After turning over last year's NFL playoffs in stunning fashion, linebacker Germaine Pratt's All About The Ball Bengals are back at it again when they start this year's playoffs with a skein of forcing a turnover in the last five straight fourth quarters.
Pratt, who has two of those because that's what he does, grew up watching Ravens Pro Football Hall-of-Fame ball-hawking safety Ed Reed and takes notes from current Ravens ball-stripping cornerback Marlon Humphrey as he hopes to get his hands on the ball Sunday night (8:15-Cincinnati's Channel 5) against those Ravens in a Wild Card Game at Paycor Stadium.
"When he makes a tackle, he's not going to the ground. He's raking at the ball," says slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who is no longer surprised when Pratt walks by his locker and says, 'It's all about the ball,' and leaving the image as he walks away.
"That wears on offenses for four quarters and eventually one of those will pop. It has," Hilton says. "I know guys are a lot more ball aware. The ball is life. It's contagious."
Pratt ("He's thinking and talking about the ball the minute he comes into the building," Hilton says) ignited the latest outbreak when he wrenched the ball from Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in a Dec. 4 Paycor game that eventual No. 1 AFC seed Kansas City led, 24-20, midway through fourth quarter and set up a Joe Burrow comeback win.
Which certainly made running back coach Justin Hill's weekly Wednesday "All About The Ball," presentation at the end of the team meeting.
"I show plays from all around the league from the week before," says Hill, who is preaching both ball security and ball harassment. "I try to show us as much as possible. It reinforces how good and bad things happen. I think the biggest thing is it just makes guys aware. How much turnover margin is connected to winning percentage."
(Exhibit A: In the Bengals' eight-game winning streak, they're plus-six. Not to mention, 6-1 this season with plus differential. Where head coach Zac Taylor is 16-5-1 in his career.)
When Hill arrived from Tulsa to coach the Bengals running backs in 2021, Taylor gave him the ball security assignment that had been held by tight ends coach James Casey. He teaches it all day ever day to the backs, but Taylor said Hill looked a bit questioningly at him as he wondered exactly what Taylor wanted from him.
But that didn't last very long.
"That's the last time that has happened. He's taken it and made it his own," Taylor says. "When he has a different than normal presentation, he always hits it out of the park."
Hill got some help from Casey and it took off in last year's postseason when they went from zero differential to a NFL-leading plus-seven.
"I got with James and he gave me some ideas and the presentations he had given," Hill says. "And I've tried to throw in some of my personality. Throw in some movie clips."
Like for the Halloween game Monday night in Cleveland. That week the talk had been about scary movies and so Hill, 34, went to his favorite scary movie of all-time, "Scream," which came out when he was eight and left a lasting memory.
"There's a guy trying to warn one of the other guys that the killer was behind him," Hill says. "He's saying, 'Behind you, kid, behind you.' And I just tied that into as a ball carrier, you're not always aware what's behind you. So you always want to have an awareness that there's somebody behind you punching the ball out. Then I got some clips from around the league of guys punching the ball out from ball carriers from behind. Just little stuff like that. Make them laugh. Make it resonate with them."
The Bengals lost for the last time this year on Halloween and since Hill showed the movie, they've lost just one non-quarterback fumble.
And, rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt pulled off one of the great Bengals defensive plays in quite a while replicating the scene in "Scream," during the Nov. 20 win Nashville when he chased down NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry on a 69-yard run and punched the ball out from behind at the 2. The Titans scored on the play, but they were screaming for Taylor-Britt.
Hill's presentation this week got pre-empted by Taylor's mid-week thoughts, but that didn't stop defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo from turning the tape on earlier this week and running through the turnovers from this year and last year to remind them how they came in bushels in the playoffs last season.
"Coach Lou showed us how we were attacking the ball at the end of the year and from last year and how we were getting the ball and how the turnover margin is so important," Pratt says.
A year to the day of Sunday's game it was Pratt, of course, who electrified an already explosive Paycor crowd with another fourth-quarter interception. In the biggest play since the building opened in 2000, Pratt intercepted Raiders quarterback Derek Carr at the Bengals 2 with 12 seconds left to preserve a 26-19 victory that kick-started a Super Bowl run that led the league with a plus-seven turnover margin courtesy of eight interceptions and a recovered fumble in the four postseason games.
Pratt got another look at it this week, thanks to Anarumo. There was Pratt saving the day against Vegas in the last seconds, then the next week in the AFC Divisional cornerback Eli Apple and linebacker Logan Wilson combining on a last-minute interception to set up the winning field goal and then the week after that free safety Jessie Bates III's tip turning into strong safety Vonn Bell's interception in overtime to set up the AFC title win.
"Turnovers are momentum-changers. That's what we have to thrive on going into the playoffs," says Hilton, whose one-handed red-zone pick did exactly that in the divisional win. "We showed it last year in the playoff run. We got nine turnovers in four games. We're trying to feed off that."
If you thought turnovers were big last year, how about now with Ravens head coach John Harbaugh's crew in town? A big reason Harbaugh has coached the most road playoff wins in history (eight) is his teams have forced an NFL-best 44 turnovers in 19 postseason games in his 15 seasons.
Pratt, better known as "Mr. Clutch It," rather than "Mr. Clutch." grabbing all those huge turnovers, knows a little bit about that. As a safety growing up in High Point, N.C., his favorite player was Reed and Reed played five seasons for Harbaugh. Pratt also loves how Bears cornerback Charles "Peanut," Tillman would punch the ball out (44 forced fumbles to go with 38 picks) during his 13 seasons in the league and he'll sometimes You Tube him, as he might Reed or Colts linebacker Shaquille Darius Leonard, who has 17 forced fumbles since he came out of the 2018 draft, the year before Pratt.
"I like looking at how they attack the ball," Pratt says. "Most of the time they see us in the open field, they'll think you'll tackle them. But if you're going for the ball, they won't expect it."
Pratt's guy is Reed.
"A ball hog," Pratt says. "I'd always watch Ed Reed. "Dynamic. Physical in the middle of the field. Run sideline-to-sideline. Always making an impact, whether on defense or special teams."
The Kelce forced fumble?
"Everybody came in for the tackle after he caught the ball," Pratt says. "That gave me the opportunity to take the ball away."
He's got his eyes on Humphrey, the Baltimore cornerback who is only the third Baltimore defender to ever have double-digit interceptions (12) and double-digit forced fumbles (13). Hall-of-Fame linebacker Ray Lewis and, of course, Reed.
"Two years ago he was getting the ball a lot," Pratt says. "He was taking the ball."
Asked about his favorite turnover he's seen someone pull off, Pratt doesn't hesitate.
"Ed Reed's 107 (yard) touchdown,'' he says of the NFL's record interception return.
Most of the 66,277 at Paycor a year ago would disagree.