Cincinnati Bengals' defensive moves paying off in playoff push

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton watched the quarterback’s eyes, waited for the ball and then made his break.

Hilton jumped in front of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's intended target, intercepted his pass and high-stepped into the end zone as Cincinnati’s sideline and the home crowd erupted with jubilation.

Performances like that in Sunday’s 41-10 blowout victory over Pittsburgh were why the Bengals signed Hilton and other key defensive players the past two offseasons. If not for a garbage-time touchdown, the Steelers were on track to have as many turnovers (three) as points.

Aside from a mid-season wobble, Cincinnati’s defense has been the steady undercurrent in the Bengals’ best season since 2015, which also marks their last playoff appearance.

“Different guys are stepping up and making big plays for us,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said after the win. “That’s really, really good to see at this point in the year.”

Three of the Bengals’ recent free-agent signings came up with the three key turnovers that helped Cincinnati (7-4) win its second straight game.

On Pittsburgh’s first possession, cornerback Eli Apple tallied his second interception in as many weeks and came 5 yards away from returning the pick for a touchdown. While Cincinnati settled for a field goal, the play set the tone for the rest of the day.

“From there, we never looked back,” Burrow said.

When Apple signed with Cincinnati this year, he was viewed as a depth addition behind Trae Waynes, the cornerback the Bengals signed to a three-year, $42 million deal during 2020 free agency. But with Waynes missing all but one game this season with a hamstring injury, Apple’s acquisition has proved to be valuable.

The same can be said for defensive end Trey Hendrickson and Hilton, who produced turnovers that led to the rout of the Steelers.

Before Sunday, Hilton said he had never returned an interception for a score at any level of football. After the touchdown against his former team, he couldn’t stop smiling when asked how he felt following the blowout win.

“Do you really want to know?” Hilton said. “Best feeling in the world.”

Hendrickson was another expensive addition (four-year deal worth $60 million) who was tasked with proving his contract wasn’t simply rewarding his atypical 2020 season with the New Orleans Saints that produced 13.5 sacks.

In the third quarter on Sunday, Hendrickson sacked Roethlisberger and forced a fumble recovered by Cincinnati’s Sam Hubbard that all but ended any potential Pittsburgh (5-5-1) comeback.

The Bengals’ defensive performance was also another example of Cincinnati’s ability to respond to a poor stretch of play this season. In losses to the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns in Weeks 8 and 9, respectively, the Bengals surrendered 3.09 points per drive.

But in last week’s win over the Las Vegas Raiders that ended the short losing streak, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit allowed just 278 total yards. The Steelers didn’t muster a touchdown until the Bengals’ backups were playing in the fourth quarter.

“What we have is special and that’s what we’ve been planning on doing since I walked in the building,” Hendrickson said.

Throughout the season, the Bengals’ defense has needed to make big stops and plays while the offense tried to find its collective footing. That wasn’t the case on Sunday when Cincinnati scored 24 offensive points in the first half, tying the highest total during Taylor’s three-year coaching tenure.

Most of the offseason chatter surrounding the Bengals centered on the high-powered offense that has used key draft picks to draft players such as Burrow and rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.

But Sunday showed that the defense has been equally pivotal to Cincinnati’s best season in six years. And it’s a unit that could look even better than it did against the Steelers.

“That’s something we want to get better every week,” Hendrickson said. “And we plan to.”