Phillips earned the kick returner job coming out of the preseason, but with cornerback B.W. Webb out because of an arm injury, Phillips had more opportunity to shine Sunday on defense. He and Tony McRae split time in the slot, and Phillips went from playing two defensive snaps in Week 2 to getting in for 22 snaps at Buffalo.
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His interception came when defensive end Sam Hubbard got a hold of Bills quarterback Josh Allen, and Allen still attempted to fling a pass to Chris Beasley. Phillips got in front of Beasley before the ball even arrived, and he ran it 27 yards to put Cincinnati on the Buffalo 22-yard line. Three plays later, the Bengals were on the board.
“He’s a great quarterback that tries to give his receivers chances to go up and make a play, and he tried,” Phillips said. “But, if you watch film, the D-line had great pressure, Geno (Atkins) had great pressure, the linebacker, (LaRoy) Reynolds had great pressure on him, and he just threw it up and I was able to come down with it.”
Phillips has been working for those opportunities every day in practice, he said, slowly building up more trust from the coaching staff.
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The 2018 fifth-round draft pick finished the preseason as the highest graded cornerback in the league (out of 160 cornerbacks with 60-plus snaps) and was the second-best player in coverage, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
“It’s just something going on daily, coming out to practice and showing they can trust me and believe in me, so it’s just going from there,” Phillips said.
Phillips had to work to regain trust on special teams during the preseason. He fumbled twice in the first exhibition game at Kansas City, and by the third game when starters saw their most action, he didn’t play at all. Phillips had a punt return for a touchdown in the finale nullified by a block in the back, but special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons had seen enough by then.
Simmons approached Alex Erickson in Week 1 and told him he was going to split up the duties and give him punt returns and Phillips the kick returns.
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“His issue in the preseason in the Kansas City game was catching the ball on punts, and that’s something we are still working hard towards and he’s working hard to rectify and fix,” Simmons said. “That’s why I feel so good we have Alex back there.”
That Erickson isn’t still doing the kick returns as well says a lot about Phillips’ ability. Erickson has been one of the top returners in the league.
Phillips set the FBS career record with 12 return touchdowns at Western Michigan, and five of them were kick returns. Sunday made him feel like he was back in college, but Simmons said his vision has always been there. Now it’s just time to see it put to use, like it was on the 92-yard kick return.
“That’s where it starts,” Simmons said. “They have to have great vision. I think he’s fast enough. He’s fast enough to score twice. But, he had a feel for it back in college. Some guys have that knack and some guys don’t. And I think Darius does, so let’s continue building on it.”
“Quite honestly, Darius, just as big a play was the next kick return he had that he had to run up and field at the 22-yard line, and that’s as big a play as anything, too,” Simmons added. “We could have really put our team at risk if the ball hit the ground there. It’s just nice to see him playing with some confidence. I think everybody else, the rest of the guys around him feel the same confidence and feel the same excitement he brings.”
Bengals at Steelers, 8:15 p.m., ESPN, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7