It's no accident linebacker Germaine Pratt has become the first Bengals linebacker to come up with multiple forced fumbles and recoveries in the same season in the 18 years since fellow North Carolina native Brian Simmons conjured them up for Marvin Lewis' first Bengals team.
"He always say it's about the ball," says Vonn Bell, one of the Bengals defensive captains. "He said 'I woke up thinking about the ball.'"
Pratt is a guy you can't sleep on because he always plays as desperately as the Bengals had to play when they found themselves down 24-0 last Sunday. And, as he always does, he had scouted Chargers running back Austin Ekeler down to the last shift of the ball to log his second forced fumble of the season and set up a touchdown.
"If he's not the best preparation player I've ever been around, he's up there," says Bengals linebacker coach Al Golden, who has seen plenty of demographics as a two-time college head coach who has coached both sides of the ball in the pros.
They need Pratt's prep work now more than ever with middle linebacker, signal caller and emerging star Logan Wilson out for at least one game and maybe more with a shoulder injury. Pratt took Wilson's green dot on the defensive communicator helmet and stayed at his spot in the starting lineup while helping navigate Joe Bachie through a career-high 39 snaps when Bachie replaced Wilson in the middle in the second quarter.
"He's like a coach on the field," Bachie said Wednesday. "He's the veteran of the group and our guys lean on him and G's there to help everyone in the room."
That's a precocious coach on the field. Pratt turned just 25 in the spring. It shows you how young they are there even before the injuries devastated the backers.
Golden isn't quite sure who is going to come out of that room for Sunday's daunting call against the 49ers' fierce running game. Markus Bailey (shoulder) also had to leave early Sunday with a stinger and came out limited Wednesday, making the three prized backers from the 2020 draft dinged or out with Akeem Davis-Gaither's breakout season cut short on a trip to injured reserve.
So they've had to dip into the practice squad with the second-year Bachie. There's also Keandre Jones, a second-year guy who played two games for them last season and has been on the squad all year.
And Austin Calitro returned last month. Traded to Denver at the 2020 cut down for defensive tackle Christian Covington, Calitro brought back 13 games to up his NFL total to 42 games for three teams, none with the Bengals. A week after Covington came back to Paul Brown Stadium with the Chargers disguised as Deacon Jones, Calitro could make his Bengals debut.
But now Pratt, the third-rounder from the 2019 draft, is there keeping it together with high-pitched energy that matches his on-field chatter. He may not say a whole heck of a lot during his media interviews, but it turns out he's also a coach in the room. He'll cut you off he wants to talk so badly.
"His attention to detail, his film study, half the time in the meetings he doesn't let me finish a sentence," Golden says. "He knows what play is coming. I think he's put a lot into this. His practice habits are excellent. He's been running to the ball, attacking the football. He's playing lower. He's playing more consistently."
Pratt has been running to the ball ever since he came out of North Carolina State, but when he wrenched the ball free from Ekeler's hands Sunday so it could pop into the arms of free safety Jessie Bates III for a 46-yard fumble return, it wasn't only because he ran to the ball.
Later in the game, another one of Pratt's desperate sprints to the ball would be the sole reason he recovered slot cornerback Mike Hilton's forced fumble on Ekeler again at the Chargers 32 and gave the Bengals a shot to tie.
But there was something else about that forced fumble.
"He has a little bit of a game plan in his mind going into game," Golden says. "How he can attack the ball given the ball carrier's various tendencies in the past. More importantly, he's trained his mind how to react when he sees the ball in a certain position. I think that's one of the things he's doing really well right now."
Bachie had seen it all before.
"That's what he does every day in practice," Bachie said. "He's always going for the ball. Every play. He's always talking about it and then he goes and does it. Coach preaches it, but the players have to do it."
Bell, the strong safety who arrived last season, has noticed how far Pratt has come in just the past two seasons.
"The best I've ever seen him play since I've been here and I'm happy for him," Bell says. "He's blossoming in front of my eyes and yeah he has respect because he's going out there making plays. We trust him to do his assignments and he's putting us in the right checks at times. So we're going out there playing for one another, high energy guy feeding off each other so he's going to bring it on Sunday for sure."
If Pratt doesn't have the green dot helmet on Sunday, Bell is the guy who might have it. Bell will take it if they want him to take it. But he prefers to play in silence and, besides, he knows Pratt has it more than covered.
"He's a high energy guy so when he gets the green dot he's … ah, man it's time," Bell said with a smile. "Just say the call, we're going to reiterate it and we're going to make sure everybody gets it. It just takes time for that because man I've got voices in my head."
At the moment, Pratt is making himself heard just when they need to start making some noise.
"He's vastly improved," Golden says. "And we need him to keep it going down the stretch."