THURSDAY ZOOM AVAILABILITY: WEEK 16 AT CINCINNATI BENGALS
Special Teams Coordinator Chris Horton
With WR/RS Devin Duvernay making the Pro Bowl, how does a player go from not returning kicks in high school and college to so quickly in the NFL become a Pro Bowl player? (Jamison Hensley) "Great question. I think one of the things first is we want to obviously recognize all those guys that made the Pro Bowl. Obviously, I think all those guys understand that it is a team award. There are a lot of guys out there doing a lot of good things to make sure that those guys are able to execute their job assignment. To answer your question, it's pretty simple. You find a guy that's has a good skillset, a guy that can catch a ball, return a football, and then you just try to put him in position and put guys in front of him that will help him be successful. We saw it early on with him as a kick returner, and then we just kind of developed him as a punt returner. Last year, I think he had three games playing for us [as a punt returner], and then we just went into the year saying, 'You know what? Let's give this guy an opportunity. We have the pieces in front of him, and let's see what he can do.' He's been very consistent returning the football."
Knowing that you were sort of the driving force behind giving him an opportunity to return punts and that you had sort of seen a lot that you liked and thought it could work, what was your reaction when you heard that WR/RS Devin Duvernay made the Pro Bowl? How rewarding was that for you, given that you were somebody who was kind of in his corner and backing him from the beginning? (Jeff Zrebiec) "It's very rewarding for us all. I wouldn't say I was solely the driving force. We put a lot of work into Devin [Duvernay]; [Special teams coach] Randy [Brown], [special teams coach] T.J. [Weist], [tight ends coach] Bobby [Engram], it was all-hands-on-deck with him. Once we realized what we had, we knew if we took care of business, and we helped him make great decisions, we could get him to where we wanted to get him to. We're very humbled. We're very excited about what he's done, but quite honestly, he's just getting started. This is his first full season as a returner. I don't even think he's reached the maximum amount of games yet for a full season as a punt returner. We're just getting started. We're definitely very excited about where he's going, and where he's going to continue to go. Devin is hungry. He's eager to get better, and the guys love having him out there."
I think WR/RS Devin Duvernay's quote after making the Pro Bowl was something about thanking the coaches for being very patient with him. Can you talk a little bit more about that process? What early on did he need to learn? What did you need to be patient with him on? (Ryan Mink) "One of the things as a punt returner is just kind of reminding them that you don't have to return every ball. Not every ball is a great ball. You take the ones that are there, and you get what you can. If not, go ahead and utilize your fair catch. That's a great tool for you to not put yourself in a bad spot. I think early on, one of the things with him was kind of reminding him [and say], 'Look, you're a young returner. You're great at fielding the ball, but just be patient. You'll pop the big returns when they're there. It doesn't happen all the time. If it did, then you'd see a lot more big returns popped throughout this league, but there is a time and a place to get those type of returns.'"
We know that K Justin Tucker is the best kicker in football. Everybody in the league does, but sometimes they get it wrong. Was there any sense of relief hearing that K Justin Tucker made the Pro Bowl? (Kirk McEwen)(laughter)"Justin [Tucker] making the Pro Bowl … I think for Justin, when we go out there as a group and as a team, we know one thing – we're putting one of the best players on our team in position to make the kick. Every time he goes out there, that's what is going to happen. He's human like everyone else, but I don't think there's any sign of relief. He's earned the respect over the years of his peers and other coaches. This is just what he does. He works very hard at trying to be the best and trying to keep himself at the top of the league."
Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman
*Opening statement: *"It's good to see everybody via Zoom. I hope everybody is staying healthy. We're getting ready to play a big game. We're certainly excited about it. We don't feel like we put our best foot forward in the first game [against the Bengals], and [we're] looking to improve upon that, certainly. When you look at the Bengals defense, they've been really productive in specific games this year. They do a really good job. They're well-coached. It really starts with their defensive front with their two edge players, but they have some really good run-stoppers inside. They're a little thin at linebacker, but those guys are playing hard and doing their job in the defense. The secondary is playing at a high level; you have to be really alert for where those safeties are. So, we're really deep into it, getting ready for this game, and I'll take any questions."
Do you expect QB Lamar Jackson to be practicing today? If not, it's been about a week and a half since he's been out there. How much does the concern of him being rusty at this point, because of the lack of practice time, how much does that factor as well? (Jamison Hensley) "We're taking it day to day. [I'm] not sure of the availability at this moment. But I think it does become a concern for any player when they miss time. You really want them out there working on their craft, but these things happen. You have to work through them. Before the Denver game, he missed Wednesday and Thursday, and I thought he played a great game. So, he has the capability to do that. We have all the confidence in him and Tyler [Huntley]."
