With Joe Burrow getting out of the hospital Wednesday after his appendectomy, rookie free safety Dax Hill took center stage at the Bengals first practice of training camp on the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields.
There is no timetable for when either Burrow or free safety Jessie Bates III get on the practice field. So as the Bengals wait on Bates, they've turned to the first-rounder from Michigan to take his snaps and safeties coach Robert Livingston saw what he wanted after the first workout.
"Communication," Livingston said. "The only different piece defensively, so go out there and communicate and make calls and don't freeze. If we don't do that, we can grow from there."
Hill didn't freeze, although he did say he certainly never expected to be in the starting lineup so quickly for a Super Bowl defense. Middle linebacker Logan Wilson continues to rest his shoulder, but he had a helmet communicator on the sidelines as defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo called the plays.
So, yeah, Hill was the only face that wasn't there in Los Angeles when Super Bowl LVI started.
"As time goes by, I'll feel more comfortable out there," Hill said. "But I'm beginning to adjust really well."
After the Bengals eased into things with a couple of seven-on-seven periods and two team periods, Livingston said it was a typical first practice for a rookie. Not as good as it looked at times and not as bad as it looked at times.
But, as Paul Brown would say, he's acting like he's been there before. The veteran playing next to him, strong safety Vonn Bell saw it during the spring.
"He's like a sponge right now, soaking up a lot of information," Bell said before practice. "Coachable. He wants to get better. He's got a natural feel for the game."
Bell is the best thing Hill and Livingston have going for them in Bates' absence. The man who conspired with Bates' tip over Tyreek Hill to come up with the biggest interception in Bengals history in overtime of the AFC title game in Kansas City. Playoff hero turned mentor in a matter of months.
"I'm a fan," Livingston said. "Vonn is a phenomenal leader. He's very vocal about his successes and his failures. I can't say enough about him … He just wants to be great … As a position coach you hate it when you want the players to be greater than they want to be and he wants to be the best. He works that way, he trains that way, he studies that way."
Bell, who played his ninth postseason game in the big one just two months after turning 27, knows exactly what's expected of him with Bates not around. While he mentors Hill, Bell has also kept in touch with Bates.
"Hold the group together. Have to be the anchor," Bell said of the secondary. "We've got a lot of guys that can do that. Mike Hilton. Jessie, for sure. Mike Thomas. We've got a lot of leaders in the room. (Bates) is still here in spirit."
But while they expect Bates back in time to play the Sept. 11 opener across the street against the Steelers, they know these guys can hold it together pretty well until then. That's been the blueprint since those 48 hours they signed Bell and nose tackle D.J. Reader in free agency.
When Bell signed with the Bengals back in the first days of the pandemic on March 25, 2020, the Bengals had just begun to make their Super Bowl moves a month before drafting Joe Burrow.
Here's what he told Bengals.com that day:
"I guess they said enough is enough and drew a line in the sand and they went and got some guys that can play the game and love the game. It creates a standard, it creates a culture. Guys that have been there in the atmosphere and they just want to bring the atmosphere to Cincinnati and that's what we plan to do."
On Wednesday, Bell said he's seen the transformation.
It's night and day different. Everybody believes in each other and holds each other accountable," Bell said. "It's a player-driven team. We've got a group of great guys here. Character guys. Hats off to the coaching and scouting departments finding these guys and putting each unit together. It's remarkable to come to work every day. It makes it fun to come to work every day. Everybody holds you accountable and everybody believes we can do it."
So it helps that Hill is coming into that environment. Not to mention the defense is coming off one of the most amazing runs in franchise history with eight postseason interceptions. Bell admits it's probably the best run he's been on. But he's not wallowing.
"Blank slate," Bell said. "It's behind me now. It's like the first day of school. Just put it behind us. Learn from the things you messed up on. Learn and try to find growth. Critique yourself and just dive deeper into the game and keep on learning.
"Just keep working on execution. Communication. Find that one percent to get better."
Yes, he says. The loss stings even if it's behind him. But …
"Just find that one percent better this year," he said. "It can fuel the fire."
Bell says "there are some glimpses," of the rookie Bell in the rookie Hill as he goes through "learning curves and learning pains." His advice is pretty simple.
