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Zack Moss Adds To His Riveting Story As Bengals Backfield Opens New Chapter

Indianapolis Colts running back Zack Moss (21) looks on during an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
Indianapolis Colts running back Zack Moss (21) looks on during an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

Zack Moss had another reminder of just how far he's come in one of those inspirational, almost made-for-TV lives when he walked into Paycor Stadium Thursday for the first time as a Bengals running back and saw Chad Johnson.

First, there was a picture of the Bengals all-time receiver plastered on the wall leading to the locker room. Then when Moss glanced at the field, he looked up and saw the name and number in the Ring of Honor.

"Hit him up for me and tell him to look me up," Moss said. "It's pretty cool. I saw his picture up on the wall and his name up on the stadium."

Moss and Johnson share another home now. Both were raised 20 years apart in Liberty City, that  hardscrabble slice of Miami that has seemingly never changed. When Johnson went home to light up the Dolphins in the 2007 finale, Moss was ten years old and sharing a two-room apartment with his mother and five other family members.

"Chad is one of the legends down there in Dade County I've seen him at parks. He's big in the community down there," said Moss, who drew his drive to get out from his mom, more so than the athletes he admired.

"But, obviously, knowing the story, being from the city, it gives younger guys like myself at the time and now young guys being in that same situation, it gives those kids in that city, growing up in that area hope. He definitely was a glimmer of that for sure."

It looks like Moss, at 5-9, 205 pounds, is going to be a big part of the lightest tandem in the Bengals backfield in, well, maybe ever. Ten years ago, 215-pound BenJarvus Green-Ellis teamed with 205-pound Giovani Bernard for a season and now it appears Moss and the 5-10, 210-pound Chase Brown are a team.

But what the Big Back Bengals don't have in pounds, they have the kind of character that is worth its weight in gold. Both Moss and Brown have overcome crushing childhood poverty with their own heavy 1-2 punch of courage and talent.

Like after last year's draft, when the coaches were raving about Brown's veteran, no-nonsense mien, so they were taken with Moss during Thursday's meetings and tours.

"The thing I'm super excited about after meeting him is his approach," said offensive coordinator Dan Pitcher. "His professionalism, his maturity, his intelligence. Hearing him talk about how preparation is important to him. Like his pass protection and everything that goes into that. I think we've got a really good player and person who is going to contribute to the overall culture of the team."

They had done their research on Moss before agreeing with him on a two-year, $8 million deal late into the first night of free agency earlier this week. And after nearly 500 carries for the Bills and Colts in four seasons, they had plenty of people to interview and film to watch, so head coach Zac Taylor didn't sound surprised when he introduced him Thursday.

"I think he's a tremendous addition not only to our football team, but to our offense and to our community," Taylor said. "Just getting to know him over the last couple hours and hearing everything in the building that people are saying about him."

The more research they did and the more people they interviewed, the more Moss began to sound like a guy they know well and covet. The 5-10, 235-pound Samaje Perine, one of those classic Cincy big backs, may not be built like Moss, but he's wired like him. A mature, well-prepared veteran who, like Moss, had the experience of playing regularly on two other teams before arriving in Cincinnati. As a backup to Joe Mixon in the bell cow days, Perine delivered some memorable moments with that off-the-bench preparation.

"I love his patience. I love his eye discipline. I love all the things he brings as a runner as a guy in the backfield that the quarterback can trust," is how Taylor put it.

Trust means check-down passes and screens, where Perine shined. It means pass-protection, where Taylor has always been trying to get more consistency out of the running backs. It means knowing a role. And Moss, a third-round pick of the Josh Allen Bills before he was traded to the Colts, knows all about playing on a team with a great passer.

"I've been in a pass-happy offense before and in that role you just kind of find out ways where you can help the team," Moss said. "When I was in Buffalo, that was, okay, how can I be a better pass blocker? And that helped prepare me for each and every step that I've gone to and it's helped me out as a back throughout the years.

"Here, these guys do a great job and when you have the talent like that outside, it makes sense," Moss said of wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. "However I can help this team. Of it's catching the ball, running the ball, trying to keep Joe (Burrow) clean as much as I can with the big guys up front, whatever my role is being called of that week, that's what I'm going to try and do."

Moss says he doesn't know what the distribution is going to be between him and Brown, but Pitcher assures they're both going to get work. Moss may not be the classic big back, but he's a physical, tough guy worthy of those elbow-pointed Liberty City pickup basketball games that ended with guys going to the trunks of their cars.

"It's definitely going to be collaborative," Pitcher said. "You look across the league at that position anymore, and I think you're best off when you're sharing the workload with multiple people. Whether it's two, three, four people. Everybody kind of fills their role. We'll figure it out, but it comes back to what I've been saying all offseason. 'What's it going to take this week?'"

Check out the best photos of RB Zack Moss from his career so far.

Pitcher's enthusiastic scouting report, with versatility and reliability dominant themes:

"He can do anything we ask him to do. Great quickness, elusiveness. Really good with tight crease decisiveness. Find something, commit to it. Contact balance. He's really good spinning off the first defender and finishing."

Moss' eyes lit up when he talked about how the defenses are dictated by Burrow and his weapons. It's what number-crunchers like to call light boxes. Moss reverently refers to it as "space."

"That's beautiful, man. Last year it was rare when I got to see a safety kind of still deep and stuff like that," Moss said. "I'm excited just from the aspect of so many weapons, so much space on the field and I feel like my best ball is ahead of me."

It certainly is for Zavien, his ninth-month-old son he alternately wheeled and carried through Paycor with Jesse, the wife he met when he became Utah's all-time leading rusher.

Family guy. His mother Cassandra, an officer for the Dade County Corrections Department, knows that. When he got drafted, the kid who grew up in the two-room apartment gifted her a three-bedroom, two-and-half-bathroom home in Hollywood, Fla.

On Thursday, it was time to reflect.

"I thank God for just allowing me to have the opportunity to play five years in the league and now have this opportunity with a great team and being able to try to help my family," Moss said. "Nothing short of a blessing and super grateful for everything.

Hey Chad. Just hitting you up. There's a new kid in town from your town ready to take the ball.

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