That's not a coincidence.
Across the last few weeks of the regular season, Bengals coaches started recognizing signs that their months of teaching and instructing were paying off. The rookie lineman who only began playing football while in college has begun understanding the key concepts and principles to rushing quarterbacks at the NFL level. More than anything else, he has started to realize that it isn't about how a rush begins, but rather how it ends.
Hunt has become the finisher the Bengals have long wanted to see, and that could bode well for his immediate future.
"He's starting to finish a little bit more," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. "He understands that once he gets to the blocker and gets to a certain point that now it's time to get off and go to the quarterback or the runner."
Typically, "finishing" is the biggest knock a defensive lineman, particularly ends, can have coming out of college. You might hear draft experts talk about players "taking plays off," or "not finishing by getting to the quarterback." Usually when they say that, it's an indication that a lineman takes on the blocker, tries to get around the blocker, but stops once he realizes he isn't getting into the backfield.
What those players, particularly young ones, sometimes forget is that by simply tussling with an offensive lineman or running back, they actually are opening up a lane for a linebacker or another defensive lineman to blast through and get to the ballcarrier. While the ultimate goal for a defensive end is to get to the ballcarrier in the backfield, it sometimes can be a challenge simply remembering that there are others who could benefit from you continuing to see out the block.
"That's taken him a little while," Zimmer said about Hunt. "We've been working with him a lot on that. He's doing better there."
Aside from a spike in playing time during the middle of the regular season because of injuries across the defensive line, Hunt has finally seen an increase in action recently because of his improved play. After playing four, nine and two snaps respectively in the first three games of December, Hunt closed out the regular season by appearing on 19 and 21 plays across the final two weeks. He recorded a tackle in each game and was credited Sunday with a half-sack on Baltimore's Joe Flacco.
"This is probably the best game he's played," Zimmer said of the Week 17 regular-season finale. "He did a nice job in the game with some of the pass-rush stuff.
"We might have to get him in there a little bit more."
Hunt had previously appeared on 30 snaps against the Jets, although most of that was in garbage time during the 49-9 blowout win. He also played 19 snaps at Miami at the end of October, with some of those coming on the interior of the line after defensive tackle Geno Atkins' season ended when he tore his ACL that night. Hunt also appeared in 37 plays against the Patriots in Week 6 as defensive end Michael Johnson was inactive due to a concussion.
Since Atkins' injury, Hunt has been among those who have filled in by moving from his normal edge spot and playing on the interior of the line. Linebacker James Harrison and fellow defensive end Wallace Gilberry have also helped fill Atkins' shoes by playing inside in certain situations.