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Matchup Of The Game: Bengals Inject Youth Into Battered Secondary

Dax Hill (23) is going to get more work.
Dax Hill (23) is going to get more work.

BENGALS CB CAM TAYLOR-BRITT AND S DAX HILL VS. PANTHERS WR DJ MOORE

It figured.

After Wednesday's walk-through at the IEL Indoor Facility, Bengals cornerbacks coach Charles Burks stayed behind to do some running and he tweaked his hamstring to join many of his players as the walking wounded. Nothing major, he says. He'll be coaching Thursday and he thinks he'll be able to work out, too. He just wishes his own lineup for Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's FOX 19) against the Panthers is more definitive.

He does know his top player, Chidobe Awuzie, is done for the year with an ACL tear. And that the crown jewels of their last draft are going to be unveiled for the home crowd. The first-rounder Hill, the gifted safety from Michigan, is coming off his most NFL action with 20 snaps. Britt, the hard-nosed second-rounder from Nebraska with big-league fire, played all but one snap Monday night.

For half a season the Bengals had the luxury of developing their top two draft picks. But in the NFL, the training room is where luxuries go to die.

"I don't want to underestimate that," Burks says of the Awuzie loss. "Such a professional not only on the field, but off of it. Anytime you lose somebody who is an example for the players, it's a big loss."

But after that, it's medical uncertainty. The next three players after Awuzie surfaced on Wednesday's projected injury report for what their statuses would have been in a regular practice. Still suffering from Monday night injuries, starting slot cornerback Mike Hilton (finger) and first cornerback off the bench Tre Flowers (hamstring) didn't work. Cornerback Eli Apple (hamstring), starting again with Awuzie out, was listed as limited after missing Monday night.

That's as about as spit-balling-up-in-the-air as it gets just a few days before a game against one of the league's titans.  Moore, by the way, may be the best receiver this side of Tyler Boyd nobody knows. He's coming off a monster 152-yard game that featured his beautiful Hail Mary touchdown catch, the highlight of a season he's had to endure two more new quarterbacks. He's 29th in NFL receiving with 425 yards, but look out. Moore is the only NFL wide receiver with at least 1,200 scrimmage yards in each of the three seasons from 2019-2021 and leads the league with ten catches of at least 50 yards since 2018.

As he planned to ice down his hamstring Wednesday night, all Burks really knew is that Taylor-Britt was going to get his second NFL start and Hill may have to help him by moving out of safety and take snaps as an outside cornerback. Pending the injuries.

The last time Hill did that in a game before he had to be rushed over there Monday night was at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, Okla. This rather daunting possibility fazes neither Burks or Hill. Burks coached Byron Jones the previous two seasons in Miami when the former Cowboys safety was becoming a Pro Bowl cornerback.

"I see a lot of the same traits in Dax," Burks said.

Hill got his welcome-to-the-NFL-kid moment in the Monday night glare when vet wide receiver Amari Cooper savvyeed past him for a 53-yuard bomb on one of the final plays of the game. It was, as they say nowadays, a teaching moment. You've got time to survey the situation at safety. But, especially in the NFL at cornerback, the flow is right on top of you. It looked like Hill didn't even have his mouthpiece in as Cooper bolted off the line.

"An elite receiver is going to line up fast," Burks said. "At corner, they're right there on you. Things happen so fast. He learned it and he learned it on national TV and he'll always be able to look back on it."

The Bengals have no concerns about Hill. The reason they took him with the 31st pick is because they had him ranked a lot higher than that and they envision him being able to play any spot back there. When he gets the reps and he's just starting to take those cornerbacks reps.

"We'll have to get him snaps there for sure, as well as safety and other things that he does," said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo Wednesday. "We've been doing that some, thank God, we did it last week as an emergency, not enough. But we'll have to do more of it again."

Before the players met with the coaches Wednesday, Hill, thoughtful, quiet and intense, wasn't quite sure what they were going to have him do. All he knew is that he was ready.

"An adjustment," Hill said. "Everything that comes with it is a little bit different … I don't know what my role is going to be. Just trust my coaches and myself. This is what I'm here for."

