BENGALS CB CHIDOBE AWUZIE VS. DOLPHINS WR TYREEK HILL
It is more than fitting that on the night the Bengals induct former wide receiver Isaac Curtis into their Ring of Honor for changing the NFL with his world-class speed, their red-hot defense faces the NFL's current fastest pair of wide receivers in Miami's Hill and Jaylen Waddle in what has turned out to be an AFC power trip in Thursday night's showdown (8:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 9) at Paycor Stadium against the undefeated Dolphins.
Waddle (347 yards) and Hill (317) are second and third, respectively, in the NFL in receiving yards and have a combined five touchdowns. Hill, so fast they call him "Cheetah," has a 60-yard touchdown catch. Waddle is averaging 18 yards per catch and has a 59-yard grab.
But it turned out in the two signature games of last season, a Bengal was faster than a cheetah.
"We have a history with Tyreek Hill," acknowledges free safety Jessie Bates III, who had a very big hand in making sure Hill didn't wreck the Bengals' two huge January games against the Chiefs.
In the game that won the AFC North, the Bengals held Hill to six catches for 40 yards and a month later when they won the AFC title game it was just 78 yards on seven catches. The man who had the sixth most yards after catch in the league could only get away for a combined 39 in both games.
That Bengals defense has returned intact and rolling. It hasn't allowed a touchdown in the last 20 drives, is coming off its first four-turnover game under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and hasn't allowed a pass longer than 32 yards, although a jet sweep considered to be a pass went for 46 in Dallas.
But with Hill now playing for Miami and first-year head coach Mike McDaniel, Anarumo isn't looking at that Kansas City tape. Since McDaniel is a graduate of Shanahan State and is off a gig as his 49ers offensive coordinator, Anarumo is no doubt taking a deep dive into the last loss before the playoff run.
That 26-23 overtime loss to San Francisco at Paycor on Dec. 12, when the Bengals pitched a solid effort, giving the potent Niner run game just 100 yards on 23 carries and holding them on 10 of 15 third downs.
Now it's the more athletic Tua Tagovailoa, the Dolphins quarterback, running those run-pass options, and the lethal speed of Hill and Waddle being motioned and isolated. Deebo Samuel, meet Hill-Waddle. Bates says the Dolphins have "generational,' speed.
"It's totally different, really to be honest with you," says Anarumo, who calls Hill one of the fastest people on the planet. "There are a couple things maybe that are similar, but I don't see us doing much that we did against the Chiefs to be honest.
"The head guy was a big part of what they did in San Fran. You can see elements of it here, for sure. And then doing some things that Tua likes. As I mentioned, the RPO stuff. So I guess that's where the Chiefs stuff could come in a little bit. They're doing a great job of giving this guy things that he executes really, really well. Their run game is always a problem for everybody, the 49ers and now the Dolphins. That's what makes it challenging. "
What also makes it unlike the Chiefs is Hill has a running mate that may be faster than him. Bengals veteran slot cornerback Mike Hilton hasn't seen two receivers with that kind of speed on the same team.
"They're both high 4.2 guys, medium 4.2 guys and really explosive. We have to make sure we play top down and don't let them beat us deep," Hilton says. "This is the type of games you live for. Going against guys that can take the top off."
Even though it's a different scheme, there are key principles in defending speed that they used so well against Hill last season.
"Because guys know where to be. Guys know where their help is and guys know in certain situations where the offense likes to attack," Hilton says. "Knowing those two guys are coming in on Thursday, we have to be on top of our game and make sure we're flying around. You've got to know where your help is and where your leverage is. There are a lot of little things that go into stopping guys like that."
One of the big things in communication and Exhibit A is overtime of the AFC title game, where Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes took a deep shot to Hill running an over route. Hilton, Bates and strong safety Vonn Bell were all talking and Hilton, down low, let Hill go because he knew where the zone and the help was.
"Middle of the field. Kind of doubling Tyreek in that instance," Bates says. "There was somebody low, somebody high. That's just kind of how you have to guard those type of guys. Just playing the ball, playing the quarterback. Tipped the ball to Vonn and got an interception and took us to the Super Bowl. I'm sure that's something in the back of Tyreek's mind as well."
