CINCINNATI — Following Friday’s final practice before the team leaves for Arizona Saturday, there was a definitive sense inside Paycor Stadium that things are about to turn for the better.
That tone is coming from the head coach, who is working hard to keep his ship steady through rough waters over the first four weeks.
Zac Taylor sees an improving Joe Burrow. He sees signs inside the building that a lot fans don’t see when twice this season the Bengals have produced just three points.
Taylor is selling optimism not just to fans but his team.
“I feel good because I know you can look back at a lot of our games and it’s 3-3, middle of the second quarter. We’re 6-6. And at that point, (the defense) is doing their job their point effective. We have to take the pressure off. We have to have a score. We’ve got to have a converted third down offensively, we gotta do something to take the pressure off. Eventually it’s going to get you. That’s what they do. And so we need to tackle better we need to have fewer penalties on third down.”
What Taylor will do is break the game down into two or three critical moments where the game turns. Instead of focusing on the look from 50,000 feet where the team is blown out in the third quarter, Taylor focuses on what the Bengals could do better when the game is still in the balance.
Whether it’s not getting his defense off the field on third-and-7, a pass just off the finger tips off Tyler Boyd on third down or Joe Burrow getting sacked on third-and-7 on an all-out blitz on a seven-step drop, Taylor wants to get across to his team that if they work on fixing the little details on plays like that, they can start getting back into the habit of playing with the lead.
The Bengals need to help out a defense that is fully capable of doing to opposing quarterbacks what opponents have done to Burrow.
Yes, there were some frustrations last week expressed by DJ Reader that everyone on defense has to be committed to doing the little things and play the techniques that don’t allow opposing offenses to grind the Bengals down.
But the flip side of that, of course, is when the offense does its job and plays time of possession and most importantly, puts points on the board to take some stress off.
It’s called complementary football.
“We need to do a better job as a team taking the pressure off each other to where (our defense) can pin their ears back like they did against the Rams, up 19-9. And we just really haven’t given them that opportunity they did against Cleveland was scoring midway through the Cleveland game second quarter, probably three three. And so again, it’s like that was the difference. Last year, we were scoring a little bit earlier. And so then we could play ball more and it didn’t you don’t feel so much pressure with every call on defense or offense.”
As Joe Burrow put it this week, “It’s been a tough couple of weeks, that’s for sure. We’re gonna get through it. We’re gonna get through it we got tough resilient guys in there we got mentally tough guys that have been through a lot so we know how to how to handle these situations. It’s tough right now. But we’re gonna get through it.”
Burrow is confident his arm is there. He hinted that he’s feeling significantly better and could be ready to move more in the pocket.
“My ability to throw hasn’t been effected,” Burrow said. “Mainly my ability to move in the pocket, run for first downs, extend plays, find that extra second. Maybe certain plays I would have slightly extended and found a completion. We’ve done a good job of not turning the ball over. Other than that, We have a lot of room to improve. The calf will continue to get better and we’ll get back to making plays outside of the structure and continue to get better at finding lanes in the pocket to find that extra second to push the ball down the field.”
Aside from controlling their games early and not letting them get out of hand, the strength of the Bengals in the last two seasons is their ability to lean on each other, and not point fingers and implode.
This is where Taylor perhaps doesn’t get enough credit but yet that is where much of his strength lies. The players trust him not to lose it and do things that are uncharacteristic. Obviously, there’s a fine line between being calm and being too cool and saying “everything’s fine” when the building is burning down.
As we pointed out Thursday, the Bengals must do a better job on third down and most importantly, play with a lead earlier in games so they can control the tempo and not the opponent. The Bengals have held a first quarter lead for just over seven minutes this season.
Taylor is a very bright head coach who knows full well there’s an anxious fan base out there wondering what in the world has happened to an offense that was expected to be in the Top-5 in scoring and yards. But patience is something every Bengal has had to practice with the Burrow calf injury.
Taylor, along with offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher, have been sounding the calm tone all along. This is what Burrow appreciates about playing for him.
“They are as good as it gets, so I have the most confidence in the world in our guys and our coaches,” Burrow told me. “Obviously, the first four weeks haven’t been good enough, but we’re going to continue to get better.
“We’ve all been through adversity whether it’s wins and losses, whether it’s injuries, whether it’s mental health, all that so I’m very confident in our ability to fight through this and get through this and become a winning football team.”
“We have to play better,” Callahan said. “We’re going to be a lot better than we have. There’s plenty of things that we work on every week. Offenses evolve, scheme evolves. It’s sort of an ongoing process. Every year is different. So you do find things that that may fit you better as the year goes along and you keep working at it. But at the end of the day, there’s really no other there’s no shortcuts to it, there’s no shortcuts to the process. And we just keep finding things that that we can we can add that help us. And then also executing and playing better sort of across the board.”
Four Bengals are listed as questionable, including Chido Awuzie and Trey Hendrickson with back issues. Cam Taylor-Britt and Tee Higgins also questionable. Linebcaker Akeem Davis-Gaither will miss his second straight game with a right knee injury. Taylor indicated Friday he feels good that Taylor-Britt will be good to go barring any setbacks out of concussion protocol while the back injuries of Awuzie and Hendrickson could certainly test Cincinnati’s depth on defense. DJ Turner II would get his first NFL start if Awuzie can’t go.
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