Zac, your overall thoughts on how the game went out there?
I was really happy with how we played. I thought in the first half, it felt like we had some killer penalties that really set us back. We had some really bad field position but we hung in there. For it to be 10-10 at the half, it felt like the way the game had gone that we were in a really good space there. And defense came out, gave us great field position, we capitalized on it with a field goal early on in the second half. Guys stepped up and made plays. I thought our defense – one thing this team took to heart was how physical they heard this game was going to be and that's a credit to Tennessee because that's how they play, but our guys answered the bell today. You know, and to hold their lead back to 2.2 yards a carry and 38 yards, for the offense to rush for over 100 yards, for guys to step up and make one-on-one plays, for Mike Hilton to come off the edge and tackle that back one-on-one like he did, I thought was just a tremendous team effort today. I'm really proud of these guys.
Zac, Tennessee had the ball, first down at 2:25 late, late in the game. (Eli) Apple comes up, (Cam) Sample makes a great play. You hold them to a field goal. Talk about that series.
I thought really our red zone defense was excellent. Holding them to field goals, holding them before the half, they missed a field goal. They had a new kicker in there, so you want to make it harder on him, put the pressure on him. But I thought our defense did great job in the red zone, keeping them out of the end zone. They got the big screen for the touchdown. They do a great job of that, so that one got away from us. But I thought our defense did a great job keeping them to three points when they needed to.
Second straight week, Zac. Trenton (Irwin) makes a huge catch from the touchdown to try to go ahead. You talk about that play in the execution you guys had in that series.
Yeah, it's a third down. It's a one-on-one alert. And Joe (Burrow) went to Trent Irwin because he had a matchup that he liked. And so, I think that speaks volumes of the confidence, not only we have in Trenton (Irwin) to put him in that spot, but for Joe (Burrow) to go to him when the game was tight like that, and then to step up and make that play. Allowed us to finish off that drive the right way. I think the next play was when Tee (Higgins) caught the touchdown pass, right? So, that was huge for the momentum and a great job - great throw and great catch there by Trenton (Irwin).
There's no unique way to ask this. We've asked this before but how much of an advantage does it give you to have an elite quarterback in a game like this between two playoff teams down the stretch?
We wouldn't trade our quarterback for anybody on the planet, and so we're glad to have him.
As you mentioned, during the week with this physical part of it. Did you practice well? As you anticipate this?
Our defense has played physical every single game we played this year. I think they know that. They've got confidence in that. You know, the narrative can be whatever it needs to be all week, but our guys don't need any of that. They show up on Sundays and they play ball. And it's one of the best defenses in the league.
You talked about how pleased you were with the rushing performance, with full respect to Joe Mixon. Is there a possibility that Samaje Perine could be the lead back this week?
Samaje (Perine)'s always done a great job any time his number is called. (Joe) Mixon's done a great job when his number is called. We're looking for efficiency in our run game and we've got efficiency in our run game, whoever's carrying the football. And so, I think that just goes to show you that the confidence we have in that stable of backs and we're going to need everyone to step up in different parts of the season. And today, Samaje (Perine) did, Trayveon (Williams) did on his carries. I was pleased to see that from the running backs. I think Justin Hill has done a great job with that entire room, getting those guys ready so that when their number is called that they're prepared for the moment.
Coach, every team wants to shut down Derrick Henry from behind the line of scrimmage. You guys did that today. Can you talk about how the gameplan was in that specific that worked?
Yeah, I think we had a great plan starting with Lou (Anarumo) and all the coaches on defense. The players believed in that plan and they executed it to a tee. They put pressure on him the entire game. They hit the quarterback, and they just made play after play to win us back the field position there in the second half and allow us to go win.
How do you get a defense to be physical? Is it the guys you bring in?
Yeah, it's a mindset. It's a mindset. There's certainly things that we focus on. You know, we were still in pads as of this Thursday, maximizing the opportunities that we get there. That's really sending a message to the group that we're going to continue to be physical and play physical. And again, we've got the right guys that know that this is a big man's league. And you got to step up late in the year and be able to stop the run and win the line of scrimmage. And I thought our guys did a great job of that today.
Is this the kind of game that successful playoff teams win?
I think it was a game that we just needed to win today. I don't want to get into the playoff narrative or any of that. It's just this was the next team on the schedule. Our guys were ready to roll, had a great mindset. We know we've got another big one next week. We're going to continue to say that from now on, whatever. We got the Chiefs now. We've got to try to focus on them. We'll be excited to get back home in the jungle and get that place fired up and ready to go. We feel like we've been away there for a month now. It feels like we haven't had a home game in a long time. So, I know our guys will be excited to get back in there and play in front of our home crowd.
Zac, what can you say about the depth that you guys have at the offensive skill positions? Obviously, you talk about (Joe) Mixon not being out, but obviously, you guys have had Ja'Marr (Chase) for a little while now. Tee Higgins stepped up, (Samaje) Perine, a bunch of guys across the board on offense. What can you kind of say about that group?
We have the right guys and we have the right coaches. Because I think if you're talking about those rooms, you know what the skill guys are talking about. Justin Hill, I just mentioned him. Troy Walters, the job he and Brad Kragthorpe do with the receivers, maximize their potential. The job James Casey does. We lose a tight end in free agency last year. We lose our next tight end to an injury this year. And we get Hayden (Hurst) in there and he gets Hayden up to speed and maximizes his potential. Does the same thing with Mitch (Wilcox). Mitch is just continuing to develop because of James (Casey) helping him. And Mitch (Mitchell Wilcox)'s just willingness to continue to get better. Then Pitch (Dan Pitcher) has just done a great job in the quarterback room with (Joe) Burrow and all those guys. So, I think that there's such a belief that they're getting the instruction to reach their potential in the meeting rooms. I think our players truly understand that and see that. They've got confidence that we're going to put them in the right positions. And then again, (inaudible) done a great job just bringing in such supreme talent and they're reaching their potential. It's exciting to watch as a head coach.
