Bengals head coach Zac Taylor planned on having seven game captains Sunday in New Orleans to represent the team at the coin toss. Three LSU alums La'el Collins, Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase; former Saints Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Trey Hendrickson; and New Orleans native Stanley Morgan, Jr.
But Hendrickson, the Pro Bowl edger, politely declined.
"We talked about it on Thursday and I said with all due respect I just want to focus on the game," Hendrickson said Monday. "It's a business trip for me. No real emotion. Don't want to do anything out of the norm. Focus on getting that quarterback."
He didn't get a sack, but he got the quarterback enough that Taylor gave him a game ball. It was Hendrickson's third-down hit on Andy Dalton's throwing arm that forced a three-and-out and on the next play after the punt, Burrow hit Chase for the 60-yard winner.
Then on the next and final drive of the game, the Bengals' lone sack of the day, a collaboration of tackle B.J. Hill and edge Sam Hubbard, sealed it.
"We stepped up when we needed to," Hendrickson said. "Sam and B.J. had a huge sack. Pressure was pretty constant. He felt us. We have to get better stopping the run this week."
Hendrickson had two of the five hits on Dalton and according to Pro Football Reference, Hendrickson is fourth in the league with nine quarterback knockdowns and Hubbard is right behind with seven.
"They do everything together. It's like 'Step Brothers,' " said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo on Monday, reflecting on Hendrickson and Hubbard. "They feed off each other. They work out together. Just phenomenal. The amount of pressure.
"I think we are top five in pressures, nobody wants to have more sacks than Trey Hendrickson. But we are right there and pressuring the hell out of quarterbacks and they feel it. That's what's important. They play off each other so well and I'm happy they are ours."
According to PFR, the Bengals are tied for second with 28 QB knockdowns, nine behind Washington.
Anarumo was not pleased with Hendrickson's roughing the passer call on third-and-25 in the third quarter in the wake of the NFL announcing a revised policy this week. It cost the Bengals a field goal, 68 yards and nearly four minutes in time of possession.
"There are certainly guys when you do it, they know that was dumb. I shouldn't have done that. Trey fell in that category, understanding what that meant," Taylor said. "Our guys have done a really good job. You get an outlier of that situation for us, we've done a really good job of preventing it. You get a player who handles himself the right way and does a great job. He understands that message quickly. We know as a team that's not something we can continue to do."
STOP SIGN: On Monday the Bengals defense was breathing a little easier after it made stops on the last two drives of the game. As well as the defense played in the three losses, they had allowed drives no matter how long at the end that paved the way for three last-play field goals.
"We all knew. We knew we needed to finish this week, and that's what we did," said Hill, who manned up with the second most snaps of his career with 66 and came up with the killing half sack on the 65th. "I told the guys it's up to us. We've got to finish this week. It's going to be on us. Everybody said 'Let's get it.' And that's what we did."
Not exactly how they drew it up. Missing for the entire second half was backup nose tackle Josh Tupou (walking boot), already playing the majority of the snaps with starter and team leader D.J. Reader on injured reserve. Also sidelined early in the fourth quarter was their leading tackler, middle linebacker Logan Wilson (shoulder). Third-rounder Zach Carter, usually Hill's backup, played a career-high 30 snaps and Jay Tufele, the second-year waiver wire pickup on cutdown day from Jacksonville, played his first 23 snaps as a Bengal.
Taylor is crossing his fingers that Wilson is week-to-week after he underwent labrum surgery in the shoulder area during the offseason. It sounds promising but there are more exams and he'll know more before Wednesday's practice.
It sounded like Tupou could be out a couple of weeks. The Bengals also lost rookie edge Jeffrey Gunter (knee) in warmups and Taylor thinks he could be week-to-week.
"(Tufele) played a heck of a game for us. We needed him when Josh went down. He played very well," Hill said.
They all stepped up on that next-to-last series with 3:43 left, down 26-24, and delivered a huge three-and-out. On a day they gave up their most rushing yards (228) since the last game of 2020, Carter and Tufele teamed to hold running back Alvin Kamara to three yards on first down and then Tufele and Hill dragged down Mark Ingram for three yards to set up Hendrickson's decisive rush.
"We talked about that. Finishing and closing," said Carter, who said it was a hot topic during the week and on the sidelines. "In Baltimore (last week) we had an opportunity to close out the game and we didn't. So we talked about that as a defense. We were like, 'this is our opportunity to show everybody that we can finish.' And we finished."
Hill may be soft-spoken, but he's seen as a constant vocal leader among his mates.
