In the wake of a non-COVID illness that appears to have made some inroads on the Bengals this week, Fred Johnson makes his second NFL start at right tackle and first start anywhere this season Sunday (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Denver.
Also Friday, Bengals head coach Taylor declared No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie out for the game after he surfaced on the COVID reserve list Thursday, while giving the nod to cornerback Trae Waynes (hamstring) to play when they activate him from his two-month stint on injured reserve for his first Bengals road game.
After right tackle Isaiah Prince missed his third straight practice Friday, Taylor said if Prince feels better he'd be used in a back-up role behind Johnson. Taylor all but said starting right tackle Riley Reiff is out for the year after going on injured reserve Thursday.
When Reiff went down with an ankle injury against Pittsburgh Nov. 26 and again in the fourth quarter against the 49ers last Sunday, Prince went in his place and started the Dec. 5 game against the Chargers game Reiff missed.
In the previous two seasons, Johnson made five of his seven NFL starts at tackle, four on the left side and one on the right in games the Bengals went 4-1. But he's been active in just four games this season and in the two games he did play he came off the bench.
"We've got a lot of faith in Fred," Taylor said. "He did some good things for us the last two years. Fred has taken the reps this week. We'll see where Isaiah is, but if he can do it, it will be as a backup."
The 6-7, 330-pound Johnson is viewed as a powerful and competent run blocker still looking to find consistency in pass protection.
Also backing up at tackle is promising rookie D'Ante Smith, a preseason standout who has been slowed by injury. Before going on IR with a knee injury Oct. 16, he had played in just one game and he's had just six practices since being cleared to work Dec. 8.
"He's still getting in the swing of things," Taylor said. "He'll be available if needed."
As beat up as they are at tackle, they had to bring in three cornerbacks for workouts Friday to see who could win an all-expense paid trip to Denver with no Awuzie, Darius Phillips sent to IR on Tuesday and Vernon Hargreaves III missing the last two practices with an illness. It was a prize won by John Brannon, a 2020 undrafted player out of Western Carolina with one NFL game to his credit and signed to the practice squad Friday afternoon.
Taylor is actually hopeful Hargreaves can play.
"Out of a couple of guys, he could be back the soonest. We'll give it another 24 hours," Taylor said.
Waynes, projected as the No. 1 cornerback when he signed in 2020 free agency, has been limited to just two games as a Bengal and hasn't played since re-aggravating his hamstring on the last scrimmage play of the Oct. 10 game against Green Bay.
Taylor didn't say Waynes is on a pitch count, but no doubt they have to keep all eyes on him in the thin Rocky Mountains air after they nearly activated him last week with just one week of practice.
"We feel better about him playing one more week of football activities with three practices," Taylor said. "He was wanting to play last week and feeling like he could do it. But we wanted to make sure we did the right thing by him. So this week we felt better about it."
Waynes would figure to start in place of Awuzie, across from Eli Apple, the guy that took Waynes' spot. That leaves only slot cornerback Mike Hilton and backups Tre Flowers and Jalen Davis and, they hope, Hargreaves. With Awuzie out and unclear if he'll be able to play next week against the Ravens, Sunday marks the 38th game out of the last 40 they haven't had their two starting cornerbacks on the depth chart heading into training camp.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: No word on who is returning punts and kicks. Taylor didn't rule out it could be by committee. The Broncos say they're preparing for everyone.
"It's a big unknown," said Broncos special teams coach Tom McMahon of punt return. "We don't know who it's going to be. Boyd finished the game for them last week. (Trenton) Irwin, two weeks ago, against the Chargers was their returner. They've got (Trent) Taylor there who's been a great returner with the 49ers. We're preparing for all three of those guys."
Trent Taylor, a wide receiver, would have to be activated from the practice squad. He is the most experienced in the building with 49 career returns for the Niners, no touchdowns, an average of 9.6 per and a long of 36 yards. In 130 career touches at receiver and returner, he's got two fumbles ...
The analytics guys love this game. Joe Burrow loves to shred man-to-man and Denver plays a ton of man. Of course, wily Broncos head coach Vic Fangio became one of the NFL's most successful defensive coordinators deking young quarterbacks by disguising coverages. But Burrow seemed to pass that test last week when the 49ers unveiled some different stuff. Zac Taylor raved how Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins hooked up on the first first down of that 95-yard tying drive at the end of regulation.
"Tee vs two man on a seven step in breaker," Taylor said this week. "You shouldn't beat that leverage vs that coverage. You probably shouldn't throw the ball there vs that leverage. That's two guys having a belief in each other that they'll overcome what coverage is dictating. Tee is a grown man and comes roaring in, and Joe trusts that he's going to do it. That's where he starts with his progression there and gives Tee an opportunity." Not to mention a first down ...
Both Broncos running backs, Melvin Gordon III (thumb/hip) and Javonte Williams (knee) are questionable after going limited Friday. But they're playing. Fangio said Williams has no limitations. ...
View some of the top images from the Bengals practice ahead of Week 15 against the Denver Broncos.