Skip to main content

All Hands On Deck In Bengals Defensive Walk-Off Win

Mike Hilton enjoying the ride.
Mike Hilton enjoying the ride.

All forms of player acquisition and development were on display during Saturday night's last three snaps as the Bengals defense fended off the noise, injury, history and the Raiders from their own nine-yard-line for the rarest of sights.

 A defensive walk-off win in the playoffs, 26-19, over the Raiders in the din of the biggest crowd in Paul Brown Stadium history.

There was Tre Flowers, a cornerback plucked off waivers back in October, not allowing quarterback Derek Carr to target his top man, tight end Darren Waller.

On second down, there was their highest draft pick on defense, free safety Jessie Bates III, breaking up a pass to the Raiders' hottest receiver in the last half of the season, wide receiver Zay Jones.  

On third down, there was slot cornerback Mike Hilton, one of last offseason's Nostradamus free-agent signings, plastering red-zone menace Hunter Renfrow. Renfrow, who had finished the season with the NFL's second most third-down receptions with a crazy arsenal of moves, slipped in the end zone as the pass went awry.

On fourth down, there was another draft pick, linebacker Germaine Pratt, in a season he played nearly twice as many passing downs as he did as a rookie in 2019, getting his second career interception and second this season with 12 seconds left.

Also helping on that play was cornerback Eli Apple, a former first-round pick elsewhere who has found a new home in Cincinnati.

"That process didn't go too smooth throughout the week," Bates recalled Sunday in his media Zoom. "A lot of questions being asked, a lot of people overthinking the red zone. That's what it takes in playoff games. When offense gets down there, we need to force three points or get a takeaway. We're well aware of putting ourselves in those situations after giving up a long run. Let's calm down, take a deep breath, huddle up and make sure we communicate."

The Bengals responded by holding a Raiders offense that had scored 35 points six days before against the Chargers to one touchdown in five red-zone trips.

"(What) the Raiders did in the red zone kind of messed with a lot of our rules," Bates said. "There were some rule-breakers that we had to adjust to this week with the Raiders how they ran with all the condensed splits and things like that. Usually teams spread you out in that situation and kind of go with their matchups, which they do but do in a condensed form. There was a lot of communication for us to have some success down there."

A big part of the problem is Renfrow because no one quite runs routes like he does. While most receivers in that part of the field run to the front pylon or back pylon or settle in the middle of the field, Renfrow has a dizzying set of routes like double, even triple moves, and spins that have contributed to his 1,000-yard season.

Yet on the last third down of the game, Renfrow couldn't break free from Hilton in man-to-man and when he made one last desperate move as Carr, his protection breaking down and looking at his last option, launched it to him, both Renfrow and Hilton slipped as the pass fell harmlessly. Hilton, playing on pretty much one leg after getting nicked earlier, gutted through.

"He was all over him," said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. "(Carr) was trying to get to him later, but Mike was all over him. A real good snap by him."

Anarumo helped, too, by changing the look. That play was man-to-man with eight players dropping and three rushing. The other two plays were zones and four men rushing without two of their top three sackers, edge Trey Hendrickson and three technique Larry Ogunjobi, sidelined.

Bates, who tied a career-high three passes defensed in a Game Ballish effort, finished off his best game of his season on second down, knocking away the ball from Jones, a guy that had caught 38 balls in the last six weeks of the season.

"They noticed we were double teaming (Renfrow) a lot. Their answer was running him on the sails and getting the ball to (Jones)," said Bates, the second-rounder from Marvin Lewis' last draft in 2018. "In the red zone, those critical parts of the game, if you watch the game, you'll see (Jones) getting the ball in the got to have it situations.

"I was playing in the middle of the field, playing free. Using my instincts. I jumped in front of the ball. Eli was in tight coverage, but I was able to read Carr. It was a similar play where Germaine jumped in front of it. I wish I did that, but it's 'Playoff P,' that's what we call him now."

Actually, Pratt, a third-round pick from Zac Taylor's first draft, nicknamed himself that during the week. Pratt has been a staple in the red zone this season, but he's viewed as largely a run defender. Yet with Logan Wilson missing three games and Akeem Davis-Gaither out for half the year, Pratt has played on more than 400 passing downs, according to Pro Football Focus.

In fact, PFF had Pratt covering Waller five times and just giving up 29 yards on four catches.

If he hadn't got rid of the label as a one-dimensional player before, he has now with one of the most famous interceptions in Bengals history.

Pretty close to Reggie Nelson picking off Big Ben with 14 seconds left in 2012, right? That one only put them in the playoffs.

"You put anything in front of Germaine and he's going to take that as a challenge. He stepped up on the biggest play of the night. And made a great play," Anarumo said.

"You try not to base everything off a rookie and how they play. There was room for upside and he's improved every year he's been there. Tireless worker, does everything the right way."

Just as tireless but not as obvious was Flowers playing 21 snaps, one of his heaviest loads since being claimed from the Seahawks Oct. 14. They love Flowers' length at 6-3 and after using him for one snap in Vegas back on Nov. 21 they thought his cornerback-safety hybrid game would be a help on the monstrous Waller, so they used him as a fourth cornerback on passing downs and usually assigned him Waller.

The Raiders were in the red zone because even though Flowers had good coverage on Waller on third-and-17, Carr slipped it through the mailbox and Waller made a great catch. But on the last three snaps, Waller didn't get a target. PFF had Flowers targeted three times on Waller for just two catches and 34 yards.

"There could've been plenty of guys that got the game balls. I don't think that I personally should be the only one," Bates said. "I think that our philosophy as a defense, we've grown so much as far as just doing your job. If you look at the plays I made, I was just doing my job. The plays that BJ (Hill) made when Trey Hendrickson is out with a big time sack. He was just doing his job running the game with Sam (Hubbard), making the plays when they come to you. That's what our philosophy, our motto is on defense. Do your 1/11 and you'll be just fine because we have the players to do so. It's a good feeling to feel that way,

"It hasn't always been like that."

But on Saturday it was. Here's how:

On the first series of the second half, Bates had a huge play when he stripped Renfrow of a 22-yard catch after he got beat. But day later he was thinking about another play, another recovery. It was Hilton's hustling push out-of-bounds he made on Raiders running back Josh Jacobs at the end of a 35-yard run that prevented a touchdown.

"We were picking on Mike Hilton today on the punch out he could have got on Jacobs," Bates said. "We felt like that was a missed opportunity in our room. That was something we haven't been able to do here, being able to hold each other accountable.

"I think after that play I said, 'Mike you got to stay outside we can't have two guys on the outside of the blocker.' Mike, just, 'Yeah, I got you Jess, my bad.' Move on to the next play. Then get a stop and make them kick a field goal on that drive. It's a huge deal. People probably don't think about it as much but I think it played a key part in us winning the game."

It's a scene that Bengals fans, uncommonly blessed with great offensive players down through the years, haven't seen much. A defensive walk-off win.

"I don't think people really process how hard it is to keep your calm and go win a game in the fourth quarter in that situation," bates said. "You see a lot of times defenses kind of lay down, get tired and give up the touchdown. So, the first time we played the Raiders our offense went out there and executed and won the game for us. This time our defense stood up and got a stop. That's what you want to have."