Updated: 3:45 p.m.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis delivered devastating news Friday when he revealed starting WILL linebacker Thomas Howard is done for the year after tearing an ACL in practice Thursday during a drill.
The Bengals were able to reach a deal Friday morning with the linebacker they released on cutdown day, 2010 fourth-round pick Roddrick Muckelroy, to take Howard's spot on the roster. But it's still unclear how they'll replace Howard, their best cover linebacker.
"Just a freak thing that happens. I've seen too many of them in 31 years of coaching before I even knew what an ACL was," Lewis said after Friday's practice. "It was in our drills. He felt like he was fine, 'I'm all right, I'm all right.' Then they are not. Unfortunately, we take them in that room and put that machine on them and they are not."
Rookie middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict's name surfaced on Twitter as the starter, but head coach Marvn Lewis didn't confirm it Friday. Lewis says that at any point in the game the Bengals will line up Burfict, Dan Skuta and Vincent Rey for Howard. Skuta and Burfict would play first and second down, and Rey would play third.
As Burfict played well in training camp, the Bengals were mulling how they could get him on the field with middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. This could be the way, but it still doesn't seem to solve third down.
Muckelroy, more of a middle backer, returns after recovering from a major injury himself when he tore his Achilles in the first half-hour of 2011 training camp.
Howard, 29, who signed a two-year deal in 2011, was coming off a career year in which he played more than 1,000 snaps and did so well that the Bengals traded No. 1 pick Keith Rivers to the Giants back in April. He also emerged as a leader for the team in the locker room and community.
"He's a wonderful, wonderful human being and he understands things happen for a reason," Lewis said. "He'll come out of it well."
Lewis said the Bengals were lucky to grab Muckelroy when they did on such short notice for Sunday's game against the Browns (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) because he and his wife planned to leave Cincinnati on Friday to go back home to Houston after lining up workouts with other teams.
While Muckelroy probably plays special teams Sunday, there are a variety of ways the Bengals could play it. One scenario is to start Skuta at WILL and use Rey, special teams standout, on third down. Skuta, who backs up both SAM and middle backer, has four NFL starts. Rey, who has played two snaps from scrimmage since he signed as free agent out of Duke in 2010, is smallish at 6-2, 250, but he's fast and came up with nine special teams tackles last season. He's played in every preseason game since 2010 and has finished second or third in tackles each year with a total of 44.
"He's so cerebral. He's a very knowledgeable player. You can see that right away on the practice field," Lewis said of Rey. "As soon as he got his opportunity. He's going to add another really, really verbal vocal guy into the mix. Lots of guys understand it and know and can't communicate it. Vinny's a really good communicator."
Skuta has made a career out of being there when needed. Nicknamed "Our General" on special teams by wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, Skuta, a 2009 college free agent out of Grand Valley, has 40 special teams tackles in 41 games and has played all three backer positions as well as end. And one training camp he played fullback for a couple of weeks.
"He has good football aptitude. Obviously a very hard-working person," Lewis said. "He's got great intrinsic values. He's been a valuable guy in a lot of different ways."
Also out Friday was tight end Donald Lee (quad) and he's listed as doubtful. Left end Carlos Dunlap (knee) and running back Bernard Scott (hand) were back on the field but have been limited all week. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) felt good after Thursday's return to field rehab and was at it again Friday.
Lewis was holding his water on making a call on Dunlap and Scott and the official report is questionable. It sounded like they could go either way and it would seem to be a longshot they'll play since they never went full go this week. Dunlap sounds like he'll go before Scott. If the doctors say he's come through the week OK, he could conceivably give the defense 10 third-down rushes.
"Dunlap had good work the last three days; they both have," Lewis said. "Bernard has worked most of the time against the defense so we could kind of overwork him because we want to get used to him getting hit and carrying the ball and doing all of those things. He's got a lot of work in.
"These guys, when they're not with us they've been conditioning throughout so when they do get the green light from the medical people, they're already ready to go conditioning-wise."
"Things are going well. It's a nice sunny day today," Lewis said when asked about a prediction.
Safety George Iloka (ankle) and cornerback Adam Jones (illness) are probable.
For the Browns, tight end Benjamin Watson (thigh) is the only starter that is questionable and he's been limited all week. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas (knee) showed up on the report Friday, but he went full go and is probable.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Various reports have put Bengals safety Taylor Mays's fine for hitting Ravens tight end Ed Dickson in the head Monday night at $21,000.
» With the Bengals officially making Armon Binns the other starting wide receiver afer he played 56 snaps Monday night, the effort to stop Cleveland's Josh Cribbs on special teams seems pretty clear. Brandon Tate, who took 17 snaps at receiver, can concentrate on returns and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, who took 33 snaps, can worry about covering kicks and punts and not returning.