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Game Within The Game: Bengals Young DBs Challenge Historic Rookie

CB DJ Turner II catches the ball during practice at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Thursday, November 9, 2023.
CB DJ Turner II catches the ball during practice at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Thursday, November 9, 2023.

A funny thing happens on the way to Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium game when a futures game breaks out between the Bengals' opportunistic young defensive backs and Texans record-setting rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud.

Stroud doesn't make rookie mistakes as his historic   interceptions percentage attests and Bengals sophomores Cam Taylor-Britt (three interceptions on the corner) and Dax Hill (two more at safety) don't let many miscues from anyone off the hook.

Throw in emerging Bengals rookie cornerback DJ Turner stalking his first pro interception and it makes for an intriguing first of many matchups.  

"I mean, 14 touchdowns to one interception is unheard of for a rookie," says Bengals veteran slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who has never lost to a rookie quarterback in seven NFL seasons.  "He's going to make rookie mistakes and us as a defense, we have to force them and make plays on them. He's playing well and his receivers are making plays for him.

"We have to force him into a bad ball and disguise coverages and switch it up in the back end and the guys up front have to get in his face and force him to rush his throws."

When Hilton played for the Steelers, they were 7-0 against rookies, including a win over the Bengals' Joe Burrow in 2020. Since he came to Cincinnati, Burrow has returned the favor and beaten the Steelers' Kenny Pickett, as well as the Jaguars' Trevor Lawrence and the Ravens' Anthony Brown. It's been four years since the Bengals lost at home to a rookie quarterback, when the pre-Burrow Bengals lost to Gardner Minshew and the pre-Lawrence Jaguars.

Both Taylor-Britt (Nebraska) and Hill (Michigan) played against Ohio State's Stroud. So did Turner (Michigan). They all say the same thing about him,

"Accurate, 100 percent. Timing," Turner says.

"Smart player. Can really decipher what's going on," Hill says. "I feel like they have a variety of receivers who can make him look good and vice versa."

"That was two years ago. I've had time to grow like he's had time to grow," Taylor-Britt says. "His decision-making has always been good. I feel like he's figured out his guys and his offense."

Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is 3-3 against rookie quarterbacks, but 3-0 since the defense was re-made in 2021 to help erase such disappointments against Minshew, and Kyler Murray in 2019 and Tua Tagovailoa in 2020. The young DBs have been added to the mix in the last two years and have opened eyes.

"One thing I'll say about Cam Taylor-Britt," says cornerbacks coach Charles Burks. "Cam follows the best. He follows the No. 1 receiver and not only that, he follows the No. 1 receiver with great production. When people talk about cornerbacks at this level, it has to start with following the best there is."

Hilton is right there with that.

"He's looking at All-Pro. Look at his numbers and he still doesn't get the respect he deserves," Hilton says. "He covers, he takes the ball away, he tackles. He goes out there and covers the other team's No. 1 and takes them out of the game."

On Sunday, that could mean covering another Texans rookie sensation. Last week, wide receiver Tank Dell destroyed the Buccaneers on two back-breaking catches in the final drive, but it doesn't matter what's on paper.

Burks feels the Bills paid Taylor-Britt the highest of compliments on Sunday night when they made sure Stefon Diggs didn't get matched up on him. They also didn't shy away from putting Turner on him and had no qualms about Diggs beating him deep for a late touchdown.

"We have 100 percent faith in DJ Turner," Burks says. "He's already faced Ja'Marr Chase. He's already faced Tee Higgins. He's already faced Tyler Boyd. So anybody he faces, I'm OK with because he's already seen the best in training camp. We believe in him. The lights were on and it was him and Diggs and Diggs won. We know how he's going to respond. We've already seen how he's going to respond."

Turner, one of the youngest Bengals who just turned 23 on Thursday, is one of these guys that looks 33 and acts like he's been around a decade. He felt the faith in him Sunday night.

"I just have to win my one-on-ones," Turner says. "I've watched it a lot and now it's the next game."

Burks shakes it off because he knows Turner will.

"It starts with alignment and technique and the transition part of the play that would have put him in better position to finish," says Burks, who isn't surprised to hear Turner puts no stock in his college experience against Stroud because of the difference in college and pros.

"He's a very mature guy," Hilton says. "He got beat by a top-five guy. Nobody's mad at him. He's learning and plus, he knows the veterans back there like me and Chido (Awuzie) are going to keep his head on and show him the right way."

 Hilton may be 10-0 against rookies, but he knows it's going to take the young guys to beat this one.

"It's going to take a complete effort," Hilton says, "because they're playing with confidence."

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