Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor chuckles a little thinking back on a “remember when” note he kept for himself when he and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan were preparing on a Tuesday night for a matchup against the Rams in Week 8 of the 2019 season.
They were struggling to come up for a game plan to slow down Rams’ defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and Taylor wrote down the time and date so he could one day, while enjoying more success, look back on that moment and see how far they’ve come.
That note is especially relevant now as Taylor and his now more established staff again are preparing for Donald – this time in the Super Bowl. The Bengals play the Rams in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday at SoFi Stadium in L.A.
“I remember exactly where we were,” Taylor said. “We were watching Seattle who played the Rams several times before, and they knew Aaron Donald as well as anybody. And we’re just watching him chase Russell Wilson around the backfield, and it’s one of those moments where you’re so upset that you just start laughing. And I think that’s where me and Brian were, we were just laughing watching him chase this guy around the backfield and trying to devise a plan. And we got a plan in place that gave us an opportunity. We didn’t win the game but we gave it our best shot, but we’ve certainly come a long ways now.”
Taylor notes how different the team is now, though. Only nine players that started games in 2019 are still with the Bengals, and most notably the offense has evolved around 2020 No. 1 draft pick Joe Burrow.
As Super Bowl week officially kicked off Monday for the team with virtual press conferences, Taylor was happy to share the Bengals do in fact have a game plan for Donald, but the player himself doesn’t make it any easier on the opponent.
“He’s certainly one of the greatest players we’ve ever played against, and you watch other teams plan for him and you can have great plans,” Taylor said. “He’s a real problem and someone that you’ve got to really focus on, and so you spend time and energy talking about Aaron Donald and then you’ve got these other elite players that are surrounding him as well. So I think they’ve done a great job building team, putting pressure on opposing teams offenses. … There’s no wonder why they’re in the Super Bowl. Our guys are excited for the opportunity ... to prove ourselves once again that we belong here and we can win this game.”
The Bengals, winless at the time of that last meeting with the Rams in 2019, managed 401 yards of offense, but Donald recorded one of the Rams’ five sacks and added three tackles for loss.
This season, the Rams ranked third in the NFL for most team sacks with 50, and Donald had 14 of those to go along with 31 quarterback hits. The Bengals allowed the third most sacks in the league with 55 during the regular season.
“You have a lot of D tackles that are physically strong and difficult that way, and there are some that are quick,” Taylor said. “He’s both and he’s just got such an incredible mindset and football IQ as well. And so, you combine all that into one of the greatest players of all time. There’s no question about that, you know, just watching the guys, watching him train, watching him practice, played against him two years ago. Watched him play when I was a quarterback coach on the sideline (for the Rams in 2017 and 2018), and it’s one of the few times you just watch a defensive tackle, your eyes are on him and nobody else.”
Donald isn’t just a great pass rusher. He’s part of a defense that has been solid against the run too, allowing just 103.2 yards rushing (sixth best in the league). No running back has recorded 100 yards against them since Week 4 when Arizona’s Chase Edmonds ran for 120 yards on 12 carries in a 37-20 win for the Cardinals.
Tight end Drew Sample said the Bengals’ ability to be balanced suits them against a defense that shows “no weaknesses.” Right tackle Isaiah Prince said the offensive line will have to step up to provide some push for Joe Mixon.
“I think the key for us is just not lunging, staying on our feet, playing with good technique, getting our hands on them and just finishing, playing as hard as we can and let them know that we’re here to show up every play,” Prince said.
Taylor said accounting for the defensive line is just the start of preparing for the Rams. Cincinnati spent all last week solidifying the game plan and making sure players understood assignments. This week is all about fine-tuning, and by Sunday, the Bengals will be ready to go.
“You have to have a great plan in place for their entire defense,” Taylor added. “I’m not just taking Aaron Donald. They’ve got how many players who are household names? Then a bunch of other guys on top of that who are really the glue guys that keep that thing together. So, they’ve done a great job, Raheem Morris has done a tremendous job with that defense. And so we’re excited for the challenge. Certainly our guys back down from nobody and we’re excited for the opportunity.”
SUPER BOWL LVI
Bengals vs. Rams, 6:30 p.m., NBC, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7