How challenging is it right now working through the right tackle position with G/T Tyre Phillips getting hurt and T David Sharpe on the COVID list? How big would it be to potentially get OL Patrick Mekari back? I know he was able to do a little bit of work last week. (Luke Jones) "Yes, I think you summed it up right there. I thought David Sharpe did a really nice job in the game the other night when he came in. I'm really excited about his future. I really like his approach. He's a guy that impresses me as a guy that's made a decision that he really wants to have a great career and do all the things necessary for that to happen. If we can get Pat Mekari back, that would be huge. Pat is a great communicator. Pat has played center, guard, tackle and tight end for us. He's a big Swiss Army knife. I don't know if there's a term for that, but he can do it all. We're really excited to get him back."
Head coach John Harbaugh, when he asks all of you and he asks his players how they feel about going for a two-point conversion, or a fourth down, or whatever it is, what's the statement in asking? Why do you think it matters to him? Why does he want anybody else's opinion? Why doesn't he just make that decision in a vacuum? (Aditi Kinkhabwala) "I think any really good leader is always going to try to accumulate as much information and opinion, and then sort through it and make his decision. That's something that I try to do on offense. Any really good leader that I've been around is always going to try to get as much input, throw it into the pot and then filter it through your own filter to make the best decision possible. I think it's pretty much that simple."
You mentioned the Bengals front seven, and they certainly played well against you guys the last time you matched up. In a way, is that harder to scheme against, because really, you're just talking about quality players than it would be against a team that uses a lot of blitzes and such? (Childs Walker) "I mean, good players trump everything, really. You have to make a decision about where you allocate your resources. Are we just going to single-block this guy? If so, what are we willing to do? What kind of passes do we want to throw when this guy is single-blocked? Do we need to chip him with a tight end [or] a [running] back? Do we need to crack-block him? Do we need to try to get him at thigh board level? That kind of thing. So, really good players start to change the math a little bit. The flip side of that, like you said, is the schematic part of it where [you say], 'OK, we have this guy blocked and this guy blocked, but do we have the whole scheme blocked?' So, it's definitely a puzzle that you have to put together, and it changes from play to play. You really can't do the same thing every play, because then they'll adjust what they do. So, you have to mix it up a little bit. There's a little bit of risk management involved in that when you're dealing with really good players."
You ran for 143 yards last week with a good mix of carries between QB Tyler Huntley, RB Latavius Murray and RB Devonta Freeman. Do you feel like the running game is efficient in the way it's working and spreading the ball out like that and being able to wear teams down? (Todd Karpovich) "I feel like we did a really good job last week, and it's something that we need to build on. I think we have the people to do it. Really going back, I thought Latavius [Murray] ran really well, Devonta [Freeman] has run well every week, but the guys up front is really where it started – the O-line, tight ends, et cetera. So, that's something that we want to improve on every week as we go. So, that's kind of one of the messages this week to our offense."
Regarding QB Tyler Huntley, how much confidence do you think he's gained from the last two games? Not only the Green Bay game with his performance against the Packers, specifically late, but also coming in for QB Lamar Jackson in Cleveland. How much confidence do you think he's gained from the last two games running this offense? (Shawn Stepner) "Tyler [Huntley] has impressed upon me that he's a guy – and this is critical to any player coming into the NFL, and you can identify it fairly quickly – when some people make the invariable mistake or don't do something the right way, what do they do next time? Do they learn from that? He's been a guy who, as he's young and he's learning through this experience, which is really the only way to learn, he's the guy that puts those things behind him and moves on to the next inevitable moment for a young player. He's done a great job from learning from a mistake, or a misread, or a ballhandling, or cadence or whatnot. It's all part of the process of playing one of the biggest juggling acts of professional sports, which is playing quarterback in the NFL. Every week, he gets better and better. As he gains experience, I really feel like he's going to continue to improve. As good as he played last week, I know in his mind, with the competitor that he is, he's looking to play a little bit better all the time. I think he's a realist when it comes to that, but also, his confidence is definitely growing. He's a very diligent preparer. He prepares very diligently, and I think that's one of his greatest assets."
