'I just don't know what a tackle is anymore!': Inside the game-clinching penalty against the Bengals

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –– As soon as the referee threw the flag, Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor started sprinting down the sideline shouting, “You can’t call that.”

When Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton tackled New York Jets running back Ty Johnson with two minutes left in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Taylor knew exactly what Hilton’s unnecessary roughness penalty meant. It was an automatic 15 yards and a first down, and the Jets clinched a 34-31 win over the Bengals.

The Bengals lost the game well before Hilton’s helmet touched Johnson’s. But Hilton’s penalty on third-and-11 was the last blown opportunity the Bengals had in the game, and the result of the play still stung after the game.

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Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton (21) is penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit on New York Jets running back Ty Johnson (25) in the fourth quarter during a Week 8 NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton (21) is penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit on New York Jets running back Ty Johnson (25) in the fourth quarter during a Week 8 NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

“It looked like a football play, a clean tackle,” Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “I'm not going to talk on any officiating. I feel like we could have done a lot of things to not put ourselves in that situation. Mike's a (great) football player, and I thought he made a great play. But it's not one play that comes down to it, there is a lot that went into that game."

Said Hilton on Twitter: "I just don’t know what a tackle is anymore! It’s fine we will bounce back! Much more left to accomplish!

There is a story behind why Hilton’s incidental contact led to a penalty, and it ties back to one of the most memorable Bengals games in the last five years.

On Dec. 4, 2017, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Bengals, 23-20, on Monday Night Football. In that game, Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster used his helmet to block Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Later in the game, Bengals safety George Iloka leapt into a helmet-to-helmet hit of Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) stands over a motionless Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) after making hard helmet to helmet contact on a block in the fourth quarter of the NFL Week 13 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. The Bengals gave up a 17-3 halftime lead to lose 23-20 on a last-second field goal.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) stands over a motionless Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) after making hard helmet to helmet contact on a block in the fourth quarter of the NFL Week 13 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. The Bengals gave up a 17-3 halftime lead to lose 23-20 on a last-second field goal.

Later that week, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said commissioner Roger Goodell was considering implementing a targeting rule. Then heading into the 2018 season, the NFL made a few rule changes, including a clarification about the specific scenario that Hilton was penalized for on Sunday.

The 2018 rule stated that “Players cannot lower their heads to initiate contact.” Following the Bengals loss to the Jets, referee Craig Wrolstad said Hilton was penalized for that exact reason.

“I’m not here to verse you on how to tackle properly,” Wrolstad said in a pool report. “But the rule is that you cannot lower your head to initiate contact on a player with your helmet. (It would have been a clean hit if Hilton) hit him with his shoulder, I suppose.”

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor argues with an official, yelling, "you can't call that," after Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton (21) (not pictured) is penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit in the fourth quarter during a Week 8 NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor argues with an official, yelling, "you can't call that," after Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton (21) (not pictured) is penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit in the fourth quarter during a Week 8 NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

The NFL implemented the rule to address player safety, but it was immediately criticized by defensive backs. On the day the NFL announced the change, five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted in a long thread that it’s “impossible” to tackle a moving target who’s looking down without the possibility of helmet-to-helmet contact.

On Hilton’s penalty against the Jets, Johnson appeared to initiate contact as he lowered his shoulder to brace for contact. Hilton attempted a low tackle of Johnson’s legs, but their heads collided as Johnson fought to reach the first down line.

“If you turn on any game in this whole world, you’ll see that same exact play,” Bengals safety Jessie Bates III said. “It happens at least 10 times a game. For them to call that in that situation of the game, it obviously (stinks), but we can’t let it get to that point.”

The Bengals' Mike Hilton was penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit on the Jets' Ty Johnson late in the fourth quarter Sunday.
The Bengals' Mike Hilton was penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit on the Jets' Ty Johnson late in the fourth quarter Sunday.

Bates added that, “You’d have to ask the NFL” what a defensive back is supposed to do in that situation, but it was just one moment in a fourth quarter collapse by the Bengals. With five minutes left in the game, the Bengals had a 31-20 lead.

Then, the Bengals defense missed two tackles on a touchdown throw to Johnson. When the Bengals got the ball, their offensive line failed to block a free rusher, leading to an interception by Jets defensive end Shaq Lawson. After that, the Bengals defense allowed another touchdown pass by a quarterback making his first NFL start.

If Hilton wasn’t called for the penalty on third down, the Bengals would have gotten the ball with just under two minutes. Hilton’s tackle was a last gasp effort in the final minutes of a game the Bengals were already trailing, which Taylor stressed after the game.

“It shouldn’t have to come down to those plays,” Taylor said. “We should just play better to not be in a position for that stuff to matter.”

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Bengals' Mike Hilton: 'I just don't know what a tackle is anymore!'