BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals are on guard as they head into the final four games of the season. That's because injured incumbent left guard Matt O'Dwyer and center Rich Braham aren't signed and right guard Mike Goff is a restricted free agent.
Negotiations with O'Dwyer and Braham are off to a slow start, but offensive line coach Paul Alexander isn't excited about the option of moving left tackle Rod Jones inside to guard next season.
Jones has struggled this season, particularly against outside speed rushers. But Alexander thinks he's finally recovering from the Jan. 7 arthroscopic knee surgery that repaired torn cartilage.
"He's getting back some of his quickness and leg strength," Alexander said.
What does intrigue Alexander is putting backup right tackle Jamain Stephens at guard. In the fourth quarter last Sunday against the Steelers, Alexander put the 6-6, 340-pound Stephens next to right tackle Willie Anderson for the final three drives, one of which was a 59-yard touchdown march.
"It was a formidable side of the line," Alexander said. "Jamain's a talented guy. We're trying to find a way to get him on the field. Every week this year he's gotten better. You can see it. I have tremendous confidence in him right now."
MITCHELL KEEPS IMPROVING: When he woke up Thursday morning, quarterback Scott Mitchell wasn't too sure he could practice again. His left knee was sore and stiff as his sprained medial collateral ligament responded to Wednesday's first practice.
But by the time Mitchell stretched out and warmed up, he said the knee felt better than it did Wednesday. He split some snaps with Akili Smith, but he says he can play Sunday. Coach Dick LeBeau won't make a call yet.
"I won't feel a thing Sunday," Mitchell said. "When you have to survive, you just do it."
Fullback Clif Groce (knee) and running back Curtis Keaton (ankle) have been ruled out for Sunday.
BARNDT SHOULDERING THROUGH:** It's been a frustrating season for Tom Barndt, the defensive tackle the Bengals picked up from Kansas City in the opening days of free agency back in February.
But he believes once he gets post-season surgery to repair torn cartilage in his shoulder joint, he'll be the same player who had no fewer than 42 tackles the previous three seasons and who signed a five-year, $11 million deal.
This year, he has just eight tackles and lost his starting job when the Bengals moved John Copeland from end to tackle in the sixth week.
But Barndt was never right after he suffered a partial tear in a chest muscle in training camp and missed all the pre-season games.
He sucked it up and started the first five games, but when it became clear he needed more time to strengthen the shoulder, he was inactive for two weeks. When it still didn't bounce back, Barndt got checked again and was relieved to find the shoulder wasn't responding for a reason.
"I don't know what else they're going to do when they open it up, but they'll sew up that tear," Barndt said. "Let it heal up and go. I just want to get this year behind me, get healthy and play like I know I can play."
YEAST RETURNS: LeBeau has decided to keep Craig Yeast returning punts despite two fumbles against the Steelers. One of them was the killer, since it gave Pittsburgh the ball on the Bengals 30 and turned a 14-14 game into a 21-14 Steeler edge.
The same thing happened in the opener, when a Yeast fumble at his 16 led to Cleveland's go-ahead touchdown.
But special teams coach Al Roberts is delighted with the move. He points out Yeast has just 40 career returns because he only had 10 as a rookie.
"Craig Yeast should have gotten these rookie mistakes out of him a year ago," Roberts said. "This year, it's too bad, but it's a continuation of his rookie year. Dick LeBeau wants to get the returners solid and stable so we can get people started moving again. If he's going to be our punt returner, he has to be developed and you can't do it on the bench."
Roberts hears the cry for receiver Peter Warrick to punt return, but he says, "Everybody wants Peter Warrick to return punts except Peter Warrick. He's not all that excited about it."
MEGNA GONE: The Bengals lost reserve linebacker Marc Megna on waivers Thursday when the team that cut him in training camp, his hometown Patriots, picked him up.
The Bengals have a new practice squad player in tight end Kirk McMullen , a long snapper out of Pittsburgh.