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Game Within The Game: Continuing Education At NFL Safety As Bengals' Dax Hill Flashes Elite Skills

S Dax Hill runs the ball during the Bengals-Browns Week 1 game of the 2023 season on Sunday, September 10, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio.
S Dax Hill runs the ball during the Bengals-Browns Week 1 game of the 2023 season on Sunday, September 10, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Let it be known through his first four games as a starting NFL safety, the Bengals' Dax Hill is the only player in the league with four tackles for loss, three passes defended, two interceptions, and a sack.

Not three-time Pro Bowl safety Derwin James. Not AFC North werewolf T.J. Watt. Not Hill's old mentor with the Bengals, Falcons safety Jessie Bates III, one of the NFL's interceptions leaders with three.

"That's why he's a first-round pick," says safety partner Nick Scott, the veteran who came over from the Rams to aid Hill in replacing Bates and Vonn Bell. "Everyone can see the upside. He's always around the ball. Getting balls out when he's in man coverage, which is really special as a safety that can cover like a corner. When he's on his Ps and Qs, he's one the best players on the field."

There were times he strayed from those Ps and Qs during some key moments in Sunday's Good-Bad-and-Ugly outing in Tennessee. But Robert Livingston, who has coached some of the most productive safeties in Bengals history, knows Hill is making just his fifth NFL start this Sunday in Arizona (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's FOX 19) and a starter's first year is a continuing education.

"The highs are great and the lows are poor. You want to live somewhere in the middle," says Livingston, who knows he's speaking for every player and coach on defense. "You never have to worry about his athleticism. God gave him a phenomenal amount of ability. It's that getting that consistency, making sure his floor rises.

"The thing I've been proudest of Dax is how the light has come on with his communication, which can be a challenge for a young player. How he's doing stuff that maybe isn't sexy, but improving on things like passing off in a zone."

The Michigan-bred Hill, who turned 23 two days before the Titans game, was 21 when his high football IQ and 4.38-fast 40 bolted out of Michigan on the 31st pick. He ended up playing more nickel than anything else in those first 131 snaps last season that he'll double on this Sunday's first series.

"A lot to be learned at (safety). I'm just trying to progress every day," Hill says. "Every game is not going to be perfect. Short memory is something you have to have as a DB."

The Good on Sunday? His interception and a remarkable rundown of Titans scatback Tyjae Spears after a fumble reversed the field. The Bad? His missed tackle on Titans running back Derrick Henry's 27-yard touchdown run. (Scott would like to remind you Henry has made the best safeties do exactly that.) The ugly? His unnecessary roughness call on Spears picking up Hill's blitz that negated a third-and-16 incompletion forced by the also blitzing Nick Scott early in the second half that allowed Tennessee to keep the ball six more minutes.

"When I turned back and saw the helmet on the ground and heard the ref say, "23," I'm thinking there's no way Dax just ripped his helmet off on purpose," Scott said. "I've never seen him lose his temper. He's so calm and chill. He was telling me how he was just trying to get him off him and his hand was caught in the facemask and when he came through, the helmet came off. The guy's got a good head on his shoulders."

Hill, a serious glacier of a guy, broke it down in vintage terse-smart-Michigan-Harbaugh style.

"I have to learn from it. Don't do stupid stuff like that," Hill said. "The ref sees a helmet on the ground, the flag comes out every time. I realize I have to make a better play, make a better decision. At that point, the play is over. Just disengage. I know better than that. Typically, I don't do dumb things like that."

He also doesn't usually miss tackles. His 34 lead the Bengals and are fourth among NFL safeties. But Livingston, who has coached Bates, Bell, and the Pro Bowler Reggie Nelson, can see why he didn't get Henry.

"He's tackling a refrigerator," Livingston says. "The hardest thing for a post safety is getting somebody down in the open field. They've got a two-way go with a lot of space and you just have to pick a spot, wrap, and come up with a body part. But he made good plays, too."

Like the interception early in the fourth quarter. A perfect example, Livingston says, of all 11 players working in sync for the result, a theme emphasized this week.

"Play fast. No gray area. Show your ability."

With Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill under center going play action, linebacker Logan Wilson took away a difficult route by the tight end, linebacker Germaine Pratt had his side of the field blocked off and as lineman Cam Sample bore down on his back, Tannehill flung what amounted to a punt and Hill didn't miss playing the ball once he saw it in the air.

"He can be a great player in this league," says Livingston, who knows what it looks like. "We've got to get him more consistent, playing fast and just being who he can be."