BENGALS CB CAM TAYLOR-BRITT VS. STEELERS WR GEORGE PICKENS
Since this is Bengals-Steelers, there’s always something else under the surface. And Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12) in the first edition of The Rivalry at some place called Acrisure Stadium is no different.
With the 3-6 Steelers looking to avoid head coach Mike Tomlin’s first losing season in a 16-year career straddling three Bengals franchise quarterbacks, the 5-4 Bengals are looking to replicate last year’s post-bye Super Bowl run. It’s a Twitter buffet with the Civil War handle of Bengals quarterback Col. Joseph Lee Burrow pitted against Steelers rookie field commander Kenny Pickett’s first charge into the Bengals reinforced defenses.
One of those new recruits is the fellow rookie Taylor-Britt, forced into the fray last month when Bengals’ No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie left the field for the rest of the campaign with a torn ACL. The personnel departments are on display with the physical, feisty Taylor-Britt, the 60th pick in the draft, in the first of many sorties against the equally rugged 6-3, 200-pound Pickens, a towering, talented Tee Higgins type high-pointed with the 52nd pick.
But, this is Bengals-Steelers.
Simmering under the matchups is Bengals cornerbacks coach Charles “Chuck,” Burks face-to-face with his mentor, Steelers senior defensive assistant coach Brian Flores. As the newly-named head coach of the Dolphins three years ago, Flores sifted Burks from Arkansas Tech and eight years in Division II coaching and put him on a fast track.
That’s where before Wednesday’s practice Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton declared the 35-year-old Burks is only “two or three years away,” from being a defensive coordinator.
There’s talent in front of this room of defensive backs. Safeties coach Robert Livingston, who interviewed for the Bengals DC job three years ago, directs one of the most productive tandems in the league in Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell in a secondary in the top 12 against the pass and on third down.
And there is Burks. During Steelers Week it must be noted that hanging in his office opposite a picture of Muhammad Ali and a quote is a framed paragraph from the philosophy of Steelers Hall-of-Fame head coach Chuck Noll.
“If you want to win, do the ordinary things better than anyone else does,” it reads in part.
“Relentless all the time,” says Bengals cornerback Eli Apple, who noticed this week the always energetic Burks had even a little more juice. “A young guy, but with an old man type of soul.”
After visiting Flores at the Steelers hotel Saturday night to “pay my respects,” he hopes to “kick his ass.” Burks wrote every NFL team for two or three years looking for a job and he saved all the rejection letters. Flores is the guy that took a shot on him.
“Brian Flores is the reason I’m sitting talking to you now,” Burks says. “I learned so much from him. Understanding the people and the situation. Making the offense play left-handed. He does a tremendous job making a particular player successful in matchups. It’s not necessarily about the scheme. It’s that detailed.”
Burks agrees that this is Taylor-Britt’s kind of matchup, kind of game, kind of rivalry, kind of division. Gritty, tough CTB loves contact and Burks says he’s ready. He also says, “He has no choice.”
“We’re talking about a guy that missed his entire first training camp and preseason and gets thrown into an NFL game,” Burks says. “He didn’t blink one bit. Good and bad, he keeps a smile on his face. He’s asking questions in the front row of meetings. It’s a physical matchup. That’s Cam’s game.”
Burks has been insisting Taylor-Britt’s best attribute is ball skills and he’s looking for that first NFL touch with either a pass defensed or interception. He may have even touched the 31-yard pass he gave up in Cleveland against Donovan Peoples-Jones and this is where the balance he learned from Flores comes in.
It’s people and situations.
“Covering receivers is different in college than it is in the NFL,” Burks says. “After going through how he can cover better, what is encouraging is he tried to get himself in position to make a play. Some guys are scared and don’t try to make plays. Cam’s not that way at all.”
Pickens, who has 29 catches for 370 yards and a touchdown in his first nine games, is highly regarded in Burks’ room. Chase Claypool may have had more in his first nine games with 35 and 500, respectively, but he has been traded.
“I think they saw Claypool as that big, 50-50 ball guy, but they moved him out and went right to this guy,” says Hilton, the former Steeler. “He’s a great contested receiver who can high point the ball. He brings a lot of physicality to those wide receivers with his blocking.”
Apple: “I like Pickens. Good player. Physical at the top of the route. He’ll talk, he’ll throw a shoulder or a helmet into you. He’s one of those guys who is faster than you think.”
Burks, who reads everything from James Baldwin to J.D. Vance, has been showing his guys more then Pickens film. Before the bye, they read some passages from “Extreme Ownership,” a book detailing the successful leadership of U.S. Navy Seals.
And he read that Ali quote to his players during the spring: “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
“That’s about learning,” Burks says. “You can be seven years in the league and still play like a rookie if you don’t learn.”
Burks admires Flores for much the same reason he put Ali on his wall. Not long after the Bengals hired Burks following Flores’ dismissal from the Dolphins after the Super Bowl, Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL alleging racial discrimination.
“I have the utmost respect for Brian Flores not only for what he’s done for me, but what he’s done for a lot of coaches around the league,” Burks says, “with his leadership and his willingness to stand up for what he believes in. I saw that on display every day.”
Like everyone else at Paycor Stadium, Burks really wants this one. When he was on the field before the opener warming up the cornerbacks, he accidently threw a ball behind Awuzie and heard a voice from the other end of the field.
It was Flores.
“Hey Chuck. Get the ball out in front.”
In this Steeler Week, Burks shook his head.
“Still coaching me,” he says.
Off one of its best practices Thursday since coordinator Lou Anarumo arrived with head coach Zac Taylor four seasons ago, the Bengals defense flexed its muscles heading into Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12) preparing for Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett and his rejuvenated run game with hopefully the return of captain D.J. Reader.
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