Zac Taylor just led the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl … and he did so with the worst regular season winning percentage for any head coach to ever reach the big game, sitting at 0.337 from 2019-2021.
And for one half against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game on Sunday, Taylor played the part. Between the lack of aggressive play-calling and lack of physicality against an officiating crew known to avoid throwing flags, Taylor looked outmatched against Andy Reid and the Chiefs. The Bengals trailed 21-3 just 20 minutes into the game with only 82 yards to show for it.
But thanks to smart adjustments by Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, and some heads-up plays by Joe Burrow, the Bengals mounted a comeback that culminated in a second consecutive game-winning field goal by rookie Evan McPherson. The win is impressive for the young Bengals, but it came almost in spite of a couple big decisions in the gameplan.
Bengals ran on first down against Chiefs. A lot
For one, Taylor remained committed to the run throughout the game, even with a budding star in Burrow under center and three receivers with more than 800 receiving yards apiece.
Cincinnati finished with a healthy 4.3 yards per carry on 27 attempts, but the Bengals rushed the ball on first down 17 times. Those rushes generated just one first down and 59 total yards – or 3.47 yards per attempt. Burrow bailed them out with impressive scrambles on third down three different times, including twice in the second half. Yes, he was sacked a playoff record-tying nine times the previous week against Tennessee, but the run game isn’t a panacea for pressure up front. Burrow should have had a chance to make plays without burning a down more often.
Those openings won’t always be there, especially in the Super Bowl against Los Angeles. The Rams boast the sixth-best run defense in the regular season and just held the 49ers to a season-low 50 yards on 20 attempts this week. Burrow also knew he could exploit the Chiefs’ defense with his legs on third down, according to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, something he likely won’t be able to do against the Rams.
Taylor’s insistence on establishing the run led to fewer aggressive moments through the air. Apart from Samaje Perine‘s 41-yard touchdown scamper off a screen pass late in the second quarter, the Bengals tallied just two passing plays of more than 20 yards. Burrow also completed his fewest passes since Week 15 and averaged just 10.86 yards per completion and 7.3 air yards per attempt.
This entire gameplan is in direct dichotomy to the script the Bengals used to beat the Chiefs a month ago. Burrow averaged 14.86 yards per completion, Ja’Marr Chase finished with 266 yards and three scores and Cincinnati ran the ball only 19 times. Maybe Taylor wanted to shake things up so the Chiefs wouldn’t predict a similar game plan, but even that seems puzzling given the Bengals’ seventh-ranked scoring offense.
Why weren’t Bengals physical in coverage from first play?
The Bengals’ lack of physicality extended to their defense. Cincinnati didn’t exploit the loosest officiating crew in the league the entire first half.
Bill Vinovich’s staff called the fewest defensive holding penalties and pass interference penalties in 2021, according to NFLPenalties.com, and the Chiefs weren’t afraid to take advantage. There were two instances of potential infractions in the end zone late in the first quarter on the Bengals’ second drive of the game. Neither were called, and the Bengals settled for a field goal instead of first-and-goal opportunities. But Cincinnati let Patrick Mahomes run roughshod in the first half where he completed 18 of 21 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns.
The Bengals completely reversed course in the second half defensively and pressured the Chiefs’ pass-catchers at a season-high pace. Cincinnati dropped at least eight defenders on 45 percent of the Chiefs’ dropbacks, per NextGen Stats, which is a 19 percent uptick from the first half. The result: Mahomes’ QBR plummeted from 98.0 in the first half to 1.4 in the second half and overtime, and the worst expected points added of his career and in Andy Reid’s career in Kansas City, per The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia.
That decision is a major reason the Bengals are headed to Los Angeles and the Chiefs will remain in Kansas City. Imagine how this game might have looked if Taylor and Anarumo had tried that from the opening whistle.
Taylor reaching the Super Bowl is a testament not only to the Bengals’ ability with Burrow and a rock-solid defense but also how simple decisions can completely change the course of a season. Games can be won or lost by halftime, though, and Taylor needs to weaponize as many aspects of the game as possible.
It didn’t ultimately cost them against the Chiefs this past weekend, but the Rams could pose a very different type of threat in Super Bowl LVI.