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Eli Apple is getting the last laugh
In Year 6, the mercurial corner is heading to the Super Bowl as the soundtrack of America's team. Eli Apple still has a few more things to say to Tyreek Hill, too.
Christmas passed more than a month ago but Santa Apple is here to say hello.
Both of his foes should know that his generous offer still stands. Maybe they’re down in the dumps, maybe they’re not quite ready to move on. Eli Apple wants both Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman to know he still has two Super Bowl tickets with their names on ‘em. They can take a seat inside the monstrosity that is SoFi Stadium and watch the Cincinnati Bengals’ Super Bowl showdown with the Los Angels Rams in-person as fans.
Of course, no player soaked in the Bengals’ comeback win over the Kansas City Chiefs quite like Apple.
“The offer was out there. They never hit me up,” says Apple. “They never followed through. I’m sure they’re busy in Cancun or the Pro Bowl. They can hit me up, though.
“I actually do have two available. I really do. That’s the funniest part.”
Approximately zero people in this country could’ve predicted before the 2021-22 NFL season that, by February, Eli Apple would be openly mocking Tyreek Hill as the Cincinnati Freakin’ Bengals swagger their way to their first Super Bowl appearance in 33 years. Yet, here we are… and it’s glorious. The Bengals shocked the world at Arrowhead in the AFC Championship and are now one win away from completing one of the greatest stories this league has seen in years. In the divisional round, cornerback Mike Hilton made the play that sparked an upset win over the Tennessee Titans. As the vet explained in detail — from Georgia’s snub to going undrafted to the Pittsburgh Steelers never offering him a contract — his rise mirrors Cincy’s rise. Apple is no different. He was written off as a bust long ago, too. He was a 10th overall pick in 2016 that two different New York Giant coaching staffs grew tired of.
For good measure, the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers gave up on Apple, too.
The Bengals took a one-year, $1.2M flier on him in 2021, and that flier has paid off.
On Monday night, Eli Apple chatted with Go Long for a half-hour. Like the diamonds in Joe Burrow’s chain, his mentality is a reflection of how the underdog Bengals are attacking the Super Bowl.
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Start with the play that saved the Bengals’ season: Apple’s takedown of Hill on the final snap of the first half. The Chiefs could’ve taken an insurmountable 28-10 lead.
Heck yeah he’s going to talk about it. His Twitter feed is more entertaining than pretty much any pregame filibustering you’ll see on the main TV networks this week, too, because these Bengals don’t operate in a safe space. They speak comebacks like this into existence. They made it clear they weren’t afraid of the Chiefs juggernaut into the AFC title — “They wake up and put the pants on the same way we do,” Hilton said — then wiped out an 18-point deficit with clinical ease. Apple knew what was coming at his 1-yard line with five seconds left in the first half. Earlier in the game, Hardman toasted the 6-foot-1, 199-pound corner for a touchdown out of this same look because he admittedly didn’t run with enough urgency.
Judging by the receivers’ split in the same exact formation, Apple knew the Chiefs would try to pick him again and he’d need to fight over the top of it. It’s an RPO concept with Hill jet-sweeping from right to left. As soon as Hill caught Patrick Mahomes’ delayed flip, Apple tried to “close the space down” and force the man known as “Cheetah” to either cut back into other bodies or take him on mano-a-mano.
Hill chose the later. Apple make the tackle.
Sometimes, football isn’t too complicated.
“I just tried to run my fastest,” Apple says, “and beat him to the spot.”
The tackle saved a touchdown and a field goal with the clock dripping to 0:00 but, into the locker room, Apple wasn’t celebrating. He was irate. He says he threw his helmet and screamed at the top of his lungs and that everybody was trying to calm him down. Apple had given up a big play over the middle and was flagged for pass interference in addition to getting burnt on that Hardman score. Cincy still trailed, 21-10. “Nobody wants to give up touchdown after touchdown,” he says, thinking back to that anger. Still, the Bengals defense knew exactly what the Chiefs were trying to do — this wasn’t some magical scheme created in a lab.
KC’s route concepts were all predictable.
Apple calmed down. Everyone calmed down.