You guys have TE Mark Andrews, we know how great he is – he's a Pro Bowler this year. But you guys also have a lot of other weapons on the outside. What are the challenges of trying to get everybody else involved, even though you have a guy in TE Mark Andrews who catches pretty much everything you throw? (Cordell Woodland) "I think every play, you're going to have a primary player and some different options. So, as a coach, you can kind of try to set people up as the primary player, the primary receiver, but coverage is going to dictate where the ball goes. So, let's just say we have a play that's designed for [Rashod] Bateman, and they cloud over there and double him, or somebody buzzes out underneath him. Then the ball is going to go to the next guy. So, Marquise [Brown] and Mark Andrews are obviously getting a lot of balls and a lot of opportunities, but we have some other guys, too, that we have full confidence in. Two weeks ago in the Cleveland game, you saw Bateman get opportunities and make huge plays for us in that game. So, it's a little bit how the defense dictates it. We're not going to run our offense to try to get this guy this ball. We believe in everybody. We threw the ball to eight guys the other night, or something like that. That's when I'm really happy, because that means we're throwing the ball to the open guy, and the quarterback is playing a really smart game."
Two-part question here: head coach John Harbaugh said he kind of agonized over his two-point decision up until late into the night. How did you review your play call on that? Did you have any second guesses there? Just in general, 2-for-8 in two-point conversions. How much is that sort of been a focus? There have been open guys on quite a few of those, even the ones you've missed. How much is that been kind of a focus for you going forward? (Jeff Zrebiec) _"I think it's just like any other part of your gameplan. You're going to see what the defense does, what you do well, what you've practiced, what you've got invested, and you're going to try to build a menu. There are games where … The Indianapolis Colts game was a game where we had multiple two-point plays; a couple of them were basically make or break. You have to have a list of them. Generally speaking, it'll come down to one or two, and then you pick one. _(laughter) But you're always going to try to pick the best one. That's something that we focus on, just like third down, just like red zone, the run game, the passing game, fourth-down calls, all that stuff. So, they all kind of fit in their own little box. We definitely want to be more productive. I don't think we're very happy with our production, so that's something that we're certainly working at to improve that and get it where we want it to be."
I know you're not going to talk a whole lot about QB Lamar Jackson's ankle injury, but with the offense that you like to run and the possibility that QB Lamar Jackson might play, even if he's not at 100%, do you kind of have the flexibility to adjust the play-calling and the structure of your offense so that you can kind of make the most of his talents without possibly leaving him not exposed, but I guess marginalizing what he can't do with a potentially injured ankle, if that makes sense? _(Jonas Shaffer) _"Yes, I think you have to take that into account with kind of how you put the gameplan together. I think you have to put it together globally, and then you have to be able to kind of tie train it down into certain scenarios. If he can't move very well, then we'll certainly lean on other things than trying to have him move too much. So, it's just something you have to weigh in. It's a fact of life in the NFL."
Defensive Coordinator Don Martindale
Opening Statement: "Well, first of all, happy holidays. I hope everybody stays safe and healthy and sees everybody that they need to see, if they can see them. If not, stay safe and celebrate Christmas in January. I know that's what I'm going to do with my granddaughter. She won't know the difference; she's only a-year-and-a-half. Gigi's only a-year-and-a-half. So, I hope everybody stays safe and takes care of the people that need to be taken care of. With that, I'll open it up to questions."
*When you have nine defensive players on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, how much does that change the way you can practice? (Jamison Hensley) *"I think that it really … When you have that many guys like that, that it helps get others prepared faster, actually, because they're doing double duty both as a scout-team player and also within the scheme. So, it's a challenge, but it's one that we've gotten used to from last year, and we're doing it again this year."
*How unsettling is all of this? I mean, you guys get the information a lot quicker than we do, but yesterday it was five players, and four them were on defense, and all of them have been playing for you guys. Do you kind of get to the facility and wonder what's going to happen that day to force some changes in the gameplan and all that? (Jeff Zrebiec) *"Well, we all love [director of football information] Megan [McLaughlin], the administrative assistant [or] whatever her title is – boss, of me anyway. But we don't like seeing her in the morning very much now, because she's usually the one that's in charge of all the COVID protocols and lets us know what's going on. So, it's one of those things … I was telling [outside linebackers coach] Drew [Wilkins] yesterday; it's like you go from the beginning of the season with our roster to right now; I don't know if we're playing football or the Squid Games. It's crazy how things have changed so much. Unsettling – I guess that's a way to say it. But it's one of those things that people don't care about your problems. You've got to get guys ready to go play, and that's what we're doing."
