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Bengals Grapple With Injuries, Illness, Steelers

William Jackson III leads a slim corps of cornerbacks against the Steelers.
William Jackson III leads a slim corps of cornerbacks against the Steelers.

First it was the defensive tackles. Then it was the offensive line.

Now it is the Bengals cornerbacks that have been decimated by injury and illness heading into Sunday's game (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) in Pittsburgh against the undefeated Steelers.

Plus, running back Joe Mixon (foot) didn't practice again Friday and it looks like he'll miss his third straight game while defensive tackle Geno Atkins was ruled out for personal reasons.

The toll wasn't limited to players. The club announced wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell wouldn't make the trip for Covid-related reasons. Assistant wide receivers coach Troy Walters, who is in charge of offensive situations, takes his place.  

Head coach Zac Taylor indicated Atkins' status wasn't Covid-related after a week he didn't work, but wouldn't get into specifics and said he wanted to give Atkins his privacy.

Starting cornerback LeShaun Sims (concussion) and his backup, Darius Phillips (groin), were ruled out Friday and practice squad cornerbacks Winston Rose and Brian Allen are on the Covid list. That leaves them with two starters, William Jackson III and slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander, as well as third-year backup Tony Brown, looking like he'll make his fourth NFL start and first as a Bengal.

Also available to be called up from the practice squad Saturday is Jalen Davis, a first-year player with five NFL games who signed last month. During his 60 snaps with Miami and Arizona, the 5-10, 185-pounder out of Utah State has a sack and forced fumble.

It's a formidable challenge against a dangerous corps of Steelers receivers consisting of JuJu Smith-Schuster (45 catches), Chase Claypool (31) and Diontae Johnson (31). Other possibilities to man a corner spot are free safety Jessie Bates III with Shawn Williams possibly coming off the bench to make it a three-safety look, as well as safety Brandon Wilson, who played some cornerback at the University of Houston.

The Bengals hope those backups responded like the offensive line reserves did two weeks ago against Tennessee, when they put up 31 points despite missing four starters.

But Taylor indicated that group isn't out of the woods yet, either. Right tackle Bobby Hart (knee) is out and Taylor said he wouldn't know the status of his backup until Saturday with Fred Johnson on the Covid list. Plus, left tackle Jonah Williams only went limited every day this week and is listed as questionable.

All in all a tough set of circumstances against a Steelers defense that has the most sacks and quarterback hits in the NFL. The interior is intact with center Trey Hopkins (concussion) and left guard Michael Jordan (illness) re-joining right guard Alex Redmond.

The tackles, whoever they are, face quite an assignment with linebackers T.J. Watt and his NFL-leading 34 quarterback pressures over the right side and Bud Dupree tied for fifth with his 22. Throw in the combined eight sacks of interior players Stephon Tuitt (six) and Cam Heyward (two), and it's a big day for the O-line.

"(Jonah Williams) has been practicing and feeling good. We expect him to be ready to play, but we'll see what happens," Taylor said. "We won't reveal our offensive line until they roll out there."

The hope had been that Mixon would be able to play after the bye week and the proof was they didn't put him on the three-week injured reserve list, but he never practiced with the team this week. Taylor wouldn't get into the specifics of the injury, only to say he didn't have a setback and that the hope is he can play next week in Washington.

"We want to make sure he can go full potential. Especially the running back position," Taylor said. "We're just being cautious so when he does go he's full speed and ready to go. If you know anything about this guy, you know he wants to play more than anything. Sometimes you have to protect him from himself."

Tony Brown, undrafted out of Alabama, started three of the 20 games he played with the Packers at cornerback the past two seasons and had a total of 334 snaps with five passes defensed and two forced fumbles. He took his only snap from scrimmage this season in the last game against the Titans and has taken 59 percent of the kicking game snaps and has been in on two tackles.

Wide receiver John Ross III may have been an emergency answer at cornerback, where he played some in college at Washington, but he was ruled out with a foot injury.

Another possibility could be wide receiver Alex Erickson. Along with slot receiver Tyler Boyd, he's an emergency quarterback and was named Wisconsin's Small School Player of the Year at Darlington High School with 14 career interceptions at defensive back while throwing 37 touchdown passes. He was also a three-time all-state basketball player and had four letters in track before walking on the University of Wisconsin football team.