Is there anything that you saw in your preparation or anything, looking at the Titans, that made you feel like Tee (Higgins) was going to have a big game today?
Tee (Higgins) always has a big game. A lot of those are just one-on-one opportunities. And so again, we feel like we've got great matchups with any corner in the league. If we get on-on-ones, we expect our guys to rise up to the challenge and make the plays. And that's what Tee (Higgins) did. Tee caught two go balls there in the second to last drive in the last (quarter) that really put the game on ice for us. And so we just got a ton of confidence in Tee there.
It seemed like you had a message through the week. We're in November. It gets physical. It's going to be cold, windy, whatever. The way they responded to win this type of game. I mean, that happened in this stretch. That had to be heartening, the way they won it.
Yeah, I think again, our team was ready, focused, felt it all week. We felt it last night. Felt it as we took the field today. Even though the first half wasn't perfect, you really came into halftime with a lot of confidence that this game was going to go our way because someone was going to step up and make a play. I was hoping that there was going be a turnover that would help flip it. It didn't happen for either team. And again, our guys just came through in the end.
Why did Ja'Marr (Chase) not play today?
Just ultimately, we thought that was the smartest decision. You get a chance to get him back, practice for a week. Felt really encouraged with where he's at. And ultimately, as we got closer to the game, it was, 'Let's get him back to practice next week and then make that decision.' But yeah, there's not a gameplan on how this thing was going to unfold. I think ultimately, we're happy with how it played out that we didn't put him on IR. So, he got a chance to practice a week earlier than he would have. So now we can go into next week, I'm not going to make any promises, but feeling like, 'OK, we've seen him on the grass.' I think he's feeling pretty good. And so we'll just evaluate where he's at starting next Wednesday.
Zac, we don't ask you about him a lot, but can you just talk about the play of Mike Hilton today. Two big stops on Derrick Henry. How important is he in your defense?
You probably don't ask a lot because Mike Hilton, his play doesn't only show up in the stat sheet. It's the pre-snap game. He gets to play with the quarterbacks and he's the best in the world when it comes to that. The communication he's got, putting himself in position to take away a lot of throws that don't show up in the stat sheet because the ball just doesn't go over there because he's in great position. He understands route concepts and is able to help himself in coverage there. And he is willing, I don't know what his height, weight is. I'm not going to guess, but he doesn't care. He plays like he's a 6-4, 240-pound linebacker. And that's what you need from a nickel. I've always maintained that those scrappy nickels are the biggest pains to deal with. He's smart. He's scrappy. He can cover. He can tackle. He can do it all. And we're really lucky to have Mike (Hilton).
How differently did the game feel with DJ Reader when you have those two swatted passes, limiting (Derrick) Henry to the game he had. How much different was it having him versus not having him the last couple weeks?
Yeah, he's just aware, you know? A lot of our batted passes come against really good D-tackles that are very aware and can kind of get a sense when the ball is going to come out and DJ (Reader) does an excellent job of that. We're waiting on one of those tips to turn into a pick. But again, DJ (Reader), in the first half, getting those two tips. Those two tips really helped us.
How important is the offense's ability to kind of tweak based on personnel?
It's just everybody being flexible. Nobody having an ego. I'm talking about every player, every coach. We're going to do whatever we got to do to win, whether that's throwing the ball 50 times, running the ball 50 times. Making adjustments over the course of a game or maybe plays that we didn't initial carry in the plan. I think everybody's just been so flexible and has such a high degree of confidence in how we're operating that it's allowed us to be successful.
I know you don't want to get into playoff scenarios, Zac, but before the game, Sam Hubbard and his little group before taking the field told the players that it's playoff football from here on out. Is that the mentality essentially that you have to have?
I think that's probably what guys feel. But again, we're just taking it game to game. Our focus has just got to be on controlling what we can control. And the only thing we can control is our preparation over the next six days for Kansas City. I try to stay out of the big picture beyond that. Let's just keep taking it one game at a time. Find a way to win these games.
What are the biggest keys for the roll you guys are on the last five or six games?
Just the confidence of the team. Each group has stepped up when we needed them to and I'm talking different position groups. Last week, our linebackers played out of their minds. I thought this week, our whole defense played great just because of our ability to stop the run there. Our corners made some really good one-on-one plays today because they're going to be testing the pass game when you stop the run like that. And I think on offense, just the whole unit. I mean, I think our line's giving us everything we need to be successful right now. They're helping the run game. They got a lot of confidence in it. Doing a great job communicating what calls are going to be helpful for them. And I thought the protection in the pass game was outstanding. You know, it's I was actually a little surprised we didn't get scramble for a touchdown at some point in the game because they do a great job mixing up the coverages to keep you off guard. But our protection was really good and Joe (Burrow) was doing a good job, kind of sitting back there waiting for someone to break free. And I thought that was really good to see.
Zac, your reaction on the field goal that made it on the board. Still would have been a one score game. And then when you heard about the personal foul to give you a chance to run out the clock.
Yeah, that was nice. We were just mentally getting ready for downtime. You know, if we got a turnover on defense to go down and not try to score, the game's going to be over. And then I was already alerted that they had a penalty. I watched the field all go through and then turn my back Don't exactly still know what happened, but I'll take it.