Kevin Huber battles fellow Pro Bowler Pat McAfee in Indianapolis Sunday.
When the Bengals mulled the second-round pick in the draft back in May, they could have gone defense.
As the 55th pick loomed, it was one of those college seminar discussions. Nobody was wrong because they were holding true to the grades and not need. It just so happened the Bengals could have used what was there at that point, both a defensive lineman and a running back, but LSU running back Jeremy Hill carried the day.
It was clearly a consensus pick, which is what Bengals president Mike Brown strives for on each selection. Hill had the grades from the scouts and the enthusiastic endorsement of the offensive coaches. He also had the benefit of institutional memory because the guys at the top, Brown and senior vice president of player personnel Pete Brown, have seen big backs win a lot of games for the Bengals down through the years.
How big was that pick?
In a year where quarterback Andy Dalton didn't have the combined 1,100 yards and 12 touchdown catches of starting wide receiver Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert, Hill carried the ball 222 times and racked up the Bengals' first five-yard-per carry average since James Brooks led the Bengals to their last playoff win in 1990. On Thursday the Cincinnati chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America recognized the effort and gave Hill the team's Most Valuable Player award.
It could have gone a few ways. The six writers gave Hill four first-place votes and one each to cornerback Adam Jone and left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
As Hill looked at the award presented by chapter president Kevin Goheen of FoxSportsOhio.com, he nodded across the locker room to his offensive line.
"It's not me, man. It's those five big old guys over there," Hill said. "We started to click at the end forming an identity. That's really those guys. I'm a small piece."
Not that small. He ended the season last Sunday night with three straight 100-yard games when he became the first Bengals back since Rudi Johnson in 2004 to hit 100 yards against the Steelers. That's the year Johnson was named MVP in a vote that began in 2002 with quarterback Jon Kitna winning the first two seasons. Hill is the first rookie MVP since Dalton in 2011.
Of course, the offensive line isn't the only group of old guys to Hill, since he's the youngest guy on the team at 22 years and two months. But he's already in the club record book as the only man with four games of at least 140 yards, something only two rookies had done in the NFL before him, Hall-of-Famers Eric Dickerson and Curtis Martin.
His five 100-yard games are the second best in club history and the first time it's been done since Cedric Benson set the record with six in 2009. Three straight is also second best, last done by BenJarvus Green-Ellis two years ago.
He's hoping the hot streak continues. There have only been three 100-yard games in Bengals post-season history and Ickey Woods has two of them from that rookie season of 1988 that put the Bengals in the Super Bowl.
"You look at all the successful teams," Hill said, "even when the great quarterbacks have won Super Bowls, they all had running games. You have to have one.
"It's a team thing. I'm a little piece. I just go in there and do what my coaches ask me to do. It's the guys around me doing their jobs and making sure I can get to the second level and do my thing."
SPECIAL MATCHUPS: Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons isn't very happy this week on a variety of fronts, starting with Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown's 71-yard punt return for a touchdown last Sunday night. And then there's cornerback Adam Jones not making the Pro Bowl as a returner.
Jones gets another shot Friday when the Associated Press names its All-Pro team. But the Bengals don't get another shot at Brown, the only man to return a TD against Bengals punter Kevin Huber in his six seasons and he's done it three times since 2011. This stuff doesn't just happen. With Simmons as coordinator from 2003-10, the Bengals had allowed only two TD returns.
When Simmons saw the play unfold, when he saw rookie gunner Darqueze Dennard miss Brown and then Brown reverse field to his right, he knew.
"We had the play stopped. We missed a tackle at the point of attack. We had guys folding over the top that should have been there," Simmons said. "We have to maintain integrity and stay vertical. They got out of their field lanes, they squeezed over the top, the ball started left, we had guys folded over the top, and he made a hell of a play. We don't make tackle, a couple of guys fall down as they're trying to fold. When that happens…"
Dennard has been good enough that the Bengals came into the game ranked second in punt coverage and they didn't have their other gunner, Dre Kirkpatrick, who started at cornerback. The 12 seconds or so of mayhem cost the Bengals the NFL's special teams title in a compilation of the top 10 kicking categories, a race they led most of the year until the Falcons caught them by a point in the final stats.
"One play," Simmons said. "That just shows you that you have to be consistent all the time in a full season."
Jones has been consistent all year, leading the league in not only kick returns but also being near the top in punt returns before finishing fourth. On Sunday night he played more than half the snaps on defense and lined up six times for Simmons despite being so sick with the flu he vomited a couple of times during pregame after tossing his lunch earlier in the day.
Simmons had no doubt he'd play.
"He's such a tough competitor. He plays for the guys in the room, the guys in the building," Simmons said. "He doesn't play for the Pro Bowl recognition. He plays for respect. And he plays for the respect of his teammates and coaches and he has that from me. He's a hell of a good player."
Simmons won't change things up Sunday and use Jones more than usual. He'll continue to pick his spots with wide receiver Brandon Tate according to how much Jones is playing as the third corner on defense and the flow of the game.
Another guy Simmons respects is the Colts' Pat McAfee, joining the Bengals' Kevin Huber in the Pro Bowl. It's going to be a tough day for Jones to cut loose on kick returns. The Lucas Oil Stadium roof figures to be shut and McAfee has an NFL-leading 70 touchbacks.
Simmons thinks Huber's numbers are more impressive, but he also thinks McAfee is a deserving player.
"When its 35 degrees out and the wind is blowing 20 miles an hour, that's a little different deal when you kick (in) 70 (degrees) and you've got nothing. That takes nothing away from McAfee, he deserves to go…he's a great kicker…I'm just saying what Kevin does is even better than that."