“Throughout the week we knew he’d give us chances and early on we capitalized on them,” said Bengals rookie free safety Jessie Bates. “After the first two interceptions we knew he was a little rattled.”
Bates said they figured another pick would “put a fork in him.”
He and his defensive mates were feeling pretty good about themselves by then and he said “Everybody was like, ‘Man, why aren’t we taking a picture?’ And we decided the next one we get we’re taking a picture.”
He said they even practiced a pose on the sideline.
Bengals linebacker Jordan Evans then picked off a Winston pass with just over five minutes left in the third quarter, but the situation didn’t allow them to implement their plan.
But that all changed late in the quarter when Bates stepped in front of a Bucs receiver and intercepted Winston on the Tampa Bay 21-yard line to set up the grandest play of his young NFL career.
“He threw it right to me,” Bates said. “All I had to do was catch it and run. I saw the whole crowd and I said to myself, ‘Please don’t fall! …Please don’t fall.’ And I was able to keep my feet and score.”
His touchdown return put the Bengals up 34-16 and put the photo shoot in motion.
Eight of the other Bengals defenders ran to Bates and they quickly assembled. He was in the middle. Evans stood on one side of him, defensive end Carlos Dunlap stood on the other side.
Four more guys crouched in front of him and rookie defensive end Sam Hubbard lay on the ground in front of the group, his arms spread wide.
It looked like the perfectly posed wedding photo.
Yet within a quarter it was feeling more like a funeral shot.
The Bucs yanked Winston, put in Ryan Fitzpatrick, a former Bengals quarterback, and he ushered a masterful comeback, tying the score 34-34 with 1:05 left in the game.
Once up 21-0, the Bengals had blown that three-touchdown lead. By days end the defense had given up 576 yards, this coming after being burned for 551 yards in a 45-10 loss to Kansas City last Sunday.
A last-minute rally by the otherwise moribund Bengals offense in the second half got the team in range for Randy Bullock to kick a 44-yard field goal on the final play and give Cincinnati the wild, 37-34 victory.
“This feels weird,” Bengals middle linebacker Preston Brown, who also picked off Winston, said as he stood at his locker afterward. “If we didn’t have those four takeaways, they’d have had 800 yards.”
Bates felt the same way:
“It would have been crazy to get four turnovers and lose the game. But when you give up almost 600 yards and still win, that’s crazy, too. It’s funny when you look at it, but we have to be happy with it.”
The Bengals are just lucky Fitzpatrick, who completed 11 of 15 fourth quarter passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns, didn’t get the ball one more time.
Bates said he thought the defense lost some focus:
“A lot of guys were celebrating. Everybody had to calm down and breathe and go back out and do their jobs.
“Some people may have gotten lazy., Their eyes got comfortable. You can’t do that out here.
“This game will humble you fast and it did that today.”
The four interceptions did save the day and none was bigger than the Bates’ pick.
He has three interceptions this season and leads the team in tackles, but this was his first NFL score, so he hung onto the ball and headed toward his mom, who was sitting three rows up in the stands.
“The people in front of her kind of knew it was my mom so they got out of the way,” he grinned. “I threw it to her and she caught it. … Maybe that’s where I get my hands.”
Sunday’s victory stopped a two-game losing skid and sends the Bengals into the bye week at 5-3.
“Obviously we don’t want to give up the yards we did today, so we know we’ve got things to work on before the next game,” Evans said. “But regardless of how it looked, a win is a win.
“And when you look back at this, the first thing you’ll see is that we won.”
So maybe that picture of celebration did tell the story after all.