The Zac Taylor Bengals have never started better.
Admittedly, it's a bit of a sad statement to write after one week of the season, but it's undeniably true.
Back in 2019, Cincinnati came close to notching a Week 1 victory on the road and fell just short to the Seattle Seahawks. 10 more consecutive losses followed that, and the year was totally lost.
2020 provided some progress in the win column and offensive production thanks to the addition of Joe Burrow, but a sluggish start plagued them once more. They lost an ugly contest to the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 1 and went the first three weeks without a win.
Last Sunday almost ended just like that Chargers game, but these new Bengals didn't let that happen.
Instead of letting a blown 14-point lead end in defeat, the Bengals flashed some perseverance in the most crucial points of the game. The Vikings get a shot at winning the game if not for Germaine Pratt stripping the ball out of Dalvin Cook's hands with two minutes remaining in overtime. A tie is the likely outcome if Joe Burrow doesn't find C.J. Uzomah down the field on fourth-and-inches. Hell, even last year they missed a field goal at the end of Week 1 to lose the game.
Not this time. Not this year.
Culture is very hard to quantify and analyze from an objective standpoint. There are certain anecdotes that can provide evidence, but it really is about perspective. Taylor's willingness to keep his offense out on the field for a fourth-and-one at their own 30-yard line and standing by that decision can only be interpreted in one way. Taylor has full faith in his team, and that faith is being reciprocated.
In honor of this pivotal moment, we're going to structure our weekly articles around the four-downs concept. The first three downs will be observations made from the previous game, and fourth down will take a look at the upcoming matchup.
1st down: Zac Taylor's aggressiveness is good even when it's bad
So, about that fourth-and-one.
It's impossible to have a nuanced conversation about decision-making in football. All that anyone cares about is the result. If enough similar scenarios play out a certain way, the average football fan is conditioned to think that likely outcome should be treated as an absolute certainty. Look no further than Super Bowl XLIX when the Seattle Seahawks threw the ball instead of handing it off to Marshawn Lynch.
So when a team, up by two scores, opts to convert a fourth-and-one on their 30-yard line and comes up short, the majority of observers are going to land on one side of the debate.
Taylor, when asked about the decision after the game, said he didn't regret keeping his offense on the field. His regret involved the play call to get the one yard. This is exactly what Bengals fans should want to hear.
It's plausible to imagine a decision backfiring like would alter a coach's mindset and attitude towards aggressive decision-making. Learning from your mistakes is one thing, but letting the fear of failure impact your future is a whole other can of worms.
The Bengals should never lose their newfound fearlessness to step on the throats of their opposition. The NFL as a whole has become more open-minded to extending drives where special teams usually intervened, and for the most part, it's proven to be a worthwhile shift in mentality. It certainly paid off for Taylor later in the game when Burrow tossed the ball to Uzomah on fourth-and-inches.
There's also the context that matters. Cincinnati's offense was producing well at the time of the fourth-and-one. They were creating positive plays in the running game all day and figured a single yard would've been obtainable for Joe Mixon. Taylor had confidence in his offense converting in a tough spot, it just didn't work out.
Good decision-makers aren't afraid of failure, but they're also calculated in their approach. Taylor seems to be growing into this type. The last thing fans should want is him regressing back to conservatism.
2nd down: Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins are a legitimate problem for cornerbacks
It's been a while since the Bengals had a duo of perimeter receiving threats this talented. Throughout Sunday's contest, Chase and Higgins were making fools of the Vikings' cornerbacks, even when they weren't getting the ball.
This was the vision Cincinnati's front office had when they drafted both of these players. They were phenoms in college who had NFL-ready traits as 21-year old prospects. That said, neither Chase nor Higgins were pristine route-runners and separators when they were playing on Saturdays. They've both improved dramatically based off the last time we saw them play.
We couldn't go a week during the Spring and Summer without hearing how much stronger and faster Higgins looked coming off of a promising rookie season. Reports of him dominating OTAs and then training camp practices were consistent all the way up to Sunday when he looked the part of a complete receiver. He may've only caught four balls (one for the game's first touchdown) for 58 yards, but don't be discouraged by the volume numbers. Higgins was running quality routes even regardless if he was the primary option.
The primary option for this game was clearly Chase, who put up LSU numbers with his LSU quarterback in his first regular season game. Chase's strength as a ballcarrier and fluidity as a route-runner were on full display against Minnesota's overmatched cornerbacks, but it was his soft hands plucking balls from in front and behind him that stood out. You couldn't tell there was a 20-month gap between this game and the last time Chase and Burrow took the field together. The chemistry was that evident.
Chase and Higgins have much tougher cornerbacks remaining on the schedule, but early returns of this duo should have Cincinnati feeling nothing but optimistic.
3rd down: Is Joe Burrow on a pitch count?
There are two ways of looking at this. The antiquated mindset has no issue with the Bengals' quarterback being limited in the number of drop backs he takes per game. He's playing his first real games since undergoing major surgery nine months ago. The fewer times he's able to get hit, the fewer times he should get hit. On the progressive side of things, this could also spell limitations for the offense as a whole.
No team had a lower early-down pass rate than Cincinnati in Week 1. Per rbsdm.com, Burrow passed 11% under expectation on first down, 52% under expectation on second-and-long, and 22% under expectation on second-and-medium.
This strategy paid off in the end because Joe Mixon was creating positive yards on nearly every rushing attempt. Tact on the lack of penalties, and it was just sacks that were holding back the Bengals' offense for most of the day.
A one-week sample size isn't going to do much in answering this question, but a change in the game script might give us clarity. What will happen if the Bengals go down a score or two early in the game? Will the run-pass ratio still be as equal as it was against the Vikings, or will Taylor be forced to have Burrow move the ball with his arm earlier in drives?
4th down: Can the interior o-line get right in time?
On that subject, the Bengals shouldn't be too worried about falling into a deficit against the Bears, who got embarrassed last week against the Los Angeles Rams. Chicago's offense isn't capable of doing anything explosive at the moment with Andy Dalton quarterbacking, and his offensive line isn't helping matters, either.
Where the Bears can win today is against the interior of the Bengals' offensive line. Trey Hopkins and Xavier Su'a-Filo had their share of rough moments against the Vikings. Akiem Hicks and Co. won't make it any easier for the Bengals' veteran center-right guard duo. This may be the only way Chicago limits Cincinnati's offense.
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