Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo knew his line was, in his Staten Islandese, "gassed." Especially after watching them destroy Seattle in the red zone, leaving quarterback Geno Smith sprawled on the Paycor Stadium turf after left end Sam Hubbard's fourth-down sack with 2:03 left in Sunday's game the Bengals won, 17-13.
But when Anarumo heard 'punt alert,' moments later, he didn't care that Hubbard would play 65 snaps for the first time this year or that right end Trey Hendrickson was nearing the 50-play mark he had passed just once this season. Or that both tackles, DJ Reader, hovering at nearly 70 percent of the snaps, and B.J. Hill, who would finish with 55 snaps, were on the outer limits of what they usually give.
"I just walked over to them. I said, 'I'm not putting anybody else out there but you four and I want you to go win the game for us,'" Anarumo recalled Monday. "And they just put their helmets on and said, let's go. And that's what they did.
"They wrecked the game at the end of the game for us. And it was great coverage and, and rush working together, because (Smith) really didn't have anywhere to go with the ball. We had our best guys out there and that's great to see."
Anarumo calls them his "Core Four," and they got the call during Monday's ceremony in the defensive meeting room that happens after each win.
"We have kind of a brick-by-brick we put for each win. And each time the people I feel like are the stars of the game or the guys who were an integral part of us winning, they'll walk up and put the brick down and we kind of build a pyramid. It's pretty cool."
DEPTH CHARGE: The Pro Football Focus pass rush stats from Sunday are astounding. Hubbard and Hill each had six pressures while Reader and Hendrickson each had five. And yet the highest-graded rusher was the very valuable third-year man Cam Sample, the first lineman off the bench. He can play the run and rush from the edge and slide inside to also rush the passer. PFF had him for three pressures on 12 rushes that included his first sack of the year.
"He's shown a knack of being around a quarterback too. He's not going to wow you with his, sorry Cam, but his size," said Anarumo of the 6-3, 27-2-pound Sample. "He's just a good football player and he's smart. He knows where to be. Once you earn our trust, and how do you do that? You do it by being consistent and here he is. He's been a guy we can count on him. So we'll put him out there in critical situations,"
TWO GAMERS: Bengals head coach Zac Taylor is quite appreciative of what two veterans did by simply lending their presence Sunday and playing hurt. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (back) went 14 of 70 snaps before giving way to rookie DJ Turner and wide receiver Tee Higgins (rib) went 29 of 53 plays.
Higgins had a big third-down catch on a stop route where he took a rib shot and quarterback Joe Burrow targeted him on the Bengals' biggest offensive snap that turned out to be their last, that third-and-five they needed to kill the clock.
It was a vintage Higgins jump ball on cornerback Tre Brown. And, first of all, a tip of the hat. Imagine the pain stretching for the ball? But he was called for offensive interference, which could be hotly debated. What couldn't is that he didn't come down with the ball and as he went into the bye week, he wants more from himself and his offense.
On Sunday, Higgins, a two-time 1,000-yard receiver, finished with two catches for 20 yards, the fourth time this season he's had two or fewer catches. In his three previous seasons, he had just six of those games combined.
"We're trying to get back to what we've been doing the past two years and back to who we are," Higgins said Monday. "Personally, I could be better and I'm looking forward to doing that. Coming down with the 50-50 balls. I could definitely be better and looking forward to coming back better than ever."
It was a tough penalty. But such as it is for big receivers. They often don't get the benefit of the doubt when the tussling begins.
"It is what it is. They called it. I have to live with it. But I still have to make that play," Higgins said. "Those are the balls I'm supposed to come down with. Joe has enough trust to give me that type of ball. He expects me to come down with it, so I have to come down with it. It's frustrating, but when I don't make it, I just have to put it behind me and keep practicing and keep going."
Higgins displayed why he's one of the more rugged and tougher receivers in the league. He had a call. Sit Sunday and have a month to rest the rib he injured in Tennessee Oct. 1 before playing the 49ers on Oct. 29. Or, play against the Seahawks and have two weeks to recover with the bye.
"That's the reason I decided to play," Higgins said. "I've still got two weeks to recover. I was able to go out there and help the team get a win. (Taylor) asked me during the week. He asked me. That's the type of coach he is. He never is going to tell us what to do. He asked me and I told him I feel like I can contribute to us getting a win and I was able to do that."