It seems to be in the forefront of his mind. Earlier this week Hill said he owed one to cornerback Eli Apple, apparently for Apple stuffing Hill on the Bengals 1 as the first half ended in the AFC title game and taking them to the Super Bowl.
"I didn't know if Eli bought him tickets the Super Bowl or not. I think that's probably why he's a little upset," Bates said with a face straighter than Apple's streak of 18 straight starts for the AFC champs after three teams let him go.
Like Hilton says. Play from the top down.
As good as Apple has been (and, really, who thought he'd be this good when he signed back in March of 2021 after no one took him on the last half of 2020?) Awuize has been flashing a Pro Bowl level ever since he signed a four-year from Dallas about the same time.
He was good for the Cowboys, a second-round pick from 2017, but not a big name. Except in the Bengals personnel room, where they loved his tape and saw things like similar Pro Football Focus grades to William Jackson III, the Bengals 2016 first-rounder he'd replace. Not only did Awuzie outrank Jackson in 2021 (Awuzie had a PFF defensive grade that ranked him No. 23 among cornerbacks) and outranks him now (25), Awuzie has higher grades than Miami's perennial Pro Bowler Xavien Howard, the man Anarumo developed as Dolphins secondary coach.
(Apple, by the way, also has a higher PFF grade than Howard this season.)
Ever since Awuzie arrived, he's had the same role as Howard as the traveling man assigned to the best receiver.
"There's a lot going on where a guy (like) Chido, as smart as he is, as experienced as he is, as strong and as physically gifted, I feel like we did it last year too, so it's not like it's anything new to him," Anarumo says. "Sometimes we went left and right in games. But you know a lot of times it was like, 'Chido, you got so and so.' We haven't decided yet this week."
But they have decided what Awuzie means to them. He approaches the game like chess, one of his big passions. He leads with his brains.
"He's playing like a No. 1 corner. That's why we brought him in," says Hilton, who came in at the same time. "You see how he prepares and how he goes about his business through the week. When he goes out there Sunday, the game is slow for him and he makes a lot of plays on the ball. He's smart. He's really intelligent when it comes to route concepts and where the ball is going in certain situations."
Or, as Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow says after two hellacious training camp-long battles with Awuzie: "You're out there, you might have a five-yard hitch route, but Chido is not going to let that one go easy. He's going to try to punch at the ball, he's going to make the tackle, he's going to make it a contested catch … Chido's Chido. He's always been like that. From the moment he got here, we knew what we had."
The first time they played the Chiefs, PFF had Awuzie covering Hill three times, holding him to two catches for ten yards. In the AFC championship it was one target for a 10-yard catch.
Maybe Hill should be mad at Awuzie.
"I'm not going to let you know, though, because we're still about to play him," says Awuzie about how we played Hill. "I'm not playing man every play. Mix it up. It's not about one player, it's usually about the whole team. You have to keep offenses honest."
He says Hill's deacceleration is as impressive as his acceleration. But comes back to the communication of that Super Bowl play.
"I think we have a great chemistry all throughout the secondary," Awuzie says. "When we came here, Vonn and Jessie already had something established and we came into it and I think our goal was to add to that, not to subtract from that. I think the more we poured into each other, the more we got comfortable each other, the more we have confidence in each other. We're bouncing techniques, communication off of each other. From there it's continually gotten better. I think it's going to continue to get better as we play and get in these challenges."
But these are the Dolphins and not the Chiefs. Hill? Or Waddle?
"That's hard," says Bates, when asked how they can give the attention to two guys like they did Hill last season. "You have to have some kind of post safety help."
Meanwhile, Awuzie, the chessmaster, is plotting his next move.
"I think that's just the beautiful part of playing defense, this preparation aspect of it," Awuzie says. "We don't know who we're going to get, and then once we get them, it's like 'OK, how are we going to stop them?' It's really exciting because you see how the league is.
"The San Francisco/LA Rams type of style of play? You never know what to expect. It's a lot of condensed splits, a lot of people running across the formation, so again, I think the beautiful part of preparation is preparing for a team like this."
On Isaac Curtis' night, speed is the stage.