Cincinnati's offensive line looks to be jelling.
It was just 38 days ago in Cleveland the Bengals' O-line gave Fred Johnson his first NFL start at right guard, one of three the Bengals started in the first four games of the season. Left tackle Jonah Williams was making just his second start of his career and the Bengals fell behind so early they passed 61 times to get back into a 35-30 loss that teed up Cleveland's pass rush.
But five weeks later the offensive line is coming off one of their best games of the season last Sunday in Indianapolis that included a dominant first quarter that has them playing with loads more confidence than last month.
Alex Redmond is their right guard for the fourth straight game and the fourth-year player in his 22nd career start has helped stabilize them. Not only that, but Jonah Williams, the highest-ranked first-year player in the Pro Focus Football.com tackle grades, becomes the first Bengals left tackle to start both games against Cleveland in four years.
"They get better every time we've gone out there," offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said after Thursday's practice. "That's a pretty good line they played in Indy. DeForest Bucker inside is probably their best player … (Redmond) had some battles with him. Buckner had his, too. Alex gives us some physicality. He plays hard. He knows what to do. He's a lot bigger than I think he is sometimes. He's a big (6-5, 320 pounds) solid strong guy at the point of attack. And they've been playing a couple of games together, too.
"So that also helps. Having those guys there together has definitely helped us. The communication has been very much improved. So he lends some stability in that sense. It by no means it perfect, but they battle, they fight and they do everything they can to get better every week."
Center Trey Hopkins, the focal point of a powerful run game early in Indy, likes the physicality Redmond brings and that down-hill style the Bengals used to roll to their first three red-zone rushing touchdowns of the season.
"He's going to give you intensity and you're going to know Alex is going to fire off the ball and hit somebody," Hopkins said before Thursday's practice. "That's what I love about playing next to Alex. He's one of the most physical guys I've ever played with. He loves the game. He loves hitting people. I'm excited to have him next to me."
Hopkins really enjoyed that feeing in Indy. That rush of enforcing their will on the line against the NFL's No. 1 rushing defense symbolized by the seven-yard touchdown push with running back Joe Mixon moving the pile.
"It's amazing. I mean it's amazing to see finally, finally we get this thing moving in the right direction where we're able to take our shots as linemen, we're able to have fun and not just be on your heels," Hopkins said. "Trying to get guys that have their ears pinned back ready to rush the passer. It's good to be in those types of situations where you can take the fight to them.
"(The line) played a part in it, but everywhere, if you watch the film on the receivers blocking and everybody having a hand in the run game. We prepared that way all last week. We really, really put an emphasis on the run. We had to play more physical. We had to make the run something because we have to play a more balanced offense. We can't keep getting into situations where we're throwing the ball all game. Everybody played a part in that. It's very encouraging and it's fun as an offensive lineman to run the ball that way."
If it's one thing the Bengals were missing in Cleveland, Hopkins says it was that bruising style.
"The first thing I see is that as a front, we have to play more physical," Hopkins said. "We were not physical enough and I think that's one thing we've seen improvement on in the weeks that have followed."
MIXON SITS AGAIN: The tough thing now is that it looks like Mixon (foot) may not play for the first time in 34 games. He didn't practice again Thursday and rare is the player that misses Wednesday and Thursday practices to play on Sunday.
So you can also put starting cornerback William Jackson III (concussion) on that list.
The Bengals figure to run the ball even if Mixon doesn't play, so Giovani Bernard could have a new tag-team partner. Trayveon Williams, the 2019 sixth-round pick out of Texas A&M, has yet to play this season and has yet to log an NFL carry. That may all end in Sunday's 95th "Battle of Ohio."
FATHER'S DAY: A bittersweet meeting between Callahan and his dad. Usually the night before the game in Cincy would mean the 64-year-old Bill Callahan could visit with his two grandchildren. That's not allowed in the pandemic, but it still means a lot to 36-year-old Brian Callahan to see him across the field. Bill is one of the more respected coaches in the game and here he comes with the Browns' top-ranked run game. Running back Nick Chubb is out, but partner in grime Kareem Hunt is banging out 4.7 yards per while D'Ernest Johnson is at 5.1 on his 26 carries.,
"He's my hero," Brian Callahan says. "I think he's one of the five best coaches in the NFL. Certainly at his position. I think he's one of the five best. Period. Do I like competing against him? No, I don't … He's doing a good job up there. I'm happy for him but I'm not happy for him as a division rival."
BELL WEATHER: After six games as a Bengal, free-agent strong safety Vonn Bell has had some ups and downs, but he continues to lead with a great intensity, still setting that alarm clock for 4:05 a.m.
He's getting them ready for that run game that gouged the Bengals last month for 215 yards and he's looking at preventing Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield from opening up everything with misdirection runs followed by his own bootlegs.
"Those types of plays slow the defense down, and that's what they want with misdirections and giving (Mayfield) what he did in college," Bell said. "Movement passes and really just seeing the whole defense from there. They don't really have anybody in his face, so it's just making it simple and easy for him with movement passes. It just slows the defense down."
Edge rushers, beware. What's interesting is on first and second down, the Bengals have rookie Khalid Kareem playing more snaps and they're welcoming back old friend Margus Hunt in his first Bengals game in four years.
"Get somebody in his face and have great angles to pursue the boot action and aim for his upfield shoulder," Bell said.
One of the reasons Bell's addition is so valuable, he allows them the versatility of playing three safeties with Jessie Bates III and Shawn Williams. They ran it 10 snaps on Sunday against the Colts.
View photos from practice on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020 as the Bengals prepare for a Week 7 showdown against the Cleveland Browns.
"Three guys that are very heady, smart guys that tackle well, make plays, very instinctive," Bell said. "That's what we did in New Orleans. We played a lot of three safety sets. You never know whose coming or what we're in. You never know. We could be down (in the box), we could be in the post or not. You mix up a lot of things like that."
Bell is all in on the Bates Pro Bowl talk.
"Sure, he's playing very well right now. I'm excited for him. I've got to match his energy," Bell said. "He's playing very well, I'm excited for him. I want him to keep on going and keep on growing and keep on making plays."
Bell has no problem talking about what no one wants to talk about. The Bengals overhauled their defense in a year they needed all the field time they could get but ended up having no spring ball or preseason games. They're still searching for some of that chemistry.
"We're getting close to that. We're growing closer and closer as one gets to know each other," Bell said. "We haven't had an offseason and we have a lot of new guys in the building. This is our first time going to war with each other. Everyone is still getting to know each other and getting a feel for each other.
"How each plays, how each responds and how to pick up for the other and how to talk to one another. There's still a piece there where that gap needs to be closed. It's only going to get better each and every week as we keep playing and get around each other more and more."