"He said 'Let's go.' That's all I needed to hear. Close it out," Carter said. "B.J. gives his all every game. He's out there a lot, honestly. I play behind B.J., so I'm always asking 'You need a blow?' But he has a motor on him. But we're going start to rotate in some more.
"He's a great guy. He has one of those personalities that's kind of contagious. He's fun to be around."
It's no coincidence that that the three biggest rushing games they've allowed since the Bengals signed Reader in 2020 (the 404 to the Ravens in the 2020 finale, Sunday's 228, the 205 to Cleveland in the 2021 finale) have come with him not in the lineup.
"He's irreplaceable," Taylor said. "One of the premier defensive tackles in the National Football League. Probably doesn't get enough credit for what he's done. But in our locker room, our coaching staff, him being voted team captain has allowed him to stand out in a way. That combination of him and B.J. is good together. So we'll be happy when he comes back. But I don't know the timeline."
Reader is getting there. He was on the rehab field last week working his knee and he made the trip, which also shows he's progressing because he has to be healthy enough to get out of the way on the sidelines.
"He gives me a lot of advice, things I could do better, things I could work on during the game and in the locker room and around the facility," Carter said. "DJ's encouraging us, dapping us up, hyping us up. It's good to have him around.
"He's basically a coach. He's a long-time vet in this league, so he's seen it all."
RPOs CARRY DAY: Taylor unveiled a game plan heavy on Burrow's run-pass options, the most ever. He was only under center twice. For a sneak and the final knee. But Taylor said that doesn't mean we'll see him in the shotgun formation all the time.
"That was where we turned to increase our first down efficiency. Really that's what it was," Taylor said. "If you look at our third downs, all but two were between two to four. That's a great way to live. Your percentages are sky-rocketed when you're not living in 3rd-and-8 to 12 land like we have in previous weeks on early downs."
The Bengals nearly doubled their average on first down when they got 8.2 yards on first down in New Orleans. That will happen when you get a 60-yard touchdown on first down.
"We're willing to be creative and look at any ways our offense can continue to evolve," Taylor said. "Next week we can be 90 percent under center, the next week we could be 98 percent in the gun. Just we've got those areas in our offense that we can utilize and there's no egos. Whatever it takes to win, depending on the style of defense we're going to face because that factors into things as well."
The Bengals have struggled trying to generate play-action passing from under center in their efforts to open up Burrow's deep game. With what the Saints offered defensively, the Bengals used Burrow's acute decision-making to read the defenders well enough to rack up a very efficient season-high 30 points on a season-best 6.4 yards per play and 60 percent (6-10) on third down.
"Whether they got to read it as a play action or a run or a quick passing game, there's just so many things they've got to go through," Taylor said. "There's sometimes we're reading a defender, sometimes we're not. Sometimes we are just looking at pre-snap looks. I think Joe does a really good job of balancing all that. He turned some of them down situationally and that was really smart by him. He could've taken the throws and taken some of the runs out of (running back Joe) Mixon's hands, but he didn't. He gave it to Joe and Joe got some really good production out of that stuff."
If you combine Mixon's runs and his receptions that are almost like runs, he had 12 touches for 68 yards for 5.7 per. With a similar approach against Baltimore last week, he rushed for 5.6 yards per.
"It just puts their box in somewhat of a bind. Whether they got to read it as a play action or a run or a quick passing game, there's just so many things they've got to go through," Taylor said. There's sometimes we're reading a defender, sometimes we're not. Sometimes we are just looking at pre-snap looks. I think Joe does a really good job of balancing all that. He turned some of them down situationally and that was really smart by him. He could've taken the throws and taken some of the runs out of Mixon's hands, but he didn't. He gave it to Joe and Joe got some really good production out of that stuff."
STAT CHECK: Here come Burrow and Chase.
Burrow leads the NFL in third-down passing with a 136.9 passer rating, ahead of Josh Allen's 133.3 in Buffalo. Chase is tied with Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce for the league-lead with 13 third-down catches. Which is why the Bengals are third in third-down efficiency …
Burrow's 12 touchdown passes are fourth best in the league and put him on pace to tie his club record of 34…
His 1,616 yards are fifth best and his passer rating of 95.6 is seventh best, just ahead of Tom Brady's 95.1 …
Chase's season-high 132 yards give him 475, good for eighth place and a 1,345-yard pace that would make him the Bengals' most prolific receiver in his first two seasons …
After forcing four red zone field goals, the Bengals defense is third in the league defending inside the 20 …