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Last week, when the Cincinnati Bengals had their first opportunity to attempt a fourth down conversion against the San Francisco 49ers, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor’s initial decision was to go for it.
With the Bengals trailing 3-0 in the first quarter, Cincinnati had 4th-and-1 from the 49ers 19-yard line, and Taylor pondered the fourth down play. As quarterback Joe Burrow lined up under center, the crowd at Paul Brown Stadium stood up for what looked like an early turning point in the game.
But then Taylor saw the 49ers stack the box with eight defenders near the line of scrimmage against the Bengals run blocking personnel. Since the Bengals didn’t see any room to run the ball, Taylor called a timeout, sent out the field goal team and made one of his most conservative decisions of the season.
In 2019 and 2020, Taylor was one of the most aggressive head coaches in the NFL on fourth downs. In both of those seasons, the Bengals ranked in the top-5 in fourth down conversion attempts.
The fact that the Bengals were often trailing played a part in that decision making, but Taylor entered 2021 with a similar approach on fourth downs. That approach has flipped over the Bengals last four games.
“It’s certainly evolved over time,” Taylor said. “You just have to continuously take in the information and make the best decisions you can. We’ve been on all of the ends of that spectrum.”
Before the bye week this season, Taylor had the same play-calling style that he had during his first two seasons as a head coach. In most cases this season, it worked well when Taylor made an aggressive decision.
In neutral situations, when the Bengals don’t have to go for it due to the team trailing late in the game, the Bengals are 7-for-11 on fourth downs this season. That conversion rate would rank third-best in the NFL.
But the Bengals have only tried one fourth down in a neutral situation during the second half of the season, and it came in a game the Bengals were already leading by 28 points.
“We’ve made some decisions based on the style of game we anticipate,” Taylor said. “Then we confirm that early in the game, and it impacts those decisions.”
Early in the year, Taylor sought out opportunities to go for it on fourth down.
In Week 1 this season, Taylor attempted three fourth down conversions, including a failed run from the Bengals' 30-yard line. Between Week 5 and Week 9, Taylor made an aggressive decision on fourth downs in five consecutive games, and four of those six decisions led to first downs.
Taylor appeared to grow more aggressive during the second quarter of the season. He attempted three fourth down conversions in a close game against the Green Bay Packers when the Bengals had 4th-and-short on the precipice of field goal range.
The following week, the Bengals scored a 40-yard touchdown on a 4th-and-1 play action pass from Burrow to running back Joe Mixon.
During that part of the season, the most conservative decisions Taylor made were opting for a 49-yard field goal in overtime against the Green Bay Packers and attempting a 30-yard field goal in the second quarter of a tie game on 4th-and-3 against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Bengals approach appeared to shift after two missed fourth down conversions in the games preceding the bye week. In Week 8, the Bengals had a 4th-and-goal play from the New York Jets' 3-yard line early in the game. The Bengals offensive line allowed a free runner, and Burrow took a sack that ended the drive.
The following week, the Bengals had 4th-and-3 from the Cleveland Browns 40-yard line. In a 10-3 game, the Browns secondary forced Burrow to throw the ball away. One play later, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield converted a 60-yard touchdown throw that gave Cleveland a 17-3 lead.
Since that play, the Bengals have had five opportunities to go for it on a neutral fourth down. The Bengals only went for it once: Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals had a 31-3 lead and 4th-and-1 from the Steelers 36-yard line, and Mixon ran for a first down.
“Each game is different,” Taylor said. “At the end of the day, you own your decisions and you stick with them.”
The Bengals have attempted two other fourth down conversions since the bye week, but they were a product of the game situation. Late in a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, Burrow threw an incomplete pass on fourth down. Against the 49ers, the Bengals only fourth down attempt came with the team trailing 20-6 in the fourth quarter.
Last week’s game against San Francisco was the second time this season that Taylor has made multiple conservative fourth down calls in neutral situations. The first decision came on McPherson’s field goal from the 49ers 19-yard line. The second decision came in the second quarter with the Bengals trailing 10-6. On 4th-and-2 from the 49ers 10-yard line, Taylor chose to kick again.
Taylor made two similar decisions in Week 11. Against the Las Vegas Raiders, the Bengals attempted two 50-plus yard field goals on 4th-and-short.
“We’ve got a lot of faith in our defense,” Taylor said. “You go into a game anticipating how it will unfold. We adjust as the game unfolds, either (the opposing team) is red hot and we’re not stopping them or they’re having a hard time moving the ball. It's constant communication.”
Taylor said he uses a mix of analytics and game management to inform his decisions. As the Bengals defense has continued to prove its reliability during the season, Taylor has added that information into the analysis.
So far, in the second half of the season, that's meant that Taylor has sent the Bengals special teams onto the field more than he used to.
“I think you have to constantly evaluate the plan (on fourth downs),” Taylor said. “It certainly has become more game-to-game. That’s been an ongoing adjustment where we take in all the factors.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Zac Taylor has changed the Bengals approach on 4th downs