Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said the best way to get the “real coaching experience” is to try to figure out a game plan for short-yardage situations near the goal line.
It’s one of the toughest scenarios that Taylor faces as a play caller. On a play like 3rd and goal from the 4-yard line, there are usually more defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage. Ja’Marr Chase is usually double teamed. There’s a really small window to score a touchdown, and these situations have tested Taylor and the Bengals over the last few seasons.
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“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.”
Over the last three months, the Bengals have shifted their philosophy at the goal line. The focus has been less on creativity. The Bengals’ priorities have been trying to win one-on-one matchups with their receivers or trying to just run the ball up the middle and get the touchdown with the power run game.
When the turning point came for the Bengals
The turning point took place at the goal line in Baltimore on Oct. 9.
On Sunday night, the Bengals will face the Baltimore Ravens for the third time this season. The Bengals lost the first of those matchups because of a goal-line situation that they botched. The result was so poor that it caused the Bengals to make a philosophical change to the way Taylor calls plays at the goal line.
“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.”
In the playoffs last season, the Bengals’ biggest problem was their inability to punch the ball in at the goal line. Evan McPherson needed to make 14 field goals in the playoffs because the Bengals couldn’t convert in short-yardage situations.
Because the Bengals’ offensive line was outmatched, the run game wasn’t working near the goal line. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow took sacks that set the Bengals back on drives that were nearing the end zone. And the plays in the offense weren’t perfect fits for these situations.
The Bengals responded by putting some trick plays into the offense. One of them was on display in the Super Bowl when running back Joe Mixon threw a touchdown pass. The Bengals took those plays into 2022, but they didn’t need them as much anymore since Burrow, the passing game and the Bengals’ offensive line had all improved.
‘We just tried to find a couple of things throughout the season that make it less stressful on everyone to get a touchdown’
Early in the 2022 season, the Bengals’ run game was still struggling at the goal line as the offensive line gelled together. One week before the first matchup against the Ravens, the Bengals were stopped on three straight short-yardage runs.
Before the first Ravens game, Taylor and Callahan decided to put some trick plays into the goal line plan.
“We were trying to find ways to get easy touchdowns, find things that you don’t have to just win a route one on one and make a great throw and catch to score a touchdown,” Callahan said. “We just tried to find a couple of things throughout the season that make it less stressful for everyone to get a touchdown.”
It failed spectacularly.
In the third quarter, the Bengals faced 2nd and 2 from the Ravens’ 2-yard line. Taylor called the “Philly Special,” a trick play where a pitch back to a wide receiver turns into a pass to the quarterback. The Ravens saw it coming, covered Burrow, blitzed wide receiver Tyler Boyd as he was looking to throw and sacked Boyd for a 10-yard loss.
The Bengals picked up 10 yards on 3rd down to get back where they started. Taylor then called a shovel pass to wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr.
The Bengals overthought the decision. Morgan Jr.’s role has been exclusively as a run blocker, so Taylor thought the Ravens would expect the run. When Burrow tried to pitch the ball forward to Morgan Jr., three Ravens rushed past three Bengals offensive linemen to break into the backfield.
The pass was deflected, and the Bengals turned the ball over on downs. That sequence was the difference in the game.
“There are always things you look at when it doesn’t work, obviously something different you feel would have been better in retrospect,” Taylor said, looking back at those play calls. “That’s just what we signed up for and what we’ve got to deal with.”
Since that game, the Bengals have stopped running trick plays at the goal line. In hindsight, Taylor and Callahan decided to roll with Burrow, Mixon, Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd in these situations.
Over the next 11 games to end the regular season, the Bengals went on to score 18 touchdowns from inside the 10-yard line. As the Bengals turned into one of the best offenses in the NFL, the Bengals stars have been better playmakers in the end zone.
On nine of those touchdowns, the Bengals have used the power run game to get into the end zone. With a new-look offensive line, Callahan said the Bengals had to figure out the best runs that worked for the linemen the Bengals had. The Bengals spent months tailoring the goal line run game to the personnel on the roster, and it worked for them.
The run that set the tone took place against the Tennessee Titans in November. The Bengals put Morgan Jr. in the game along with an extra tight end and an extra offensive lineman. The Bengals’ personnel showed the Titans that they were going to run it, and Samaje Perine rumbled for a 7-yard score.
Two of Burrow’s touchdown throws from near the goal line have come on check downs. One of Burrow’s biggest adjustments recently is to get rid of the ball more quickly to turn “check downs into touchdowns.” Players like Perine have caught a quick throw and broken tackles to score.
Three of the touchdowns have been a result of Taylor and Callahan designing great plays without trying to get “cute.” Trenton Irwin caught two touchdowns on designed plays that gave him a one-step advantage heading to the sideline in a one-on-one matchup against a corner. Against the Kansas City Chiefs, Burrow threw an easy pass to running back Chris Evans for a touchdown. Evans was open on the play because Taylor had Evans lined up at receiver while Chase lined up at running back. Earlier in the game, Burrow saw three defenders guarding Chase, heard a quarterback draw and rushed for a touchdown.
The rest of the touchdowns have been on designed plays where Mixon, Chase, Higgins or Boyd get a one-on-one matchup and win it. With each of the Bengals’ stars having a standout season, the Bengals have a lot more confidence in their goal-line offense than they had at this point last year.
“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.”