*WR Ja'Marr Chase came out like a man on fire and maybe defenses got a beat on him, and things slowed down a little bit. What do you see as kind of a result in the drop of his production? And is he someone that you still feel really strongly about target No. 1, or as he settled in a little bit as a rookie – kind of hit the rookie wall? (Aditi Kinkhabwala) *"Well, I told Odafe [Oweh] that if he thinks there's a rookie wall, then you're going to believe that there's a Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot and everybody else. But I think that what they've done offensively is, is if you don't worry about [Ja'Marr Chase], he will burn you. With all their weapons, all the way down to the tight end – all three receivers and the tight end – have had a great year, and you've got to find that balance in making your calls accordingly."
*You were just talking about the unsettling times we're all living through. Do you find that, that seems to affect the mentality of players at all in a week like this, when you're playing a game that we all know has such high stakes? (Childs Walker) *"I think that it affects the mentality of the players who are not being able to play in the game, because they've tested positive. I think that it affects them, because they want to be out there and with their teammates and play in these types of games. I think the mentality of the guys that we'll put on that field are going to have the mentality that we need to have to go play this game. And everybody knows the standard when they walk in this building. And like I said before, the personnel department – led by [executive vice president & general manager] Eric [DeCosta] and [director of player personnel] George [Kokinis] and [director of player personnel] Joe [Hortiz] – I think that they've selected the right guys to be here. We've just got to play catch up with them, and with our system, it's easy to teach – I've told you all that before – and we'll go, and we'll be ready to play."
Every defensive player we talk to just raves about QB Tyler Huntley and his command of the offense and just how mature he looks back there. (dog barks) From your perspective, what sticks out to you about just how much he's grown these last couple of weeks with all these reps? (Jonas Shaffer)(dog barks) "Do I bark, or do I answer?" (laughter) (Shaffer: "Whatever you'd like.") "I'm just kidding. I'll tell you what; he's done a heck of a job. I mean, he really has. And we believe in our quarterbacks, and all the players rally around him just like we rally around Lamar [Jackson], when Lamar plays. It's one of those things that makes us … We talked about the mentality of the guys that are playing; it makes them play at the highest level that they could play at, because you know we have a shot to win the game because of who we have at quarterback – whoever that is – whether it's [No.] 8 or [No.] 2."
*QB Joe Burrow threw for 416 yards and three touchdowns against you guys last time. What was he able to do so well to attack you guys? And what kind of adjustments can you make against him? It seemed like their receivers were getting a lot of yards after catch in that last game. (Todd Karpovich) *"I think the biggest thing that jumps off from the last game is our tackling or lack thereof, and I think that we've made an effort to improve that each week. We're definitely going to have to be great tacklers of skill this week. You could tell the game is slowing down for him [Joe Burrow]. He's seeing things a lot faster than he did his rookie year, and it's going to be a tough challenge."
*When you guys are dealing with the COVID-19 issues and the injury issues that you're dealing with on the defensive side of the ball, specifically in the secondary, does that make you a little hesitant to be as aggressive going up against a Bengals team like this, with their receiving corps? (Cordell Woodland) *"Well, to the core, we're an aggressive defense, and with the flexibility of our scheme, I think there's some different things we can do, but we're going to pressure. That's who we are. And everybody that comes here, one of their traits is they can play man coverage. So, it's going to be a challenge. But you have to; you have to go into these games and do that. If not, it's dying a slow death – is what you're doing – if you just sit back and play zone the entire time."
*You guys did such a great job against Green Bay, but do you expect Cincy to be perhaps a little more pass heavy, making your secondary work as hard as possible? (Jerry Coleman) *"I think that's the tough thing about Cincinnati – is they have weapons at each spot that can beat you. So, as soon as you go in there and think that they're going to be pass heavy, then they're going to hand the ball off to Joe Mixon 30 times a game, and he's one of the best running backs in the league. So, it's going to be a tough challenge for us. We're going to have to play with a light box at times and play coverage, and we're also going to pressure. So, we've just got to make sure that we're guessing right when that time comes."
*I just wanted to ask you about how you thought the secondary handled WR Davante Adams in the last game? And should we expect to see something similar when going against someone like WR Ja'Marr Chase? (Ryan McFadden) *"Well, I think … What did he have – six catches for 44 yards? So, I like the way we played. I like the way 'Double-A' [Anthony Averett] played. We had some guys who haven't played in a long time play defense, and they executed the defense well. But to sit here and have you think that we're going to run the same plan against Ja'Marr Chase as we did [against] Davante Adams and Aaron Rodgers, we're going down the wrong street, because … Like I said last week, Davante Adams, he's one of the Top 2 receivers in the league, and he's not No. 2, and Aaron Rodgers is a Hall of Fame quarterback, and I don't think we're ready to buy a gold jacket for Joe [Burrow] yet. But it's going to be a tough challenge, because [with] the three-headed monster they have at wide receiver, everybody sleeps on the tight end. [No.] 87. I always mess up pronouncing his name, and I don't want to mess that up out of respect for the game. But he's had a great year, as well."
