When Jordan Kovacs got the text message from Gerald Chatman at 7 a.m. the day the Bengals played the Steelers, the words of linebackers coach Al Golden cut through the remaining grogginess.
"Adapt or die."
Chatman, the Bengals assistant defensive line coach, had just informed Kovacs, the ubiquitous quality control coach for the defense, that three assistants on their side of the ball were questionable to work the game because of COVID-related reasons.
Then at about noon, an hour before the buses were to leave the hotel for Heinz Field, definitive word came. Golden, cornerbacks coach Steven Jackson and senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner were out. Kovacs, 30, four seasons into his coaching career that began at his alma mater of Michigan, would be coaching a position for the first time against the undefeated Steelers rather than a May practice.
"If you had told me that Saturday, I would have said you were crazy," said Kovacs, checking in as he left his Paul Brown Stadium office Thursday night. "But really, it's been like that this entire season for everybody. Gerald and I were ready to do a little extra. Players. Coaches. It's next man up for everybody. We don't know Sunday to Sunday. Just wake me up Sunday and tell me what to do."
OK, Coach Kovacs, after spending every game on the sidelines this season, go back to the coaching booth Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Washington. That was after word came down following Friday's practice that Jackson and safeties coach Robert Livingston are both out of the game, as is wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell.
That followed a surreal Thursday practice where Kovacs, Chatman and coordinator Lou Anarumo were the only defensive coaches on the field, probably slightly less than what Kovacs' alma mater of Toledo's Clay High School rolled out there this season.
When the dust cleared Friday, Golden and Duffner were back, so the linebackers were back at full strength. So were the edge rushers and outside linebackers with Chatman and Duffner re-united. Chatman, 32, is another up-and-comer with a varied resume in his second season with the Bengals after nine years in college and three stints with NFL teams as an intern.
With Kovacs taking over Livingston's job this Sunday, that means he'll leave the backers and go to the booth to make sure Anarumo has the offensive personnel.
And Anarumo, the former secondary coach for the Dolphins and Giants, is going to need all the help he can get since he's also taking over Jackson's job for the second straight week.
"It will be big to have Al and Duff back," Anarumo said. "Those have been around football for a long time.
And Kovacs can tell you they were both riled up (and Jackson, most likely, too) as they left Pittsburgh in separate rental cars before the kickoff. Duffner, a veteran of 24 seasons coaching NFL linebackers and Golden, a two-time major college head coach, just aren't used to missing games. Never mind Jackson, a former NFL safety who played in the Super Bowl.
"I talked to Al before kickoff," Kovacs said. "We walked through things. It went pretty smoothly and it's a testament to how Al prepares them and the culture he's built and to the kind of players we have in in our room. They saw things pretty clearly."
Kovacs, in his second season with the Bengals, has been working with the backers all year. After playing 17 games for Anarumo as an undrafted free agent safety with the Dolphins, he was natural for coaching with him after his third and final season with the Eagles. Anarumo came and got him from Michigan when he built his staff here.
Kovacs says his sudden debut could have gone better in a certain segments and it's nowhere near where the backers want to be. After all they lost. But the mechanics clicked well and he was grateful for the presence of middle linebacker Josh Bynes as the Bengals held the Steelers to 44 yards rushing, the third fewest total they ever allowed in more than 50 years of playing Pittsburgh.
"Like having a coach on the field," Kovacs said. "Josh has already been coaching up the young guys."
Bynes, a year old than Kovacs, is in his ninth NFL season and while he's got a Super Bowl ring and played in a ton more games, they've got some commonality to them. Both were undrafted and are long on brains.
"Obviously it's a weird situation, especially with what we got going on in the world right now. It's those things we have to deal with and Jordan took care of it with no problem," Bynes said this week. "Very knowledgeable. Knows about the defense and knows what's going on as well. Obviously being in the league, I've been in it a long time so me and him talk about stuff. What I'm seeing or what's going on or how it relates to what we can do better. Stuff like that because it helps him obviously talking to someone like me being in this league for a long time. Jordan is really, really smart, really, really bright and did a good job on Sunday."
Usually, Kovacs communicates to the players on the field the personnel packages Livingston calls down from the box. When the backers come off the field, Golden looks at the pictures and goes over the adjustments for the next series while Kovacs makes sure the young guys are in the loop just in case.
"Being on the sidelines with Al observing during the game helped me," Kovacs. "After a week of practice, there wasn't a whole lot I had to do. It shows you how well he runs it and where our players are at when it comes to knowing what they have to do. They'd come off the field and they knew what corrections they had to make even before we looked at the Surface."
Watching Kovacs on Sunday didn't surprise Anarumo. Here's a guy that walked on at Michigan at safety, started 46 games, earned the program's coveted Bo Schembechler MVP and left Ann Arbor as the school 12th all-time leading tackler. Then he hung around 28 games in the league. Not a buffet, but more than a cup of coffee.
"He's got a natural feel for the game," Anarumo said. "And he has a good way about him. You can know the playbook cold. Know everything in it. That's great. But that doesn't mean anything. The challenge of coaching is to get these guys to do what they're supposed to do every time and he knows how to deal with people."
Actually, it's not all that different than playing, Kovacs believes. He only has to go back to his rookie year when the Dolphins were playing the Bengals, of course, on national TV. As the Dolphins moved to a walk-off safety to win it in overtime, they were losing guys left and right and Kovacs found himself playing in spots on kick return and punt that he had never practiced during the week.
"I really didn't have any second thoughts," Kovacs said of going into last Sunday in Pittsburgh. "I've been doing it, I've been at practice, I've been watching. It was kind of like playing. There was excitement there."
Another Sunday, another role.
INJURY UPDATE: As expected, running back Joe Mixon (foot) was ruled out for the fourth straight week. After Friday's practice head coach Zac Taylor pretty much put the wraps on speculation and wouldn't get into it when asked if he expects Mixon to play the rest of the season.
Practice squad wide receiver Stanley Morgan, Jr., went to the COVID list Friday while defensive Margus Hunt came off … Defensive tackle Geno Atkins went full Friday and it looks he'll play after missing last week for personal reasons…. The two starting cornerbacks who missed last week with concussions, slot man Mackensie Alexander and LeShaun Sims, were full go.
Among the guys who went limited (Hunt, wide receiver Mike Thomas with a hamstring issue, defensive tackle Xavier Williams with a back issue), they were marked as questionable.
O-LINE UP: Left tackle Jonah Williams (neck stinger) went full for the second straight day and Taylor says he'll start. Even though right guard Alex Redmond (bicep) went limited and is questionable, Taylor said he'll play. But even though Bobby Hart (knee) went full for a second straight day after missing the last two games, Taylor wouldn't name a starting right tackle. He's got two after left guard Quinton Spain started there at right tackle during a week rookie Hakeem Adeniji practiced there before starting at left tackle. Backup right tackle Fred Johnson, who came off the COVID list Friday, went limited before being categorized as questionable for Sunday.
While he likes how more than five guys are progressing and how it's impossible these days to predict lineups, Taylor did quash on Friday the idea of rotations on the O-line.
"No, you really want to get a guy into a rhythm," Taylor said. "That's one of the positions where there's a feel for the game, a feel for a rusher. Communication with the guard next to you if you're a tackle or whatever the position is. Ideally you'd rather get a guy in there and roll with him."