When Bill Lazor took over as Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Sept. 15, one of the first questions he fielded was how his philosophy would differ from that of the fired Ken Zampese.
“We’ll let the philosophy work its way out as we go,” Lazor said.
Sunday against Cleveland – Lazor’s ninth game calling plays – provided the first glimpse of a new approach.
It came after the Browns had closed to within seven points with 6:57 remaining. It’s not a position the Bengals have found themselves in often the last two seasons, but there was enough of a track record to expect the team to take a conservative approach with a bigger focus on reducing time than gaining yards.
Coach Marvin Lewis even said that was his thought process after Cleveland quarterback DeShone Kizer converted on fourth and goal for a 3-yard touchdown that got the Browns within 23-16.
“It was a football game where you want to keep the ball,” he said. “That’s the intent of the drive, to run out the last five minutes or whatever, which is what went through my mind. We’ve seen that happen, where we’re able to drive the rest of the time off the clock, force them to call their timeouts, and then send them in on fourth down where you don’t even have to score.”
But Lazor had other ideas, calling a screen pass from Andy Dalton to Giovani Bernard on first down. It netted 15 yards and allowed the Bengals to stay aggressive with pass plays on two of the four plays of a seven-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a Joe Mixon touchdown run that pushed the lead to 30-16 with 2:57 to go.
“We said on the sideline, ‘We are trying to score a touchdown. Period,’” Lazor said. “The only thing that was four minute-ish was that Andy was working the clock. And he did a great job.
“We were not calling plays to slow the game down,” Lazor said. “We were calling plays to win the game by scoring another touchdown. And I think that was made, hopefully, real clear to the players on the sideline.”
It was. And the message was well received.
“That’s how you want to finish a game,” running back Giovani Bernard said.
“It was great to stay aggressive in that situation and make plays,” left guard Clint Boling said. “To stay aggressive and keep the pedal down, I thought that was important.”
The play that personified the more aggressive approach came on third and 5 from the Cleveland 40 when Dalton threw a deep ball to Josh Malone. An incompletion could have forced the Bengals to punt the ball back to the Browns with nearly four minutes to work with for a game-tying drive.
Dalton delivered a perfect pass that Malone snared with one arm before Cleveland safety Jabrill Peppers dislodged the ball with a hard hit that drew a 15-yard penalty and resulted in a first down.
Lazor said Dalton had Green open on a shorter route for a sure first down, but he went for the kill shot.
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“On that play, that’s part of Andy’s choice, that you have this available to you,” Lazor said. “And we felt like the matchup was good and we took it. I’m glad that Andy saw him one-on-one and said ‘OK, I’m taking (Malone).”
If the Bengals are going to end their five-game losing streak against the Pittsburgh Steelers and stay in the race for a playoff berth, they likely are going to need to keep that aggressive approach going throughout Monday night’s game.
The first meeting against Pittsburgh was Lazor’s fourth game calling plays. The Bengals scored a pair of early touchdowns to sit tied at 14-14 at the two-minute warning before halftime, but the Steelers didn’t allow any points after that on the way to a 29-14 triumph.
“We had two good touchdown drives against them and after they did a couple things as change-ups,” Lazor said. “Whether that’s why we slowed down or whether there were other reasons, we have to look at the changes they made at halftime and how that affected us until the game kind of got away from us.
“There is a long history of them,” he added. “We have history that goes way back. You just go back so far and make decisions off what the possibilities will be.”
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-2) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (5-6)
When: 8:30 p.m., Monday
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
TV: ESPN, Ch. 5
Radio: 700-AM, 1530-AM, 102.7-FM, 104.7-FM