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How the Bengals learned from their early loss to the Ravens

The early loss at Baltimore caused a change in philosophy for the Bengals.

Syndication: The Enquirer
Zac Taylor
Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Love him or hate him as a play caller, at least no one can say that Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor does not learn from his mistakes.

Case in point - what to do on short-yardage situations near the goal line.

There was a time when Taylor looked to the trick play in those circumstances. But the problem with trick plays is that they either work, or they fail miserably.

“When creativity works, it’s awesome,” Taylor said. “When it doesn’t work, it’s disastrous and that’s what you sign up for and what you understand going in.”

A couple of examples of disastrous outcomes stand out. In the Bengals’ first meeting with the Baltimore Ravens on October 9, Cincinnati put together a 15-play, 73-yard drive that had taken just over eight minutes off the clock, and faced a first-and-goal at the Ravens’ 2.

Instead of giving the ball to running back Joe Mixon, who led the NFL in touches inside the 10-yard-line coming in to the game, Taylor called a pass to Hayden Hurst, which fell incomplete.

Then Taylor decided to get fancy, and called for a “Philly Special,” in which Tyler Boyd plays the role of quarterback. Baltimore didn’t fall for it, and sacked Boyd for a 12-yard loss. A Joe Burrow-to-Ja’Marr Chase pass got the yardage back before Taylor tried some more trickery.

On fourth-and-2, Burrow attempted a shovel pass to Stanley Morgan, and the play didn’t stand a chance. Cincinnati had wasted a prime scoring opportunity and went on to lose the game, 19-17. Those missteps forced the Bengals to go back to basics.

“That definitely shook up our philosophy in the low red zone, and it’s paid off for us since that game,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “That was a turning point for us offensively in general, that game and how we came out of it.”

“There are always things you look at when it doesn’t work, obviously something different you feel would have been better in retrospect,” Taylor agreed. “That’s just what we signed up for and what we’ve got to deal with that.”

Of course, success did not happen overnight. Three weeks later, Cincinnati was thumped by the Cleveland Browns by a score of 32-13. But the Bengals have not lost since.

The key has been in going back to what works. Burrow has some of the best weapons in football in Mixon, Chase, Tee Higgins, Boyd and Hurst. Get the football in the hands of one of your playmakers, and good things usually follow.

Since the Baltimore game, Cincinnati has scored 18 touchdowns from inside the 10-yard line and now boasts the fifth-best red zone scoring offense in the league. The Bengals have scored touchdowns on 66.10% of their trips inside the opponent’s 20.

And they have done it by becoming one of the NFL’s most balanced scoring offenses. Half of those touchdowns have come via the power running game.

“The shift from (the Ravens game) on was to go win one-on-one,” Callahan said. “Make great throws and catches and run stuff that we have a lot of confidence in, as opposed to doing something different.”

That trend continued in the playoff victory over those same Ravens on Sunday night. Cincinnati scored touchdowns on two of its three trips into the Baltimore Ravens red zone. One came on a 7-yard pass to Chase, the other on a quarterback sneak.

Next up: the Buffalo Bills.

“It feels like two deserving teams (are facing each other),” Taylor said. “Buffalo is one of the greatest environments to play in in all of football. I’ve been there many, many times and it’s a fun environment. It’s a worthy playoff environment, and so our guys are going to be juiced up and ready to go. It should be a heck of a game.”