Zac Taylor: ‘Everyone deserves to cherish’ win over Steelers

Bengals coach awards game balls to entire team

Zac Taylor’s optimism through a second season of struggles at times could seem feigned, but his belief in the Cincinnati Bengals has never wavered.

On Monday, there was no logical reason on paper for the Bengals to beat the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers, but they delivered on Taylor’s game plan and finally finished out a game.

Cincinnati rallied behind third-string quarterback Ryan Finley with a dominant running game and ended a five-game losing streak with a 27-17 decision Monday at Paul Brown Stadium. The victory marked the Bengals’ first against Pittsburgh since 2015 and snapped an 11-game skid in the rivalry series.

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“This has been the expectation,” Taylor, who is now 5-24-1 in his second season as head coach, said when asked if his optimism was validated Monday. “Every Sunday, when you walk on the field, you expect this result. It’s obviously been disappointing when it hasn’t been that way, but I don’t feel any different. I’m excited obviously, for all the guys in the locker room that put in the work, like I said. But this is been the expectation for us, and this is going to continue to be the expectation. It just feels like we knew we were going to win, and we won. That’s just how I feel right now.”

With just five wins in two seasons, it’s easy to top the list as Taylor’s “biggest win,” but beating Pittsburgh (11-3) at home was significant during a time his job security has been called into question. The Steelers had a chance to clinch the AFC North title Monday. Now, the Browns still have a chance at 10-4.

Taylor admitted he’s been expecting a lull in effort through the challenges of this season but it’s never come. He said he didn’t see anything different in the players this week during practice than he did the rest of the season, and it was rewarding for all to get a result. Cincinnati will seek its first road win under Taylor on Sunday at Houston (4-10).

“I don’t really worry about that,” Taylor said when asked about how significant the win is for him personally. “We just needed a divisional win against a team that we’ve struggled with for a while now. There’s no surprise (there). Just to see the response of our players in the locker room after the game ... they earned that. They’ve been working hard every week, (and) we haven’t gotten these wins. It’s just fun to watch them enjoy themselves, and they will carry that energy over this week. We’re going go on the road on a short week to Houston. (It’s) just fun to watch our guys celebrate and have fun.”

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Taylor said he was giving the entire team game balls Monday night because “everyone deserves to cherish” the win.

Players who have publicly backed Taylor said it was rewarding to be able to give the coach a victory in a meaningful game for the city. The team failed to get wins in five games decided by five points or less and seemed to be turning a corner just before the bye with a win over the AFC South-leading Titans (10-4). But, then all three phases struggled after the break in a 36-10 loss at Pittsburgh and rookie quarterback Joe Burrow went down for the season in the next game at Washington.

The Bengals’ offense has struggled since then, and Taylor had to commit to a more run-oriented attack Monday behind Finley, who got his first NFL win in his fourth start.

“It’s tough because we all have these expectations and they haven’t gone the way we wanted,” running back Giovani Bernard said. “When we have a game like this it means so much to the players, the coaches. You see the guys that continue to put in the work every single day. Quite frankly it’s not easy to come in here after a close loss two, three, four five weeks in a row, whatever it may be. It’s not easy for coaches to keep encouraging us, but they continue to and I’m thankful.

“It’s been nice to see that and the guys he has in this locker room are just the guys that are going to continue to keep fighting. No matter who our opponent is. No matter what’s happening in the game. We’re going to continue to fight until the last second. I’m just thankful for the win tonight.”

Bernard, who has been there throughout the 11-game losing streak to Pittsburgh, said beating the Steelers “amplifies everything” because of how challenging this season has been.

And, that reflects back on Taylor’s vision for what the Bengals could accomplish.

“I’ve never ever seen him waiver from how he was when he first got into this building,” Bernard said. “He continues to encourage guys. Yeah, things haven’t gone the way he’s hoped. Things haven’t gone the way I’ve hoped, whatever it may be, but he continues to come in here every single day and motivate guys and make them believe that every single game is an opportunity for us to win. And that’s tough, I’ve seen it.

“There’s times when I come into the building and I’m like ‘dang, we just lost a super close game last week’ and we come in to watch film and this and that. He continues to encourage guys. For a coach to be able to do that it means a lot. For me personally it means a lot that I can trust him and that he’s going to continue to be that same person no matter what’s happened. Just thankful that I’ve been able to be a part of it and to kinda witness everything happening.”

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