Zac Taylor, who has staked his program on being "a connected team," had to love how some of his veterans celebrated his first win as the Bengals coach in the wake of Sunday's 22-6 victory over the Jets.
As Andy Dalton met the media to complete his triumphant return from Elba, first running back Joe Mixon and then left end Carlos Dunlap found him in the interview room and wanted to weigh in on the hosannas. Dalton even invited Mixon to the podium and that's where the defensive star of the game found them.
"Is this what happens when you get a win?" asked Dunlap, following the second three-sack game of his career as he got up there to grab each by the neck. "A.D. gets two RECORDS! Can't think of a more deserving guy.
"Love you guys. We finally did it. Got that monkey off our back. Let's go get another one."
Then Dunlap left to let the offense finish a day the defense carried with a stifling, creative scheme that paralyzed a Jets offense that had scored 102 points in the last three games. If Dalton supplied the offense with juice, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo brought some of his own.
There were a bunch of different blitzes that included right end Sam Hubbard coming as a linebacker out of one of those five defensive linemen looks and safety Jessie Bates with some rare red dogs out of three-safety alignments. Meanwhile, slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard helped hold the Jets estimable slot receiver Jamison Crowder to two catches for eight yards while Dunlap (six of the nine hits on befuddled Jets quarterback Sam Darnold), Hubbard and company undressed the New York offensive line courtesy of its first two-score lead all season.
"(Anarumo) keeps drawing things up in the sand. He's pretty creative with his defense, and today we out-executed them," said Dunlap, on day the pass rush finally got that lead. "That helps a lot, too. A defensive line rushing after the quarterback the way we were, with the coverage complementing us as well, it all plays together."
But the defense, like everybody else, rallied around Dalton. Stripped of his job a month ago, a fall guy for a fallen offense, Dalton answered when Taylor went back to him in an effort to legitimize his program with wins. He delivered in the same fashion he has become the Bengals' winningest quarterback during his nine seasons.
Nothing flashy. A few guts. A few brains. Quick passes against a ravenous defensive coordinator reminiscent of the Steelers and Ravens. Some big, well-placed throws, like the 17-yard seed over the middle he threw into the teeth of a Cover Two to wide receiver Tyler Boyd. That started their scoring while allowing him to pass Ken Anderson as the franchise's all-time leading touchdown passer with 198.
"He probably texted me. I've got 200 text messages," said Dalton as he walked out of the interview room rolling through his phone.
No doubt the gracious Anderson, who said he was pulling for Dalton earlier in the week to get it, sent congratulations. But with Sunday's win, Dalton remains the franchise's winningest quarterback despite his 0-8 start this season. He's back to 11 games over .500 (69-58-2) with Anderson always 10 over at 91-81.
But Dalton was thinking more about 198-197.
"I guess I've got bragging rights on Ken," Dalton said.
This is the Dalton these guys know. The guy who wins games. The guy who before his offensive line went into rehab and his defense changed schemes won twice as many games as he lost in his first five seasons. The guy who on Sunday finally ended the desert of 2019.
"When he plays great, we play great," said Dunlap, who has played in virtually every one of those wins. "He was slinging it out. He was on point. That was the Red Rifle today. I think they poked the bear with what they did. I want him to finish the whole season just like that."
Dunlap and Dalton go way back. The first time Dunlap had a three-sack game, the Bengals were playing for a playoff bye in Denver in the next-to-last week of the 2015 season. As Dunlap said Sunday, a very different game.
"You can't compare," Dunlap said.
Dalton had told Taylor he was wrong to bench him and he didn't hide how good he felt after it was over.
"It's memorable, and very satisfying with everything I have been through this year," Dalton said of Win No. 69. "Not having played the last three weeks ... this one means a lot."
And his mates seemed to agree they had never quite seen him, well, this fiery. Dunlap called it poking the bear. Mixon called it a chip.
"He played with a chip on his shoulder all week. He was ready to go, all week in practice," Mixon said. "He got us ready. He had great attitude and swagger in the game today. I commend him on his play today."
Mixon was a key guy Sunday. His line only says 44 yards on 19 carries, but he had some big ones against the NFL's best run defense allowing 2.6 yards per rush the past month. He had five of at least five yards, including a five-yard touchdown. Plus, with Dalton looking to get the ball out of his hand quickly against a defense that had 15 players with at least half a sack, he swung the ball to Mixon out of the backfield four times for 26 yards.
"We did have some play calls today where the goal was to get me out into space so it would help our receivers," said Mixon on the podium. "Andy got the ball out quick, and then it's my job to make guys miss in space. I think we did a great job of that today."
Mixon saw the change in Dalton even in some of his footwear on the field during the week of practice.
"First off, he's starting to dress up. He came out there in something that made you look good on the field," Mixon said. "And then it's leading the huddle, saying 'let's go, let's get this.' I haven't really heard that much from him in my three years being here. He did a great job leading us all week. I'm sure he's looking forward to next week now."
Boyd saw somebody different, too.
"He faced the most adversity on the team," Boyd said. "He was starting. We benched him. We bring him back because we thought he could still be the quarterback. He did a hell of a job just stepping up. Every day. From Tuesday all the way today. Very vocal. His leadership showed a lot. He was very determined. He wanted to go out there and show everybody what he was about and he did."
If it couldn't be A.J. Green, who has caught 60 of those 198 balls, it might as well have been Boyd with Green watching again in sweats. Boyd is his other 1,000-yard receiver who became his security blanket on third and fourth down.
"For sure. T..B. has caught a lot of these balls, a lot of the touchdowns," Dalton said. "He's our guy right now. I 'm glad he was able to get that one."
Even if some of the young guys on defense didn't get the nickname right, they knew what it meant.
"We got the 'Red Rocket' back out there, or 'Red Rifle,' it doesn't matter," said edge rusher Carl Lawson. "We just have to keep working and getting better."
"Regardless of all the other circumstances that have been circling, the fact that I was back out here starting again ... I want to win every time I'm on the field," Dalton said. "Knowing that I was going to be starting again this week, I wanted to attack each day. I wanted to give my teammates confidence in me, again.
"I was confident in our plan this week going into the game. Also, we had one of the best weeks of practice that we've had this year. I just had a feeling that we were going to get this one done."
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