Both Taylor-Britt and Hill went into Monday night taking encouragement from the previous two weeks. They put Hill on the field for the last play of the 30-26 win over the Saints a few weeks ago and he ranged from center field on a bomb to get his hand on Andy Dalton's final pass of the day as he helped Apple in coverage.

"They trusted me in that situation," Hill said.

Then last week against the Falcons Taylor-Britt made his NFL debut with 28 snaps, a nice fit for a physical cornerback against a running team to set him up for Monday night's first start. And he'll remember Monday, just like Hill will, too. Early on CTB went for the interception against Browns wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, tried to undercut the route, missed the interception and the play went for 37 yards.

"I had a really clean, clear coaching point after that play: Don't ever do that again," Anarumo said of the rookie's gamble. "I know. I almost won the lottery, too."

Burks kept looking at the play and found something he liked. The kid got back up and busted down the field to help on the tackle. No surprise, really. It matches everything they knew about him when they drafted him and what he's done since he arrived.

"Shouldn't have left his feet," Burks said. "But he had good coverage. And look what he did after he got beat. He brings to the evaluation what you can't coach … Yes, that's a completion. But he was so open because our guy was trying to make an interception. He wasn't just trying to survive, he was trying to change the game.

"I'd like to see some of those ball skills," Burks said of the next step. "I think that's his biggest strength."

Throw into the mix Apple and you've got another intriguing storyline. Before Apple pulled his hamstring against the Falcons and pretty much didn't play in the second half, he had been told there'd be a rotation with Taylor-Britt. Apple admitted that wasn't great news, that everyone wants to play, but there he was on the sidelines Monday night commiserating with the devastated Awuzie and checking on Taylor-Britt.

"Whatever the decision is," Apple said.

And, oh yeah, of course. Apple had just two curious games with the Panthers in 2020 before he they cut him and he re-built his career in Cincinnati last season. But he says he really doesn't keep in touch with anybody down there and that was a head coach ago and a few defensive coordinators ago.

But he did cover Moore in training camp and practice.

"Great receiver, very productive," Apple said. "Explosive. Have to watch the run after the catch and the deep ball."

As they often do, injuries made the call here. Apple is no longer rotating with Taylor-Britt. He figures to be starting with him. And he's giving him advice.

"Be confident. Be that guy you've been your whole life. Be a baller. He has all the athletic tools. Just go out there and do it," Apple said. "It's on all of us to pick everybody up. It's a collective thing. Do whatever you're asked, help everybody else. We're all trying to do the best we can."

Apple has a scout's eye and he thinks CTB is one of these young guys who has the right demeanor for the league's hardest position. He says his nickname "Juice," is well-earned.

"He flew around. He made some hits," Apple said of Taylor-Britt's work "He's very energetic. He's always brining the juice. That's his nickname. We're always communicating. That goes a long way. He's a young guy. He's just got to go out there and get his feet wet. And he's got the confidence to make plays."

That confidence, Anarumo says, is huge. Anarumo made his bones in the league as a seasoned secondary coach and says there is a certain way he likes to handle the rookie and young cornerbacks. You may not see him jump a young guy in a game very often like he did on the play to Peoples-Jones.

"The No. 1 thing that I have found is that their mental make-up. They have to be confident. If they're not confident, then they have no chance," Anarumo said. "They're already going to go out there a little unsure of themselves just because of, 'All right, I'm lining up, that's Amari Cooper' or whoever the receiver is. And they have to be filled with confidence. They're going to make errors. That's how it is. The best one I've ever had make errors early.

"That's just the way it goes. Just have to respond the right way. If they see you panicking, then they're going to panic. I try to keep it even-keeled with these guys. I give it to the older players more than the younger guys. That's what I've learned throughout my career. Sometimes younger guys can't handle, 'I got beat, and now coach is on my butt.' Sometimes you've got to be a little more even-keeled with those guys and give it to them during the week, not necessarily during the game, because that's when stuff can kind of get out of control for them."

But now they are in the game.

"No more luxuries," said Burks as he went to ice down.

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