Running back Jeremy Hill's 12-yard run, the only touchdown of the second half during the Bengals' win in New York Sunday, had all the characteristics of 2014.
You remember. When Hill, a rookie, was their MVP, and he smashed to 5.1 yards per carry. Running the inside zone north and south. Decisive cuts. Bowling people over the goal line and then dragging them into the end zone. Head coach Marvin Lewis this week invoked last year's opener in Oakland, when Hill scored two goal-line touchdowns but had to veer to the outside to get both when the middle was clogged. He seemed to feel that set a trend for Hill and was a factor in his yards per dipping to 3.6. There was more east and west after the trip to the west coast.
"He got the ball north and south and got his shoulders pointed toward the goal line like we ask him to do. He did a great job," Lewis said of Sunday's stroll. "He scored a touchdown last year in the first ballgame of the season, and it seemed to be the characteristic for a bit. It seemed to be his tendency. Now, hopefully his tendency is more this way, as we move forward this season."
Hill's not sure what that all means. He feels like he's doing what they're asking. And some feel it may help if Hill is asked to run the inside zone more than he did last season. It really helps when left guard Clint Boling is able to come off his double team and blow up Jets linebacker David Harris for an end-zone escort.
"You can't run the same plays the same way every time," Hill said after Thursday's practice. "You have to read it and take what the defense is giving you. I can't only run outside. I can't run only inside. It's reading your dots, reading the play, how it plays out. That's what Marvin has asked me to do."
It is Steelers Week and with Sunday looming (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), it hasn't been as bad as you might think for Hill. He did take the call of an ESPN national reporter before meeting for about 10 minutes with the local media and, as usual, he was quite accommodating and quotable even though he knew The Question about The Fumble was coming and he had already answered it all back in May
"We had some interceptions, fumbles. I had the biggest fumble of the game," said Hill of his drop with 1:23 left and the Bengals leading by one that rolled around the world when the Steelers cashed it to win. "So we have to take away all that. If we take care of the football it will be a completely different game. That's how we have to go into this Sunday. Take care of the football."
By his own count he has seen the play "a million times," so many times, "I lost count."
"I keep on NFL Network and it's on the commercials, it's everywhere. That's just part of it," Hill said. "But it's a new season, a new opportunity."
Even more crushing is that the fumble also made possible the nightmarish last play of two 15-yard penalties that gave the Steelers a chip-shot field goal to win it and froze a national narrative the Bengals can't shake. They lost their minds, the critics said.
"It's 2016. We're 1-0. And we're still talking about a game in January?" Hill asked politely. "I don't know. I could really care less. I'm trying to focus on Sunday."
Out with 2016 is his end-zone dancing and Hill kept true to his vow to scrap it this year. It looked last Sunday as if he had developed a new routine of sprinting to the official to hand him the ball and then offer a traditional hand shake to any teammate he could find. But he says that's not it.
"I'm just not celebrating. Whatever happens after that happens," Hill said. "I'm not trying to draw attention to myself. I just want to help my team win games.
On Wednesday, Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth talked about how everyone had turned the Wild Card Game into a UFC bout instead of a football game. That must be a theme because Hill echoed the sentiments of his LSU big brother. The tweeting around this game last year was Theater of Absurd stuff, as was some of the ensuing analysis.
"I think in this game everyone wants the quote, the back and forth. It's just not worth it," Hill said. "It's a football game at the end of the day. We're not boxers, we're not UFC fighters. We're going there to play a game. I don't care about the other stuff."
CLAIM GAME:Change of scenery has worked for veteran defensive backs in the past and present Bengals secondaries (cornerback Adam Jones and safeties Reggie Nelson and Taylor Mays) and now they hope to try it on a rookie.
A day after the Chiefs stunned the NFL by cutting third-round pick KeiVarae Russell, a Notre Dame cornerback, the Bengals claimed him 24th in the claiming order Thursday and waived offensive lineman Trey Hopkins. Hopkins can play all three line spots, so the Bengals figure to try and sign him to the practice squad if he clears waivers.
A day after the surprise cut, it was maybe even more of a surprise that the 5-11, 192-pound Russell slid to the Bengals that far down the claiming list and that he got by the cornerback-starved Steelers at No. 23.
Now that the Bengals have seven cornerbacks on the roster, they could be poised to assign Russell to the practice squad at some point since this is a move for next year more than this year in their bid to develop what turns out to be an extra third-round pick. The claiming of No. 3 quarterback Jeff Driskel two weeks ago have them an extra sixth-round pick.
There's a chance that No. 1 pick William Jackson comes back from injured reserve recall sometime after week eight, giving them another young cornerback.
Russell never sold the Chiefs. Cornerback D.J. White, their sixth-round pick, got ahead of him on the depth chart and was active in the opener while Russell wasn't. Kansas City also unloaded a draft pick on the 49ers to pick up corner Kenneth Acker late in the preseason.
But Russell came out of Notre Dame with high grades that made him the 74th pick: "First-day starter from the time he stepped foot on campus. Angular, athletic build. Plays fast. Smooth hips and light feet opening from press. Plus route recognition," is the scouting report from NFL.com.
He missed the 2014 season in South Bend when he was one of five players suspended for academic improprieties.
INJURY UPDATE: Meanwhile, the Bengals secondary had a good day Thursday. Slot corner Darqueze Dennard (ankle) went full go for the second straight day and Jones (back) went full after being limited Wednesday.
Starting left end Carlos Dunlap (shoulder/toe) went limited for the second straight day. Backup defensive tackle Pat Sims (ankle) didn't work again this week, which means he's missed both full-scale workouts of the week and could be out. But he did play last Sunday after missing one day with the same injury. For the second straight week, wide receiver James Wright (knee), who played last Sunday, sat out Thursday to rest it.
The Steelers look to be getting healthy. Wide receiver Markus Wheaton (shoulder) went full go again after missing their opener. Linebacker Ryan Shazier (knee) went limited after sitting out Wednesday. Center Cody Wallace (knee) sat out Thursday after going full Wednesday.