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Bengals overcome Zac Taylor mistakes to reach Super Bowl

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Zac Taylor might be the worst coach to ever reach a Super Bowl. No, really: His 0.337 regular season winning percentage with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2019-2021 is easily the lowest of any head coach to make it to the championship game.

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 woefully 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 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 Taylor’s decision-making throughout the game.

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. He 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.

Zac Taylor made a couple of head-scratching coaching decisions in the AFC championship. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

Zac Taylor made a couple of head-scratching coaching decisions in the AFC championship. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

This is 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 only ran the ball 19 times. Maybe Taylor wanted to shake things up so the Chiefs wouldn’t predict a similar game plan, but even that seems a little misguided given the Bengals’ seventh-ranked scoring offense.

Why weren’t Bengals physical in coverage from first play?

The Bengals’ lack of physicality extended to its defense. Cincinnati failed to exploit the loosest officiating crew in the league in the first half by not attacking the Chiefs’ pass catches through the air. 

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 187-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 would have looked if Taylor and Anarumo had tried that from the opening whistle.

Taylor’s ascension to the Super Bowl despite his own coaching shortcomings 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 before games get too far out of hand. 

It never got that bad against the Chiefs this past weekend, but the Rams were built to win and pose a very different type of threat in Super Bowl LVI to the NFL’s postseason darlings.



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