“We’re like, ‘We know what they’re going to do. Let’s just go out there and make the plays that come to us. Let’s lock up.’
On the first possession, the Bengals defense got a stop and that is when Apple felt the momentum truly shift.
“I was like, Alright now, they’re going to feel like, ‘Oh shit. We made a mistake.’ And they’d start pressing. And they did.
“They got cocky. They wanted to pass. They wanted Mahomes to have the ball in his hands to get rid of us. We knew the concepts that were coming at us. Before the snap, we had a tell of what they were going to do, and then it was about beating their guys to that spot and competing for the ball. And our D-Line played really great in making sure he wasn’t comfortable in the pocket when he was trying to scramble and stuff. They’re one of those teams that knows what they want to do. Especially when they’re in dropback mode. There’s only so many things they can do with different sets. It’s just about their athletes being fast and our athletes being fast, too. Who can keep up with who?”
There was more than X’s and O’s at play, too. In the first half, Apple didn’t enjoy Hill’s trash talk and all of the Chiefs’ celebrating.
“When you’re up, it’s easy to talk trash and dance like they were dancing. They were throwing a big party in that first half. So that second half, the energy kind of shifted and he started arguing more with the guys instead of celebrating with them. So, it was fun to watch that transpire.”
When the going’s good, the Chiefs have been unstoppable for four years running. They’re a front-running, fun-loving bunch with a quarterback and a tight end exchanging shoulder-shimmies after touchdowns. Yet as soon as this game started to turn, Mahomes and the Chiefs resembled a shoddy Chiefs offense from yesterday. It was a weird sight. They got in a funk and could not escape that funk with the Bengals’ DBs suffocating their routes on the back end, Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard pressuring them up front and Mahomes suddenly stinking up the joint.
Emotion played a part, too.
The Bengals players absolutely took their celebrating into consideration through the comeback. Hardman’s dance, especially.
“They f----- up,” Apple says. “Any time anybody does that, it makes you mad as a defense. It makes you want to clean up stuff and make sure they don’t do that anymore. And they didn’t. After the touchdown they got on me, when I didn’t run to make that play on the pick — the pick-flat play — ‘17’ started hitting the ‘quan.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s over. We can’t let that happen anymore.’
“Once you start getting stops, it’s like ‘You all f----d up.’ And they knew it.”
This has been a wild six-year career. Apple sees no reason to hold back.
Ahead of the 2016 draft, one scout had this to say about the Buckeye to our Bob McGinn when McGinn wrote his draft series at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “I worry about him because of off-the-field issues. The kid has no life skills. At all. Can't cook. Just a baby. He's not first round for me. He scares me to death.” (Side note: Bob’s bringing his full draft series to Go Long this spring.) From there, NFL life couldn’t have been any more tumultuous. Apple reportedly considered walking out on the Giants (twice), was called a “cancer” by teammate Landon Collins, suspended a game for what the team called "pattern of behavior that is conduct detrimental to the team” and those Saints fans sure were quick to send him lowlight clips of his play after he recently trashed the city as the “dirtiest” and “smelliest” and said the crawfish was “killin yall brains.” (Yes, he has since embraced his role as full heel.)
Apple’s been a lightning rod for a while now, but even on the cusp of the Super Bowl he downplays the idea that he’s seeking vindication.
“I’m just thankful more than anything. I have a lot of gratitude for the position I’m in. I just want to continue to work hard and continue to do everything that got me back here. I need to take advantage of this opportunity. I don’t feel vindicated or anything. I feel like there’s still so much work to put in for this week and for the game and for the future.”
That being said, a player who most all assumed was finished is now essentially the soundtrack of the AFC Champions. He’s animated all game long — blowing kisses to the crowd, drawing an imaginary bow and arrow, etc. — and backing it up. In 18 starts, he has 55 tackles, 14 breakups and two interceptions. Cincinnati has been comfortable leaving Apple on an island as quarterbacks test him vertically.
Getting to this Super Bowl stage took “a lot of lumps” and “a lot of moments by myself,” he says.
He also has focused on his body.
