Collins' future is now

Updated: 10:15 p.m.

At one point in Tuesday's media session, only two players had reporters around their lockers: NFL receptions leader T.J. Houshmandzadeh and a rookie with six NFL snaps from scrimmage.

"That's how it is when you go against James Harrison?" asked left tackle Anthony Collins with a smile as big as his first pro challenge.

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Collins

That's how it is when you may go against Harrison in what very well could be your first NFL start Thursday night (Channel 5 in Cincinnati) on the NFL Network. That's how it is when your first start comes on the road against the Steelers' top-rated NFL defense. That's how it is when Harrison is the odds-on favorite for NFL Defensive Player of the Year with 12 sacks and four forced fumbles and your team is 48 hours removed from giving up its most sacks in 12 years.

The outgoing kid nicknamed "AC" just may be coming out because of injury.

"I can't wait for Thursday night," Collins said. "It's just another test. A test when we had a rookie like Pat (Sims) come in and play. We know we're the future. We have to prove it right now."

Talk about "right now."

After playing the longest game in their history Sunday in the 13-13 tie against Philadelphia, the Bengals' chewed-up offensive line has the shortest of weeks to prepare for the NFL's No. 1 defense. No one is saying it, but it looks like Collins is starting in place of Levi Jones (leg) and head coach Marvin Lewis indicated left guard Andrew Whitworth (ankle) won't play either.

Then Whitworth's replacement, Scott Kooistra (knee), surfaced on Tuesday's injury report after not practicing.

Next up? According to the depth chart, Nate Livings, a three-year practice squad player who has never been active for a game.

All the while, the ebullient Collins is bouncing around the locker room saying, "James Harrison."

"He's good. He's an athlete. He probably will be," Collins said of the NFL Defensive Player of the Year honor. "He stays low and I'm going to have to stay low. He plays hard and he finishes the play every play. That's what I'm going to have to do."

Collins' chatty personality is closer to wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco than the simmering intensity of Jones and the laid-back demeanor of Whitworth. He has no problems saying he's confident, but he's also quick to say, "Not a Chad Johnson confidence."

"You've got to be confident; I'm a left tackle," Collins said. "I have to protect my quarterback at all times like I have for I don't know how many years. I have to show my quarterback that we're the future. All rookies have to step up. They didn't draft me for no reason."

That's a double negative, but the positives won the discussion when he was sitting there in the fourth round. A consensus first-team All-American out of Kansas, Collins displayed enough versatility of a converted defensive end and power of a right tackle (where he played in '06) that the Bengals felt he could be a starting NFL left tackle. There was concern that he was coming out early, but that was squelched in the spring.

"He was the talk of the minicamps because he did so well and then he played well in the preseason games, too," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander after practice Tuesday. "He's been drooling all year to play. Well, here's your chance, and I'm not nervous. I'm excited to see him play. He's a good player and if you're a left tackle, you face good players all the time."

If Collins says he's the future, Jones' future doesn't seem as clear. Jones, who left Sunday's game with the injury, wouldn't elaborate on his status. But he indicated his health struggles have been something he has coped with before Sunday. Earlier this season Lewis said he has missed some days of practice after undergoing treatment for his knee, but Jones indicated it's not a knee problem.

He said Eagles defensive end Trent Cole changed his style from speed to power to take advantage of Jones' inability to plant because of the injury.

"It's been ongoing," Jones said. "As you can see when Whit was in there, he was trying to run back around. I definitely haven't been right this year. I've been holding off as long as I could. We've got a rough (stretch) of defensive ends. I was trying to get through them. It didn't work out."

Is this it for Jones? How can it be? Just six years ago he was in this very place as a rookie, except he had to come off the bench in place of the injured Richmond Webb in the second quarter in the fourth game of his career against the Tampa Bay defense that would eventually win the Super Bowl that year.

