Sixth-rounder Hakeem Adeniji becomes the Bengals' sixth starting left tackle in the last 24 games Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) and the second rookie to start there in 12 years when his reshuffled offensive line plays the Titans at Paul Brown Stadium.
Adeniji and right tackle Fred Johnson are making their first NFL starts in those spots vacated by injuries to left tackle Jonah Williams (stinger) and right tackle Bobby Hart (knee) while Billy Price makes his first start at center since his rookie year finale in 2018 with Trey Hopkins (concussion) missing his first start since he got the job in the 2019 training camp.
Also out is running back Joe Mixon (foot) for the second straight week and the hope is he'll get more rest during next week's bye and be ready for the Nov. 15 game in Pittsburgh.
That robs the game of a heavyweight bout between Mixon and Titians running back. Derrick Henry, the defending NFL rushing champion and current leader. Since Mixon came into the NFL in 2017, he has the fourth most yards and Henry is second behind only Ezekiel Elliott.
Wide receiver John Ross is doubtful after missing a second straight practice Friday because he was sick. Ross missed last Friday's practice and the game with an illness after practicing two straight days.
Head coach Zac Taylor didn't elaborate on the injury, except to say it is best described as "an illness."
Which means rookie quarterback Joe Burrow has pretty near the same offensive line he rode for much of last week's 34-point, 468-yard effort that came up 11 seconds shy of beating the Browns.
Johnson, a second-year player making his overall fourth NFL start, replaced Williams late in the second quarter, which is about the same time Price replaced Hopkins and they scored points on every drive but the final one that began in the last ten seconds.
Adeniji, who drew his first NFL start in Philly last month as the second tight end, appeared for the final three plays after Hart got hurt. Johnson replaced Hart, Adeniji went to left for his fifth NFL snap and that's the line that converted Giovani Bernard's fourth-and-one touchdown on Burrow's play-action flip.
Although the kid tackles face the formidable pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney (32 career sacks to go with 10 forced fumbles), the Titans have produced a pass rush that is third-to-last in generating sacks per pass. As well as 23rd against the rush, 26th against the pass and next-to-last in red zone.
It's believed Adeniji is the second rookie to start at left tackle for the Bengals since fourth-rounder Anthony Collins did it in the 2008 finale. Johnson started last year's finale as a rookie for his first NFL start. Adeniji, 22, like Collins, out of Kansas, didn't miss a game in his four seasons in Lawrence. He settled on the left side after playing right for a bit and Bengals offensive line coach Jim Turner was high enough on him to take him at any point in the draft after Burrow. The 6-4, 302-pound Adeniji has impressed the coaches with his athleticism and brains.
"That's his natural spot. That's what he's played in college," Taylor said. "He's done really job working with us in training camp."
OH, HENRY: The Bengals have done a dent job against the run lately despite nose tackle D.J. Reader going down, as well as two other tackles ending up on injured reserve while end Sam Hubbard is also on injured reserve.
But as much as they've been hurt by the pass the last two weeks (Philip Rivers hit nearly 80 percent and Baker Mayfield basically hit 22 straight), Henry looms as literally the biggest challenge of this season.
The Bengals, who have allowed the most rushing yards since 2017, try to contain the massive Henry who has dominated during that same stretch.
Henry lines up against a team that has 51 missed tackles, tied for 10th most in the league, but 19 of those came in the second game and things have since calmed down. And they'll have to be ready because pro football focus says Henry leads the NFL with 500 of his 663 yards coming after contact.
Henry's infamous stiff arm of cornerback Josh Norman is on the mind of the Bengals defensive backs.
"I think every safety has their own approach," says Bengals free safety Jessie Bates as PFF's No. 1 safety goes against the No. 1 back. "Whether you wrap and roll or tackle up top. I think the smartest way is wrapping and rolling. I've seen the Josh Norman play where he tried to go high and it threw him off point. We're excited for the challenge. "
And tackling the man is definitely something that can't be simulated.
"I think you prepare for it throughout the week. Obviously we don't tackle in practice or anything, but you kind of have to visualize him," Bates said. "What's your approach when you're tackling him in the open field. What's the approach when you're tackling him in the hole? Those are two different scenarios. I'm exciting for the challenge. He's a really good back, one of the best backs in the league and I think we're all ready for the challenge."
But here's the thing. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill is having a much better year than either Philip Rivers or Baker Mayfield. Cincy allowed Rivers a 137 passer rating two weeks ago over his season total of 93 and Mayfield, now at 94.5, went for 106. With 15 touchdowns against just two interceptions, Tannehill is at 112.3 this season.
"I think Derrick Henry has had a lot of 100 yard games this season and it kind of helps out Ryan a lot," Bates said. "Ryan doesn't really do a lot of things that are like wow and pop out on film. I think he just does a really good job of getting the ball out to the checkdown and not making mistakes. When you're running the ball like that, it's hard to make mistakes besides fumbling the football. They've done a really good job of that."
William Jackson III (concussion) missed starting at cornerback last week, but he's back, which is big. Backup cornerback Darius Phillips (knee) missed some practices this week and is listed as questionable, but Taylor said he'll go.