Apple stopped eating meat and went on a vegan diet. Years past, he tried eating more greens but never stuck with it. The documentary “Game Changers” opened his mind, too. At one point in this film that examines how plant-eating athletes are breaking the mold, German strongman Patrik Baboumian says, “Someone asked me: ‘How could you get as strong as an ox without eating meat?’ and my answer was ‘Have you ever seen an ox eating meat?’” Apple remembers this line and points out that gorillas also follow a vegetarian diet. “And they’re the strongest animals,” he adds.
To supplement this, Apple started doing more yoga and Pilates to increase his flexibility. Too often, he was stiff along the boundary covering wide receivers. He wasn’t able to bend with them in and out of breaks.
And the biggest change came in the film room. Apple didn’t run from his past mistakes.
He re-watched those plays of himself getting burnt and tried picking up tips from others around the league.
“The way I play the game now is totally different than how I played last year or the way I played it in New York,” he says. “Just the way I use leverage. There’s a lot at corner that you have to think about and consider, that a lot of people don’t try. The more you get older, the more you try to pick up techniques from other players who’ve played this game and you can grow into your own type of player. That’s what’s happening to me now. I’m ascending.
“To get better, you’ve got to get beat a couple times to learn, ‘This is how I’ve got to play the ball. This is how I’ve got to line up when I want to jam a receiver. I’ve got to force him here and look back at this time. I’ve got to make sure I disrupt his path for a route so I can get a better position to look back for the ball.’”
And that was his No. 1 problem in the past. Apple wasn’t able to turn his head around in time for the ball. Watch clips of him this season and he’s flipping his helmet 180 degrees in the nick of time to hand-fight receivers at the top of routes. A manuever that’s a lot harder than it looks.
When Apple was universally ripped as a toxic malcontent that no team should want near its facility, he leaned into his inner-circle. He makes no apologies for having a close relationship with his mother. She has been supporting him since he was young, he says, and Apple traces the roots of his doubts back to high school in New Jersey. He earned a scholarship to Ohio State out of a school that hadn’t produced a ton of D-I talent. Everything has made him calloused for this Super Bowl moment.
The good, the ball, the ugly all molded him.
“To where I’m all about ball. I really don’t care about anything else. It made me more gritty and more passionate in my approach to my work.”
If people want to poke fun at how close he is with Mom, so be it. In the offseason, he actually does cook quite a bit in his kitchen now. When Apple made this move to a vegan diet, he even linked up with professional chefs on Zoom to follow instructions step by step. It was a little intimidating at first, but he’s getting the hang of it.
As far as high school goes, he did cook “a little bit” but admits he was scared he might light something on fire.
“A lot of people tried to say, ‘You’re just a Mama’s boy. You can’t get away from your Mom. You can’t think for your own.’ That was the whole narrative people tried to start, in saying I couldn’t cook and out here not doing shit. Childish, basically.”
Next up, the Super Bowl.
Apple is familiar with the Rams’ offense to an extent, having played them when he was with New Orleans those two seasons. Then again, that was before the arrival of Matthew Stafford and Odell Beckham Jr. He’s expecting the Rams to test their secondary. Most teams have.
Burrow is a superstar. The team’s rapid rise starts with him. As we’ve seen, however, a quarterback cannot will his team this far alone.
The Bengals, top to bottom, are a roster infused with players with everything to prove. Apple will be a free agent in the spring and you have to think the Bengals will do what they can to keep him around long term. He’s been that valuable to the collective whole and, to Apple, Cincinnati feels like more of a family atmosphere than he had anywhere else. He describes this as a team living in the moment and shows no interest sifting through that Giants rubble when he easily could take some shots. Needless to say, the Giants have not been a beacon of stability.
The only group of players Eli Apple cares about right now is this group flying across the country.
“We’ve always stayed together. I just feel like everybody cares and wants to make that play for the next person.”
It’s a guarantee the Rams will throw at Apple at some point. Cooper Kupp was an MVP candidate this season, after all. Apple wasn’t ready for that challenge in 2016.
He believes he is now.
“I want to embrace the spotlight,” he says, “and make the plays that come.”
When he does, we’ll certainly all hear about it.
Bengals features past at Go Long…