Tyler Boyd, who along with his mother tamed the mean streets of Clairton smoldering above a bend in the Monongahela River 13 miles from Pittsburgh and Heinz Field, returns Sunday with another closing in mind.
Boyd and the high-flying Bengals offense featuring his almost ethereal connection with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow has a hometown appointment Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) with the Steelers' vintage hard hat defense on his 26th birthday. It's also the year anniversary of when he closed on his house in the Pittsburgh environs that his old high school coach calls "a big mansion."
"There's everything in that house. Oh my gosh," says Tom Nola, the retired Clairton head man.
Nola knows because Boyd had him over there this summer. Boyd, who has also closed on a new home for his mother as well as finishing off house payments for other family members along the river while sending youth teams from those same streets on the road, likes to keep his people close. He talks to Nola every Monday morning after a game and Nola had to laugh about a recent call.
"Burrow threw it to him in the end zone and he didn't get his head around in time. I told him, 'Tyler, you should have caught that.' He just said, 'I know,'" Nola says. "He's the same guy. He hasn't let it get to his head. His mother did such a good job."
There haven't been many of those this season as Burrow-to-Boyd has become one of the surest things in Cincinnati this side of an orange barrel. One drop in the slot, according to profootballfocus.com despite the second most slot targets in the league. On pace for a third straight 1,000-yard season with the second-most first down catches by an NFL wide receiver. Only the Chargers' Keenan Allen and Boyd's estimable opposite number in Pittsburgh, JuJu Smith-Schuster, have more third-down catches in the AFC.
"That's 100 percent his attitude. His belief in himself," says Bengals wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell. "We say this all the time. There are guys that don't want to be in that situation. Tyler is begging to be in that situation. He's not afraid. If he makes a mistake, he makes a mistake. Which he rarely does. He's just not afraid of that. I love him. He's one of my favorite players of all-time."
Bicknell, a tell-it-like-it-is New Englander, is coaching receivers with his fourth NFL team in the past decade and says Boyd is the best slot receiver he's coached and not only that, he can't think of a guy playing the position better than him at the moment. And if he was starting a team Boyd is his guy in the middle above all others.
Boyd is the quintessential Pittsburgh player opposing the Steelers. Schooled in the Western Pennsylvania hotbed and honed on The Hill at the University of Pittsburgh, he's tough, savvy and fearless while staking his claim to the middle of the field.
"I don't have stats in front of me," Bicknell says. "I don't know how many catches guys have in the slot or anything like that. But I know he's playing at a high level."
Now think back to when Bicknell was hired two years ago on an offensive staff still piecing together the fallout of an in-season coordinator change. He didn't sense much enthusiasm about Boyd in the building heading into his third season with just 76 catches. A year later he grabbed a $43 million extension as he eased into what the Bengals knew he could do. Find leverage in the middle of the field and open up defenses on the big downs.
"If you put on the tape, you could just see he can separate and he understands it. We did some things with him that allowed him to do what he does well," Bicknell says. "Now I think he has said, 'OK, you guys allowed me to do some of the things I've done well. Now I'm going to get really good at the things you ask me to do.' He works harder at it. He understands the concepts. He's in the right spot, he knows his depths. He's a guy that's always going to make plays. He plays fast. He's just a little more of a student of the game."
But he's not textbook. He's more like a greeting card. With Boyd, Bicknell says, it's more of a feel. Intuition. When Boyd played for Nola and the Clairton Bears, he played quarterback and running back as well as wide receiver and it still amazes Nola how Boyd could avoid taking big hits and how when he ran with the ball as a back he could slow down as well as speed up. The best player among the schoolboy royalty of Western P.A. he's seen since, Nola says, Aliquippa's Darrelle Revis.
"He played for me so I guess I'm prejudiced," Nola says. "He did it all. He played free safety for us, too, and the only game he lost was his very first one his freshman year."
Bicknell believes that he and Boyd have "morphed together," as Boyd has cleaned up his work at the line of scrimmage and instead of lingering, at times, as a freelancer, he's getting off the ball stronger and faster. Bicknell thinks the rapport he's developed with Burrow shows how advanced the rookie truly is.
"(Boyd) is not always going to burst off the ball one, two, three, boom. Those are things you have to realize he's going to do a little differently," Bicknell says. "I credit
Joe Burrow. He's very quickly realized he's not the most conventional guy, but he's going to be able to separate and that's not easy. You have to be able to read a guy like Tyler. He's going to move around a little bit. He's going to skip off every once in a while. But he knows how to separate."
He'd also like to separate against his hometown team. He's 0-8 against the Steelers and you can tell he's been studying the NFL's sixth-ranked defense that brings the heat even better than the Ravens defense that held them to a last-minute field goal last month.
"I want to give all the credit to their front line. Their line, how they blitz, all their stunts they got is kind of similar to the Ravens," Boyd says. "I kind of feel like those two teams are really the only two teams that we've got to tighten up to protect. Because on the back end, I don't agree on those DBs being as good as Baltimore guys, but they're pretty good.
"I feel like we got the guys that should be able to win each and every battle if we protect. They use safeties to cover sometimes in the nickel. So I'll have a few mismatches out there in terms of them keep trying to send nickel pressure and different stunts like that. We've just got to take advantage every time we pick up the blitzes."
That's what he's been looking at this week. This is the stuff he has to hear when he's home:
Nola, a wide receiver out of McKeesport and Bethany College, whose favorite Steeler of all-time is Lynn Swann, says the perfect Sunday is a 41-38 Pittsburgh win with Boyd catching 200 yards.
"I hope you win every game you play except when you play the Steelers," Nola tells him.
Tonya Payne, his mother who kept them off the streets, is laying down the law again to his brothers and everybody else in the row when they go to Heinz. No more wearing both Steelers and Bengals stuff combined.
"They're not going to jinx us," says Payne, who must hold it two tickets this year.
It all makes Payne smile because she thinks of a little guy that plays in the Western Pennsylvania Youth Sports Association, the league she runs and her son supports financially and emotionally. In the middle of a Steeler household, the little man's bedroom is decked out in Bengals orange and black with Boyd plastered all over the place.
"He's the most-watched person in Clairton," Nola says. "They love him."
With her son's help, the WPYSA has expanded into basketball and spring football. They've had to limit things this year because of Covid, but he is footing the bill for teams to play in Ohio. A nine-year-old team and a 13-year-old team, the Elite Panthers named after his college team at the University of Pittsburgh, is headed to Orlando, Fla., for games the first weekend in December.
That is, of course, the Sunday the Bengals play in Miami.
"I'll be going back and forth," Tonya Payne says.
But first there is a birthday to take care of at home.
"It wouldn't be right if I ended my career not beating them at all, which I don't think will happen," says Boyd, so quintessentially Pittsburgh as the heart of the Bengals. "I just notice how tough the game is going to go and how much I want to win."