When it was determined that Webb was done for the year, Jones got his first NFL start the next week in the inaudible noise of the RCA Dome against Colts Pro Bowler Chad Bratzke and hotshot rookie Dwight Freeney.

Everybody has a debut.

"(The Colts) had the one-two punch," Jones said. "They'd beat you up with Bratzke and then on third down after Bratzke pounded you down, (Freeney) would come around the end.

"(Tampa) had (end) Simeon Rice, but what they would do is put (tackle) Warren Sapp wide out over the tackle and rush wide. If you set inside and (hung) on Sapp too long, Simeon would run around. If you set on Simeon, Sapp would pick you and Simeon would come underneath. That was 'Welcome to the NFL.' "

Sapp ended up getting two sacks and a forced fumble in Tampa's 35-7 win, but that game has to have an asterisk because it was only quarterback Akili Smith's second start in two years and turned out to be his last. The next week in Indy with Jon Kitna as the quarterback, the Colts had only one sack (Freeney) and Jones helped running back Corey Dillon roll up 164 yards in a 28-21 loss.

The Bengals would take that from Collins, wouldn't they?

"He definitely uses his hands well. They're a lot fresher than a lot of ours," Jones said. "He's athletic. He moves his feet well. He's got the outline of a good left tackle.

"I don't think there's any preparation you can get other than getting out there. In practice you're going against good guys, but going against good guys without 80,000 fans screaming. The intensity is different and the speed."

The question is about Collins' lack of game experience. The estimated six scrimmage snaps have come primarily in the Bengals "Bigs" package of three tackles but in alluding to Jones' getting rested because of the dings, Collins said loud enough for him to hear, "I've gotten (plenty of work) in practice." Jones responded, "You're not a rookie anymore."

Collins may be playing James Harrison, but he'll still have to suffer the rookie indignities, like buying the line's weekly breakfast the morning before a game at First Watch and lugging in all the bags.

"You don't want to know," said Collins when asked how much it cost.

The veterans also bagged him for annual rookie dinner at The Waterfront during the bye week.

"They told me not to tell anybody," said Collins when asked how much that set him back.

"Get pencils, pens, paper, run outside and do pushups," said Collins when asked what else the vets make him do. "Next year it's going to be a whole different story. We're the future."

The Bengals hope Thursday night Collins makes a difference.

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Head coach Marvin Lewis said at Tuesday's news conference that wide receiver Antonio Chatman (spinal cord) won't play Thursday and said it's not looking like left guard Andrew Whitworth (high ankle sprain) can, either. He's on crutches and in a walking boot.

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In deference to the short week, Lewis had his guys in sweatsuits and no pads.

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Lewis invited the Kelly Cup champion Cincinnati Cyclones to watch practice Tuesday on the game field and they took a tour of the Paul Brown Stadium facilities

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This is how fast it happens in the NFL. The newest Bengal, guard Digger Bujnoch, got the call Monday about 2:30 p.m. while he was Krogering on Mitchell Avenue near the University of Cincinnati campus. He was at Paul Brown Stadium by 3 p.m. and in meetings by 4:30 p.m. as a member of the practice squad.

By the time he walked on the PBS turf for the third time in his life at an early evening walkthrough, he hadn't had time to call his parents yet and they heard the news from a reporter.

"It just got so busy so quick that I wasn't so sure what was happening and I didn't have time, either," Bujnoch said before practice Tuesday.

Since his dad Glenn played guard for the Bengals 30 years ago and his son has played virtually all of his football in Cincinnati Elder High School and UC, Digger said he got a thrill when he saw his name on a locker.

"It's been a dream of mine to play in Cincinnati because I've always played here," he said. "I'm 2-0 here."

Elder beat Colerain and Wayne at PBS during his playing days. Signed as a free agent left tackle out of UC by the Giants back in the spring and cut just before the season started, Bujnoch said he's been told the Bengals are looking at him as a guard first.

"Wherever they want me. I'm just trying to get settled. It's been a whirlwind," he said.

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