(Aditi Kinkhabwala: "It's Uzomah – yew-ZAH-mah.") "Is that how you say it right? Uzomah?" (Kinkhabwala: "Uzomah – yew-ZAH-mah.") "I'll practice that." (Kinkhabwala: "Out of respect for Odafe and Aditi, I care about names.") "Oh, yes. Well, you know I got Odafe – I got that down." (Kinkhabwala: "You got that one down.") (laughter)
*You mentioned RB Joe Mixon. And for everything that you have been through this year, the one thing that has been consistently so good is indeed your run defense. You've allowed only one 100-yard rusher, and you've shut down basically everyone. So, A.) Are you proud of that, at least? And B.) If you were to give me three reasons as to why the run defense is always so good, what is it? No matter who you have out there, why is it working? (Aditi Kinkhabwala) *"First of all, I'm very proud of that, because every year, you set up to stop the run. I know it's a passing league now – that's what everybody says – but I think most of the people would say that they give up big rushing games. I'm very proud of the way we've been playing the run. I think the reasons would be the guys up front that have played and played consistently. Of course, Brandon Williams; he had some time off due to injury, but he's played well when he's in there. Same thing with Calais [Campbell]; he's played the run really well. But it's the other guys, the unsung heroes of 'Jelly' [Justin Ellis] and Brandon [Williams] and all the different – [Justin] Madubuike – [guys] who've been in there consistently throughout the years. And they've really worked on their run technique, and they've played it really well."
QB Tyler Huntley
On if his mindset is that until told otherwise, he's going to be the starter on Sunday: "Yes, that's pretty much my mindset every week. [I'm] just preparing as if I'm going to be the starter. So, I'm treating it like [it's] not a different week."
On how much his previous performances have helped his confidence level: "I feel like football … You can't just talk about football; you have to actually do reps and get the actual feeling of a game. [No.] 2, I feel like it's getting more confidence in my teammates and my coaches that I could help them in a way that they needed. And I just try my best to just help the Ravens win – that's all."
On if the team has grasped the importance of this game for their playoff hopes: "Shoot, I feel like every game in the NFL is important. Not just this game, but the rest of the remainder of the games, we have to win to give ourselves the best opportunity to make the playoffs. And then once we get to the playoffs, it's do or die each game. So, I feel like it's a big game, but we've just got to treat it as a regular one and just do what we've got to do to get a win."
On how much getting first-team reps this week will help him on the road in Cincinnati this week: "I feel like it's a great thing that I'm getting a lot of reps, [and] last week I got a lot of reps. So, it's just a good thing that I'm actually in the gameplan. And going on the road, we played at the Bears, Browns, so I feel like you can't really listen to the crowd or anything. You're just out there playing; you don't even hear the crowd."
On what he sees from the Bengals' front seven on tape: "They've got two edge rushers that are pretty good. They just try to hug rush, try to surround the quarterback and just close the pocket in. So, we've just got to do a good job of … Our [offensive] line has been playing great. I don't know which week it started, but they're playing great. So, I feel like they're going to step up to the task this week."
On the biggest change from playing college at Utah to what he's seen now in the NFL, and how he's tried to overcome that: "It's a long season, and you've got to stay locked in every week. So, I feel like that's the biggest jump from college to the NFL. It's a long season, so you've just got to keep giving your best effort every day, every week, and I feel like good things will play out for you."
On some of the top things he's learned from getting game reps in the NFL: "Just appreciating every play. These past few games, I got a couple plays that I want back, but I feel they've just helped me grow, helped me learn."
On if there is anyone from his past who means a lot to him that's reached out: "Shoot, a lot of people have been sending me texts and stuff. But I feel like the biggest thing is my coaches – like my old coaches, even high school coaches, college coaches – they just told me how they see the growth from me back then to now, and I feel like that's a great thing."
On if the rising number of COVID cases has gotten the attention of the team, and if he does anything differently now to mitigate possible infection: "We've just got to continue to follow the protocols [as] best as ever now, continue to wear our masks and [stay] socially distant. The Ravens do a great job around here. They've added so many parts of the building for us to spread out and be on [virtual] meetings and just do what we've got to do at the building and be able to just still protect ourselves at the same time. So, I feel like the Ravens, the NFL, they're going a good job, and it's going to get better."