"Just keep your ears open," Bell said. "And eyes clear."
PLAYER OF THE DAY: WR Stanley Morgan Jr.
Head coach Zac Taylor didn't change the script with backup quarterbacks Brandon Allen and Jake Browning, but Morgan did. Morgan, best known for his work on special teams, came up with three diving catches against three of the Bengals top four cornerbacks
And it was no accident.
"I just went back to the basics in my training," Morgan said after practice. "Get back to myself. Get back to fundamentals. Just playing special teams for so long, I wanted to get back to that receiver mindset."
Morgan left Nebraska four years ago as the school's all-time leading receiver and he admits he heard some of the stuff going around this offseason that the Bengals don't quite have a No. 4 receiver after the Big Three.
It sure looked like they did Wednesday. Cornerback Eli Apple had good coverage on him on an over route and Morgan sill made a diving catch (in front of Bengals president Mike Brown's golf cart no less). Then he made a diving over-the-shoulder grab out leaping Mike Hilton down the middle. He finished it up going down and scooping a ball off the grass in front of cornerback Tre Flowers.
"I'm focusing on the ball making sure I'm grabbing the ball and catching it with my eyes rather than my hands," Morgan said. I'm giving myself an insurance card."
PLAY OF THE DAY: CB ELI APPLE
Apple didn't wait around to win the coveted Bengals.com prize. He made it on the camp's first play of team drills when he stepped in front of his favorite NFL player and broke up Allen's hitch route to wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. He dropped the interception, but if it looked like he'd been getting ready for that play during the six-week break, he did.
Apple remembered that when he had Chase in press coverage back in the spring on the first play, Burrow didn't go after him on the hitch route. He checked to a vertical route, Apple said.
"They did the same thing in OTAs on the first play," Apple said. "I knew (today) was going to be a vertical or a hitch. I was like, 'Have good technique.' I knew Joe wasn't going to check to the hitch. With (Allen), I thought vertical all the way, but once he broke it down, the ball kind of got there late and I had time. I should have picked it off."
Apple loves going against Chase and a few snaps later he held up deep against him down field.
"He's a beast down the field. It's tough to stay with him when he gets going," Apple said. The toughest thing about him is he's fast and physical. He always knows how to go get ball. He's hungry. He's competitive as hell."
QUOTE OF THE DAY
CB ELI APPLE ON HIS TWO FAVORITE NFL PLAYERS:
"I watch all of (Chase's) highlights all the time. He's my favorite player. Best receiver in the league. Just watching him play, nobody does what he does the way he does it. The (Bengals) defensive line is 1A. Trey Hendrickson. Sam Hubbard. D.J. Reader. Those guys."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Even before Burrow had his appendectomy, the Bengals knew they needed a third quarterback and called rookie Drew Plitt. They liked how Plitt looked in his tryout at the May rookie minicamp and put him on a list they had to punch up Tuesday morning.
It was a thrilling phone call for a kid who grew up in the Cincinnati suburb of Loveland before playing at Ball State. But he almost didn't take it.
"I've been getting a lot of spam calls lately and I almost didn't pick up," Plitt said.
He was back home literally on a couch in Carmel, Ind., about 120 miles from the stadium working on a computer helping out his father's company.
"I was doing a little paperwork he sent my way. I graduated in accounting so he knows I can do it," Plitt said. "I didn't know about Joe. They just asked me, 'When can you get here? I said, "Two hours.'" …
Evan McPherson made all six field goals at the end of practice, the last three coming from 42, 46 and 48 with rookie long snapper Cal Adomitis and first-year holder Drue Chrisman …
Right end Trey Hendrickson, he of the Bengals-record 14 sacks, was on the field after not attending the spring voluntaries …
Tough moment for second-year running back Elijah Holyfield. Last year's practice squadder and son of former heavyweight champion Evandor Holyfield got carted off the field when he went down in the first period of team drills with what looked to be a non-contact injury as he tried to make a cut …
Many Bengals wore guardian caps on their helmets, a feature designed to lessen concussions …
About 800 fans showed for practice …The Bengals go again at 2:15 p.m. today …