PITTSBURGH _ With the Bengals needing reinforcements in three key areas for Saturday's virtual play-in playoff game here against the Steelers, a pair of veterans were set to make their season debuts coming off the practice squad in cornerback Sidney Jones IV and defensive tackle Domenique Davis while rookie wide receiver Shed Jackson comes off the squad to play in his third game of the year.
The shuffling put tight end Irv Smith Jr., on the inactive list, the first time they've gone with fewer than four tight ends since the Oct. 29 win in San Francisco. It also points to where the Bengals think this game is going to be decided.
In the trenches, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin pretty much has said his club is going to run the ball no matter what behind third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph. Plus, the Bengals are putting a premium on protecting quarterback Jake Browning, a job that has seen tight end Drew Sample's snaps pretty much double. After Browning took the helm in a 16-10 loss to the Steelers in a Nov. 26 game at Paycor Stadium, the Bengals have adjusted to allow just seven sacks in their three-game winning streak following the four they gave up against the Steelers.
Jones, a 2017 second-round draft pick working on his fifth team, has been on the practice squad all season after a hamstring injury plagued his training camp. His Bengals debut marks his 58th game in the league.
Jackson, the speedy undrafted free agent from Auburn, figures to replace cornerback D.J. Ivey at gunner covering punts after Ivey was lost for the year last week with a torn ACL. The other gunner, rookie wide receiver Andrei Iosivas, probably won't play special teams because he'll be working from scrimmage to help the Bengals make up for the loss of Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. That could leave backup slot cornerback Jalen Davis to gun.
Domenique Davis, an undrafted free agent and the only NFL player from tiny Pembroke-North Carolina, played in two games last year and has had two superb preseasons with the Bengals. He has been called on as the Bengals react to captain and nose tackle DJ Reader's season-ending quad injury suffered in last Saturday's overtime victory over the Vikings. Davis played last season when both Reader and backup Josh Tupou were out.
Tackle Jay Tufele, who also played in that stretch and did well, is back active for his eighth game of the season, but his first since the Nov. 12 game against the Texans. Tupou, the most tenured Bengal on the defense, is healthy and playing in his eighth career game against the Steelers.
That left the inactive list looking like this: Chase, Irv Smith, offensive linemen Trey Hill and D'Ante Smith, linebacker Devin Harper and defensive tackle Travis Bell, claimed on waivers on Wednesday.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: This could be a game a lot like the one 11 years to the day here at Acrisure Stadium in the next-to-last game of the 2012 season. Low-scoring and tight. The winner went to the playoffs, the loser went home and the Bengals sent the Steelers packing with a 13-10 victory secured on Josh Brown's field goal with four seconds left …
The Bengals hope it doesn't play out offensively like it did that day. Their only touchdown came on cornerback Leon Hall's pick-six and they rushed for 14 yards, their fewest ever in a win …
But they'll take that dominant defensive effort (Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins had two sacks and a forced fumble) and they'd like to get rookie punter Brad Robbins to channel Kevin Huber from that one. Huber put four inside the 20 and had a long of 64 yards ….