In his three seasons with the Bengals, three-technique B.J. Hill always seems to save his best with the game on the line. On Sunday he delivered Dan Hoard and Dave Lapham their coffin nails with a diving interception of Colts quarterback Gardner Minshew II that he scraped off the Paycor Stadium turf in the fourth quarter worthy of a Pro Bowl safety.
It not only put away a 31-14 game, but it underlined their best defensive effort of the season. They gave the Colts zilch in the second half and Minshew Magic needed a roughing-the-passer call and a fourth-and-one conversion to get the one touchdown they did score. Six days after holding the Jags to 2.8 yards per carry, they held the Colts to 2.6 and frustrated running back Zack Moss on 28 yards and 13 carries.
Remember, it was just about a week ago the Bengals run defense went into Jacksonville with all sorts of questions about a run defense that had allowed at least 150 yards in three straight games. Questions answered.
It will be recalled Hill's only other interception helped swing the 2021 AFC title game to the Bengals early in the second half.
"I'm an athlete. I can do it all. I'm a pretty good athlete," Hill said, still smiling about the athlete question. "That's how we want to do it as a defense. Make plays all over the field. Support the offense. Do what we did today."
His partner in grime, right end Trey Hendrickson, got him the interception and was Sunday's best player on the field. He got a sack on the first play of the game and never stopped, and that included the roughing on Minshew that kept them in the game in the first half.
Nose tackle DJ Reader had to calm him down in a CBS moment and he still kept going until he grabbed Minshew's arm to set up Hill's pick.
"We can't have it. Trey knows that," said head coach Zac Taylor. "He's the first one to own up to it. It is what it is, we move on from it. We've done a great job keeping penalties not being a part of what we do. It was just a learning moment for everyone and we will respond the right way."
Much had been made about the Colts backup right tackle, but it turned out starting left tackle Bernard Raimann had no shot against Hendrickson. He allowed two sacks and was called for a hold on the interception. He is, as they say, a monster. Hendrickson should be named to his third straight Pro Bowl soon with 13.5 sacks that ties him with three others behind only Khalil Mack and T.J. Watt. He's .5 ahead of Myles Garrett and .5 away from tying his Bengals record of 14.
"He's a force out there. You have to pay attention to him at all times," Taylor said. "Even when he's not hitting the quarterback and making plays, they feel him and have to devote resources to him. It allows our other guys to step up. Trey did a great job today, our defense as a whole. They rushed for less than 50 yards and (we) had three sacks. That's a great defensive effort overall with the coverage, the rush, and tackling."
Hill keeps grinding out the snaps, 71% of them. Still it's not what it was last year at 79%. It's still more than they'd like. When he had his big year in '21, he was playing 47% and had more tackles (50) and sacks (5.5) than he has now (31 and four). But like defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said a few weeks ago, things are tight and you need your best players.
And Hill has been that. With four games left he's got a shot for a career-high six sacks. And according to Pro Football Reference, he has knocked down the quarterback 16 times, Hendrickson 19. The only inside-outside combo in the league that has more is the Ravens' Jadeveon Clowney and Justin Madubulke.
ROOKIE BALL: The Bengals' draft room could have got a game ball Sunday when one went to fifth-round running back Chase Brown and another went to seventh-round cornerback D.J. Ivey. While Brown was breaking the NFL GPS with the second fastest play of the season with 22.05 miles per hour on his 54-yard touchdown on a screen, Ivey saw his most extended scrimmage work of his career with 14 snaps and came up with his first pass defensed on a nice play of a long ball in the first half.
After cornerback Chidobe Awuzie played all the snaps Monday night, the Bengals backed him off on the short week to 83% and gave Ivey some work.
For the last five games, Ivey has also been a fixture on special teams at gunner, and that's where he came up with his first NFL fumble recovery in the fourth quarter and why he got his first game ball.
(Betting odds it's going to his mother. If you think Brown is fast, Ivy's mother was known to race with him down the sidelines when he was playing youth ball in Miami.)
"My leverage wasn't right on the return. The corner was riding me," Ivey said of running downfield against the Colts' Ameer Speed. "I was only trying to get my leverage back to the returner. He was on my back shoulder. I was able to push him off me and I looked up and he ran into the returner and the returner dropped the ball."
It defined the Bengals' domination on special teams. The Colts came in a bit ballyhooed after causing two turnovers on punts the week before. But on Sunday they missed a short field goal, missed an extra point, and took a leverage penalty on a Bengals field goal that turned into a touchdown. Meanwhile, the Bengals played solid and came up with the turnover.
But it was Ivey's play on Colts wide receiver Alec Pierce that they envisioned when they drafted him. Anarumo had been taken with him at his pro day and the scouts already had his measurables that they liked: 6-1 with a 39-inch vertical leap and 4.46-second 40-yard dash. All the things to play big receivers and that's exactly what happened with the 6-3 Pierce.
This is another reason they liked him. Knows football:
"I know (Pierce) likes to run an out route from a condensed split. I just read his route," Ivey said. "I broke on it. Once I broke on it, I realized he converted to an out and up and I just turned my head and looked for the ball."
AJ MOMENT: The arrival of backup quarterback AJ McCarron in the Bengals huddle for four plays turned into a feel-good moment once it was determined Jake Browning had left to get his forearm cramp fixed.
And not just for McCarron.
"That was great to see," B.J. Hill said. "I loved seeing AJ out there for a couple of plays. He was in the league and then he went to the XFL. That was exciting."
McCarron knew it wasn't the broken thumb that Andy Dalton suffered eight Decembers ago on a play that put McCarron at the helm of a Bengals playoff team. His two wins in 2015 clinched a playoff berth and the AFC North title.
And on Sunday the fans told him they remembered his 25-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green put them within 1:50 of a Wild Card win.
"It was awesome to hear the city give me a cheer," McCarron said of checking into the huddle. "I knew Jake had just a forearm cramp or something and that he would be back to finish the win. I felt great. I only got two (warm-up) throws, so that was a little tough."
But he threw what very well could have been a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tee Higgins on a perfectly thrown ball in the left side of the same end zone he hit Green. But Higgins was called for pushing off.
"He was robbed," Browning said.
Higgins just shook his head, his confidence in McCarron cemented.
"I thought it was a touchdown. (The defender) was a basketball player right there and flopped a little bit. He sold it," Higgins said. "Our QBs are so well prepared. I knew that once AJ came in, there wasn't going to be no slouch(ing) or stepping back. When AJ came in, everyone had great confidence in him and I know he had great confidence. He's been there before and he's been there and done it."
Like everyone else, McCarron is impressed with what Browning is doing.
"He's playing great," McCarron said. "I think he'll be the first to tell you us running the ball and establishing the run helps a ton and opens everything up and he's putting the ball where it needs to go."