At some point late in the 32-13 loss to the Browns, veteran slot cornerback Mike Hilton looked around and saw that the Bengals' two top draft choices were off the shelf and in the glare of Monday Night Football as the Dawg Pound howled with Halloween delight.
"We had two rookies on the outside playing, really getting their first time experience," Hilton said moments after it was over. "They were looking for us to lead them and guide them. We're going to expect a lot from these two for the rest of the year. They have to come ready."
Suddenly, that has become the mantra for a Bengals defense that went from NFL record-setters to crisis mode in the span of an injury-plagued week.
With starter Eli Apple (hamstring) already iced after coming up gimpy during the week, second-rounder Cam Taylor-Britt had to be ready for his first NFL start at cornerback in his second game and he took all but one of the 72 snaps. Late in the first half, when their No. 1 cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie, suffered what is thought to be a season-ending ACL tear, they turned to specialty cornerback Tre Flowers.
Flowers came off the field after his season-high 26th snap of the game with a hamstring problem of his own and as he limped through the locker room, it was hard to see him playing in a short week in a 1 p.m. Sunday game at Paycor Stadium against the Panthers.
That brought on first-round pick Dax Hill, the Michigan safety who has played pretty much only safety in practice. He came into the game averaging about 3-to-4 snaps a game when he teamed with starting safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III and was already setting a career-high for plays Monday as the Bengals sometimes used three safeties against Cleveland's run game. But with Awuzie, Apple and Flowers out, Hill moved to cornerback and ended up playing a total of 20 snaps.
With the first of many massive contract extensions of the Joe Burrow Era looming this offseason while in the middle of a playoff push, they weren't inclined to make a trade by the Tuesday deadline. And with a short week, the Bengals had no time to prepare a just arrived free-agent cornerback in time to play Carolina.
They'll have time to scour what's available during next week's bye, but for the time being it would appear college free agent Allan George out of Vanderbilt would get promoted from the practice squad and make his NFL debut Sunday. Apple figures to be ready to start again with Hilton and Taylor-Britt and maybe Hill steps on the corner again in a pinch.
So Dax and Cam, you're on.
They have high regard for Hill because they think he can play pretty much anything back there. But on Monday night? On his 30th NFL snap? Against Amari Cooper, a receiver Awuzie calls one of the best route runners of his generation?
Injuries have their own time table.
When Cooper lined up across from Hill late in the fourth quarter, he swam by him and made a diving 53-yard catch off a bomb from Jacoby Brissett.
By that time, Taylor-Britt, the outgoing Nebraska playmaker, had already talked to Cooper all about it.
"He's one of the greatest feet wise," Taylor-Britt said. "His releases are amazing. I was telling him, 'Hey, you got some nice feet.'"
They don't have feet like that on Game Day and, look, he gets it. He says it was like this at Nebraska as sophomore (when the Cornhuskers were still trying to figure out what to do with the record-breaking quarterback from Montgomery, Ala.) and when a guy went down, all of a sudden they put him at safety.
That's why he was glad he eased in with 28 snaps in his debut last week against the Falcons. Yes, he says, after turning 23 two weeks ago. He's ready to be a starter.
"Most definitely. You never know when your opportunity will come. The opportunity is now where you have to take it full head on," Taylor-Britt said in a postgame moment he soaked in his first pro start with an "I'm blessed."
"It got my feet wet and I needed that. That game last week kind of prepared me for this game," CTB said. "(The Falcons) are a very hard run team as well. I got to get under my pads a little and finally hit somebody not my own teammate. Coming into this game I knew it would be a heavy run game. I love to hit, so I'd bring that."
ESPN analyst Troy Aikman praised CTB's willingness to hit and the Pro Football Focus folks had him for five tackles with his first pro missed tackle in a game PFF marked the Bengals for nine misses in the Browns' 172-yard rushing effort two weeks after Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo scolded them for missing eight in New Orleans. Last week Taylor-Britt had three takedowns and no misses.
"Just have to have great eyes. Yet it's a physical game. You have to come down and tackle," CTB said. "If they know you can't tackle, they're going to run at you."
The week before the Falcons didn't throw at him, but Monday Brissett went after him four times and completed four for 60 yards. He learned right away on the big one on the first series when Brissett went play-action on third-and-long and Taylor-Britt lost the battle of hyphens. CTB tried to undercut the throw to Donovan Peoples-Jones and when he fell, there was only Bates behind him for a 37-yard gain.
"That's why they drafted us," CTB said. "To come in and go out there on the field and make an impact."
Hilton, once upon a time an undrafted free agent before becoming one of the top slot cornerbacks in the league, knows there has to be a start. It's nice the kids have some elders around them.
"Two rookies on the outside. It's good for their experience, but it's a tough situation to be in," Hilton said. "That's why guys like me, Jessie and Vonn have to step up."