If you don’t closely follow the Bengals, you might not know about rookie cornerback KeiVarae Russell.
The former Notre Dame cornerback was a third round draft pick by the Chiefs in 2016, but was waived prior to the start of the NFL season, at which point the Bengals jumped to claim him off waivers.
Russell has been inactive in all but five games this season and coming into Sunday, he had not played any snaps on defense. There was a game where he took the field on defense, but after a penalty occurred before the play, he ended up being taken off the field. Russell had one special teams tackle all season, his lone appearance in any box score prior to Week 17.
But, in the Bengals’ final matchup of the season with the Ravens, Russell was thrust into action in the closing minutes of the game, and boy did he deliver. On the fourth to last play of the game, right after the two minute warning, Ryan Mallett entered the game for Joe Flacco and targeted Breshad Perriman on a deep pass. Russell was in coverage and perfectly tracked the ball before diving backward with his hands over his head to reel in the ball and make a terrific game-sealing interception.
If this is what Russell can do on his first defensive snap of the season, I look forward to seeing what he can do with even a backup’s typical amount of snaps.
“They’re down by 17 points or so with about a minute or so left. So you’re not going to do much with curl routes or under routes, so I figured it was going to be a deeper route,” Russell said of the play after the game. “As I was back pedaling, I noticed he was coming back kind of fast, so I opened up inside so I could see the quarterback and I could see it was going to be a deeper route. As he threw it, I felt the receiver, I was shielding him off a little bit, and I was reaching for the ball the whole time.”
That’s how you make a play.
“I like the story. I like the start of a good story,” Russell said of his first defensive snap resulting in an interception. “I like that. It’s nice, it feels good, man.”
When the Bengals picked up Russell off waivers, the intention was never for him to play this year, but that he would develop and learn just like the rookie cornerbacks who came before him.
“I still take it like I’m at the bottom. That’s how I take it. Even if something good happens and I become a starter, I train as if I’m always a starter,” Russell said of his mentality. “That’s just me. Coming into this year — developmental or not — I still train and practice against A.J. Green to prepare for moments like this. And when they call my name, I want them to know I prepared for this as if I was going to play every single snap. I’m not preparing like I’m only going to play three snaps.”
And if you’re wondering if any other NFL player has snagged an interception on his first defensive snap, it has happened. Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, who was a first round draft pick in 2015, grabbed an interception one play into his NFL career, last season. Peters went on to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. We can only hope Russell will go on to have as bright of a career as Peters is off to (which includes 14 interceptions in his first two seasons).