ATLANTA _ Of course, it was veteran slot cornerback Mike Hilton who made the defining play of the night for a Bengals' first-team defense that worked out the kinks and knocked off the cobwebs in the 15-play opening drive of a 13-13 preseason stalemate with the Falcons Friday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Hilton, who has two red-zone picks in this training camp, forced another one on the 15th play when he batted Desmond Ridder's third-down pass in the air at about the Falcons 5 and defensive end Joseph Ossai caught the popup at about the 3 for his first interception since his Texas days when he caught another tip off a Heisman Trophy winner named Joe Burrow.
"The red zone. I call it the dead zone. They don't score in there," Hilton said.
"Big shoutout to Mike Hilton," said Ossai, leaning over and telling any microphone he could find.
Leave it to Hilton. Seven years in the NFL and this was his first game in his home area. He had been urging defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo to do what they didn't do last year and play the starters in the preseason.
"It was up to Lou and Zac (Taylor) to decide and I'm glad they did. This was good for us and possibly keeps u0s from starting 0-2 again," Hilton said.
It was classic savvy Hilton as he was all over wide receiver Scotty Miller. Miller was looking for a flag, but Hilton was draped all over him because Miller gave him too many clues. This is how this defense got to another AFC title game last year. A top five-ish red zone defense.
"He jetted across the formation. Just watching film, I know they like to throw back inside," Hilton said. "He kind of ran a pivot route and pivoted back inside and I already had inside leverage just by trailing the ball on the motion and made a play on the ball.
"It might have been a little bit of rust, but it was good for us. We knuckled up in the red zone and kept them off the board. Yards don't equal points and we take that seriously on our defense. I think we go into the season in a pretty good spot."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Veteran free agent safety Nick Scott made his Bengals debut on those 15 plays, his first in the preseason since he was a rookie in 2019.
"I just rolled with it when the coaches said we were playing," Scott said. "I trust whatever the coaches say. It being a night preseason game on the road, it kind of made sense to get the guys used to preparing and going through your routine. We play a bunch of prime-time games. It made sense."
Scott admitted the drive was longer than they hoped and not as efficient as they wanted. But he also said, "How that drive ended is the epitome of who we are as a defense and who we are as a team. I'm just glad nobody went down, we got the work in and made the play." …
Quarterback Jake Browning displayed his mobility and moxie in that last two-minute drill that gave the Bengals a 13-10 lead with 50 seconds left. Browning went eight plays in 2:25, scrambling two times for 37 yards, throwing a mean back-shoulder to rookie wide receiver Andrei Iosivas and handing off to rookie running back Chase Brown for a three-yard touchdown run.
"Good protection, saw the field, got a couple of big plays, didn't take any negative plays. Put those all together and you get a good two-minute drill," said Browning, who was working behind the third offensive line. "Andrei made some big plays. That back shoulder throw to get inside the five, that's the big play when we needed it."
What was also big was Browning sucked it up and overcame an interception with 5:35 left when he got chased out of the pocket and tried to jam it into the sideline, where it got picked off by a rookie safety.
"Not a great throw. A little aggressive. I was looking to make something happen and it was too early in the game to do that," said Browning, who rebounded when he got the ball back to hit all four passes for 42 yards to finish 16 of 22 for 140 yards...
Jonah Williams had a contented smile on his face after it was over. He was the only offensive starter to play and he was gone after 11 satisfying snaps of that first drive. Those were the first 11 snaps of his NFL career at right tackle.
"I was glad. I wanted to do it. Get my feet under me," Williams said. "I didn't have to say anything (to the coaches). They beat me to it."