On Monday, Taylor was still marveling at the effort Higgins extended on that last snap.
"We threw a similar ball in practice and it really affected him during the week," Taylor said Monday. "You knew that he was playing through something significant and that's the type of play that's difficult for the injury that he has. And he still went up there and made the attempt and tried to seal the game for us in that moment. The play didn't come our way, but trust me, I know he had a very similar play and I know how much that bothers him. For him to know that and go up and try to make that play means something to us."
CAMP CALLAHAN: Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan had a frank meeting with his group Monday before it broke for the bye and he says he didn't mince any words. He only told the truth, he says. A dead-last ranking in NFL offense can't be tolerated.
"It's disappointing that we haven't played to what our standard is. I have full belief we will, and that we're capable of playing to that," Callahan said Monday. "But sometimes you've got to tell the truth. And the truth is, we're three and three and offensively we've not played to where we were capable of playing."
So suffice to say the offensive staff is going to be doing plenty of heavy lifting this bye week even though the players are off until next Monday.
The club has indicated that it thinks Burrow's right calf would be close to 100% after the bye and all indicators are there. Particularly Sunday's 18-mile-per-hour scramble on the GPS.
And that definitely opens up the playbook.
Callahan says they'll consider changes and a big one is that he suggested they'll go under center more. In their effort to protect Burrow, no offense has gone under center less. But with Burrow better and the challenges of short-yardage looming, things change. They couldn't get third-and-a-yard on the first play of the fourth quarter on Sunday and the week before in Arizona they failed to score from the 1-yard-line on third and fourth down.
"I think one of the things we have missed in those spots is the (quarterback) sneak, which when you look back to last year there was quite a few of those that we converted on with that," Callahan said. "That's a good play. It's a productive play, and we haven't been able to do that. Hopefully, after the bye, we'll be able to have more of that."
Burrow went under center at a good rate last year until they shifted to a heavier shotgun look later in the season.
"There's a balance of being able to not just fully telegraph all of it," Callahan said. "It's hard to run the ball for explosive gains a lot of time in the shotgun. So just a mix and a balance is always going to be better for the offense in general, instead of being exclusively one thing. There were things we worked on over the course of the offseason that we had to move away from a little bit due to Joe's mobility. I feel like it's something that we can get more out of.
"I'm not going to say we're going to sell out and all of a sudden you're going to see us under center every play. But there's an element of the offense that does run through the under-center part of it. Some of the run-game schemes are better. Some of the play-action is better … as Joe felt comfortable, really back to pretty close to normal, that's something that we can hopefully do more of."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. hurt his groin on the fifth snap Sunday and kept grinding for 32 more plays until he gave way to Cody Ford. That revealed Ford is the third tackle ahead of Jackson Carman, who started in the playoffs last year, as well as D'Ante Smith.
Taylor is uncertain of the severity of the injury and said they'll know more next week. Ford, Brown's Oklahoma teammate, a free agent who made his Bengals debut from scrimmage, was declared the winner by offensive line coach Frank Pollack after a training camp he impressed them at guard and tackle.
"He stepped in there at left tackle and performed well. He did a good job in the run game, did a good job in the protections, so I was pleased with what Cody did," Taylor said. "There were (preseason and practice) situations we put him in. He had played a lot of guard, but also at tackle he had gotten reps and we felt comfortable as the preseason had unfolded. They mix those reps around in practice. Frank does a good job of that to where it felt like he would be the first guy in at tackle there." …
Everyone was impressed with Sunday's performance of cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt (a pick, a touchdown-saving pass defensed, seven tackles, a frustrated DK Metcalf) and count Zac Taylor as one of them.
"Just relentless the whole game, really. And even on plays that didn't go his way, coming back the next play and challenging again," Taylor said. "That's something I tell a lot of our young corners when they come in is, as an offensive play caller, the first thing I'm looking for is when you beat a corner in the run game or the pass game, does he start to soften up? Does he start to lose his confidence a little bit? And I think our guys do a great job.
"Playing corner in this league is easily one of the most difficult jobs you've got because you're out there on an island. People can see if you did well or you didn't. I've got a lot of respect for our corners that just come out there and they continue to challenge you even when maybe a play doesn't go your way. I'm really proud of the way Cam challenged (Metcalf) the whole game and was relentless." …