Wild Card Game against the Ravens (8:15-Cincinnati's Channel 5), Zac Taylor becomes the first coach in Bengals history to coach back-to-back opening round home playoff games. He began the week talking to senior writer Geoff Hobson about the electricity that's going to wire Paycor Stadium and the confidence his team has finding the big play. 

GH: Are there any advantages or disadvantages to playing a division rival in back-to-back games?

ZT: It's hard to predict what the advantages and disadvantages are because it works in favor of both teams. What I can say is, health-wise we're in a good spot with our team. Ready to go for the playoffs. Our guys, they feel healthy mentally and physically. We've been playing on some six-day weeks with some quick turnarounds so now they get the chance to work on a normal seven-day turnaround. If they've got any soreness, they've got a chance to get through that and be able to get full practices in, so I'm really happy about where our team's at right now.

GH: Emotionally, what about the role team chaplain Vinnie Rey played last  week?

ZT: I thought he was very proactive, which was great. Whether it was texting coaches or people around the building making sure they knew that he was around and available. Even with the messaging that he had through text or voice text, all that kind of stuff. Vinny, he's a rock star, we're lucky to have him, and he's made a great impact on people in this building.

GH: What did you take away from this last week with what happened to Damar Hamlin?

ZT: You might not know until you're in another situation of what you take away from this one, to be honest with you. I think what I found is I believe the routine of our week helped the guys because certainly there are distractions there, there's emotions that play into things. Trying to do our best to keep them in our normal routine, allow them to potentially take their mind off of that so whether that's good or bad, I think that's what our team did a good job focusing on.

GH: How do you think the team came out on Sunday, and how do you think they'll come out this Sunday in the Wild Card round?

ZT: I think they came out ready to go. We got up 17-0. Guys in all three phases did a nice job contributing to that. That's a big part of AFC North football as you get control in these games because they're physical. Oftentimes there's not a lot of snaps or possessions, so you've got to win the turnover battle. I was really proud of the way our guys did that. I expect our guys to come out on fire. With the stadium we're going to have, the atmosphere we're going to have Sunday night, it's going to be electric, and our guys are going to embrace it and play their tails off.

GH: That's how it was against the Bills. In your four years here I don't think you had a team come out better than that team did against Buffalo.

ZT: Yeah, they were ready to go. I expect the stage is going to be big and I expect our guys to be ready for it.

GH: Obviously, it's tough to lose right guard Alex Cappa. But you guys sound pretty optimistic about guard Max Scharping.

ZT: He hasn't had a lot of playing time for us, but he's handled everything in practice, in the meetings. We've got a lot of confidence in him. He's here for a reason. All the tape that we watched from his time in Houston and reviewed some of his college tape. He fits what we want, and we're excited to watch him get a chance.

GH: One of the things offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said makes this place great is the communication between the coaches and Duke Tobin's personnel staff. Was there a good amount of communication about the waiver claim for Scharping on cutdown day?

ZT: Yeah, when Duke and his staff like a guy, they certainly want the offense's opinion when it comes to offensive guys, offensive linemen. Like anywhere, anytime you don't see eye-to-eye with a player, then you talk about it in-depth and you go through it, and sometimes we throw players aside. This is one I think there was unanimity on. We liked Max, we liked what he was about, we liked what we saw on tape. We thought he'd fit in the room, everything we knew about him, and it was a great job by Duke and those guys getting him in the mix.

GH: To be able to turn to a guy with Scharping's experience at this late stage in the season would seem to be a fortuitous get.

ZT: He is. You never know when you're going to need your depth. Fortunately, we made it awhile before we had to turn to the depth. But now here we are, and we're no different than a lot of teams right now in terms of needing to do that, and we expect the next man to step up.

GH: The biggest difference in the offense from last year to this year is how key the three interior offensive linemen have been in keeping defenders from coming up the middle and allowing Joe Burrow to step up in the pocket.

ZT: You're right, that's been a good change for us. Those guys have done a great job. The communication has been really good. They've faced some really physical interior players and they've really held their own.

GH: Where do you think this offense is going into the playoffs? A couple of good halves. Some bad halves. Great opening drive against the Bills …Haven't really put a full game together in a while. Generally, how do you feel about the offense at this point?

ZT: I think we're in a really good position. Our players are really confident. We knew that New England and Tampa had two of the best defenses in the league, and our guys did enough to help us get out of there. We know that we're explosive and at any moment, we can score and make a big play there. We can go the distance. We had a long drive to start that last game and it didn't result in a touchdown, but it put us in a great position there. I've got a lot of confidence in our guys to be able to get done what needs to get done.

GH: Running back Joe Mixon's 60 receptions and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase's 12 yards per catch, compared to last year's 18, are stats that show how teams have played you differently compared than last year.

ZT: People don't want to see our receivers running down the field making big plays, and so sometimes you've got to go a little bit longer down the field. Our guys handled that well, our quarterback's handled it well. Our backs have done a great job with the ball in their hands coming out of the backfield. That's part of their touches. It's not always runs. When they're getting 100 touches in the pass game, that's significant for us.

GH: The running backs being involved in the pass game has been a big reason for your success on first and second down.

ZT: Yeah, that's just an extension of the run game. When you're just throwing the ball quickly to backs, those are just extended runs for us.

GH: That's similar to what Bill Walsh was doing in the 1970s and 1980s.

ZT: Yeah, they had a quick-timing passing game. At times, that's the way we operate as well.

GH: When Walsh ran that offense and then developed it, it was a counter to the zone blitz. You guys have to do different things because you see different defenses. But the concept is the same, isn't it?

ZT: Yeah, throw where they're not. Try to take advantage of our matchups we feel like we've built an offense that's capable of doing that. We've got the right players to win those matchups.

GH: Burrow was an uncharacteristic 25 of 42 passing against Baltimore. Brian Callahan said it's always surprising when he misses a throw because his standards are so high.

ZT: Sure. There are plays that we left out there as an offense, there are calls that I'd like to have back to put us in a better position. Those are just the things that we've got to be able to regroup and do a better job with on Sunday.

GH: How about that throw Burrow made to Tyler Boyd on third-and-10 when he was moving up in the pocket? That may have been one of the throws of the year.

ZT: He extended some plays with his feet. That put us in a great position whether it was normal scrambles or running like he did early in the game.It 's rare that you see our skill players leave a play on the field. I know that we'll be better this week.

GH: Paycor will be electric Sunday night. The fact you guys have lived this and have experience winning big games the past two years, that must pay dividends for moments like these.

ZT: We know we can win any way that we've got to do it. Our team knows at the moment we need it, someone's going to step up and make a play, whether it's a sack fumble at the end of the first half where we need some momentum going into halftime like the other day. Somebody's going to step up and make that play, and it's always exciting to sort out who it's going to be.

GH: The defense has been unbelievable…

ZT: They have. They've done a great job getting turnovers, especially lately. We'll take that. That's been great to get those turnovers and put our offense in great scoring position.

GH: How far has your team come since losing to Baltimore in the 2020 season finale? A lot of good people have done good work.

ZT: No kidding. No shortcuts, either. We didn't mortgage the farm, mortgage the future to win now. Duke and our ownership group have done a great job building it the right way. I think we've got great coaches in the building. We've one-by-one retained the players that we've liked and added the players that we knew we needed. That's a big reason why we're in the position we're in right now.

GH: Is there such a thing as a championship window closing?

ZT: No. When you've got a good team, you've got a good team. We're just focused on right now. We've got to focus on closing this one out the right way.

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