Cam Taylor-Britt, the Bengals cornerback with rookie energy and veteran aplomb, attacked the locker room sound system just like the Browns came after him at every key point of Sunday's taut tractor-pull of an AFC North game. With the noise rising to the level of the sound the 66,222 had brought to Paycor Stadium moments earlier, Taylor-Britt didn't hear him until he saw Joe Burrow's hand sticking out with congratulations.
Talk about a seal of approval from the 23-10 victory that had defense stamped all over it.
Burrow had just quarterbacked the Bengals to their fifth straight win that gave them a huge ninth victory with four games to play on his eighth straight win in December and January that translated to his first victory over the Browns. But the Bengals reached the threshold of their second straight playoff appearance with another massive effort by his defense that is no longer under the radar after stoning their second 1,000-yard rusher in three weeks while getting their hands on seven Deshaun Watson passes.
Take your pick.
Like they were asking about Burrow's MVP chances last week after the win over the Chiefs, now they were asking about the Pro Bowl chances of the ubiquitous DJ Reader. "Best nose tackle in the game," said B.J. Hill, the three technique who plays next him and also got a game ball Sunday.
There were also the 17 tackles of middle linebacker Logan Wilson (14 solos), the five tackles and one sack from inexhaustible left end Sam Hubbard's 63 snaps and three collective fourth-down stops and …
Take your pick.
"We're just imposing our will on people," said free safety Jessie Bates III after he came up with one of those passes for a killing fourth-quarter interception. "The thing is we're confident. We're playing really physical as a defense. All around. Not just with DJ and B.J., but all the guys up front and the linebackers are tackling like DBs.
"It gives our offense confidence. It gives them an opportunity to score points."
And then there is Taylor-Britt, who played all 72 snaps and embraced the moment when he sensed in the first series of the game Burrow would be without two of his leading wide receivers in Tee Higgins (hamstring) and Tyler Boyd (dislocated finger). Head coach Zac Taylor, his fellow Nebraska alum, read the room like he always does and flipped Taylor-Britt a game ball.
"We kind of knew early. We knew it was on us. It was a defensive game," Taylor-Britt said. "We had to be the better defense."
They were the better defense because they held running back Nick Chub to 34 yards two weeks after they held NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry to 38 yards in Tennessee. They filled a heavy box to stop Chubb and dared Watson to beat them passing in his second start back and he couldn't on a 79.1 passer rating that included his first Browns touchdown pass as well as the Bates' pick, his third of the season.
"It's never in the game plan to get 17 tackles," said Wilson, who has done many things but he can't remember making 17 tackles as one of them. "It's the whole D-line. It starts up front. Sam, DJ, B.J., they're playing at a very high level. It was a grinder … Our D-line has been playing well. It allows us to flow over the top and do our job at a high level. We can't do what we do without them."
As usual, Reader, in his fourth game back since missing six with a knee injury, kept it on the down low. But he had allowed during the week the Browns had two Pro Bowl guards, an honor he had yet to reach, and, yes, he'd like to play well. On Sunday, after he had been double-teamed every play, it seemed, his teammates did the talking for him.
"It's crazy. He still makes plays," Bates said. "Turn the film on every single week and you see No. 98 making plays."
After Reader broke down the Cleveland run game, Taylor-Britt broke down the Bengals for the postgame Who Dey chant. It's an honor bestowed by the previous huddle-breaker, but this one seemed unanimous.
"He's playing his ass off. He's not scared of anything. Not scared of the moment," Bates said. "That's what you need as a corner in this league. You have a lot of one-on-one matchups. He's making a lot of plays. You're going to hear a lot about Cam over the next couple of years."
Taylor-Britt, a second-round pick, went to school on the film from Halloween in that loss in Cleveland six weeks ago, when he got first heavy NFL action in the wake of No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie tearing his ACL in the first half. With Awuzie sitting behind the bench for the second straight game after surgery, Taylor-Britt showed what he learned.
"I love the juice he brings," Hill said.
After the highly-regarded wide receiver Amari Cooper schooled him on five catches for 131 yards back in October, on Sunday he denied Cooper two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and for good measure knocked a fourth-and-four touchdown pass out of the hands of Bengals villain Donovan Peoples-Jones.
"I was getting my feet wet. I've played numerous games now," said Taylor-Britt, who missed virtually all of training camp and the first month of the season. "I've seen a lot. It's a copycat league. You're going to see a lot of the same stuff. I knew what they got me on in the first game. I just wanted to hone in on that. While I'm pressing I just try to get hands on him. Just play top down. They were hitting little hitches in the zone and stuff. No deep shots really."
"Press," is the key. On the final fourth down of the game, Taylor-Britt came right up on the line, bumped Cooper, hung with him and when Cooper came back to the ball the timing was off and he dropped it.
"Which one? There were so many. They were going after me," Taylor-Britt said.
"I'm thinking, 'They're going to me.' I know who was outside. No. 2. Cooper. I saw the alignment they were in. I just wanted to make sure I get a good press and mess up the timing and he didn't get the ball," Taylor-Britt said. "We spent a lot of time looking at their releases this week."
With about seven minutes left in the game, the Browns were at the Bengals 20, down 23-10 and trying to get back in the game quickly. Taylor-Britt wouldn't let them do it as Watson floated a fade to Cooper at the two-yard line and Cooper ended up trying to get the ball away from the kid as the ball fell to the turf.
"Looking at the time on the clock, look outside you see Amari Cooper, a savvy vet vs. a rookie corner, who wouldn't come after me?" Taylor-Britt asked. "I wanted the pick, but I got the PBU. My teammates were right behind me cheering me on. I most definitely did get my head turned around. He just turned to be a defender at that point. He held my arm when I tried to catch it. That's OK."
Moments later on fourth down, Peoples-Jones, who has 489 yards against the Bengals and 342 yards against the rest of the AFC North, didn't add to his 114-yard day here. Coming after him again, Watson tried to lob in a fade into the end zone and Taylor-Britt punched it out. And on the play before, they isolated him on Cooper running across the back of the end zone and while Cooper was slightly ahead of him, Taylor-Britt was tight on him as the ball whizzed past them.
"I just wanted to make sure I didn't beat him to the end zone," Taylor-Britt said. "When you're down there, it's more width than length. Once he saw he had me beat, his eyes got wide, and I wanted to make sure I just played through his hands."
If Watson knew where the rookie was, so did the Bengals.
"You couldn't ask more from a rookie corner," said wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. "He's been going against tough matchups. Amari Cooper is one of the best receivers in the league, just setting up people and running routes, he's one of the best at it. For Cam to play like that today, stopping fade balls, coming in on breaking-in routes, he was dealing on basically everything. As soon as he gets smarter at his position, I think he'll have a chance to be one of the best corners in the league."
On a day the Bengals seized an AFC North game with defense worthy of the division, it was the rookie who sounded like a vet.
"We were having this conversation on the sidelines," Taylor-Britt said above the music. "This is nowhere near the top tier we want to be in. We just want to get better every day. Especially with the group we have here."