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Inspired And Improvised O-Line Paves Way For Bengals' Take Out Of AFC South Leader

Billy Price (53) got a game ball for making room for Giovani Bernard.
Billy Price (53) got a game ball for making room for Giovani Bernard.

With apologies to Three Dog Night, the Bengals had never been to Spain. But they kind of liked that pre-game vibe when word reached them that left guard Michael Jordan had become the fourth starting offensive linemen to miss Sunday's game against the Titans at Paul Brown Stadium.

"I found out about 9:55 this morning on my way in," said Billy Price, a game ball in his possession about six hours later after he kept it all together for 31 points in his first start at center since his rookie year. "It was next guy's got to step up. I know there are a lot of people that are backups who were playing today and it came down to execution and it came down to be physical up front and that was the game plan for us."

The thing is, the next guy ended up being Quinton Spain. He had just showed up on Friday and had taken 0.0 Bengals walk-through reps after he and his 66 NFL starts had been cut by the Bills barely two weeks ago.

Shaq Calhoun, a second-year guy with seven rookie starts last year in Miami, had been here on the practice squad virtually all season. But when head coach Zac Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and line coaches Jim Turner and Ben Martin met with the backup interior players before the game, it was clear that Spain, a six-year pro who calls himself "Mr. Undrafted,' on Twitter, could communicate.

At least one veteran NFL coach said he had never seen this before. A guy showing up Friday and playing Sunday. But Spain gave off an air of already-been-there-done-that before and during the 31-20 win over the flummoxed AFC South leaders.

"The guy has played six years. He's played a lot of ball, so he's very familiar," Price said. "Every NFL offense is pretty similar to one another, just different code names. In the huddle, Joe (Burrow) would call the play just to make sure he knew what we were doing and what our calls were, we'd get up on the line, he was familiar with some of our terminology and just go out there and execute."

Calhoun started and while they thought he was OK, he did false start on that first series, as well as appear to give up a pressure and then have a hand in allowing Jadeveon Clowney a free shot on Burrow that he missed. Somehow Burrow ducked out of it and actually got the ball off for a completion, the first of a few mind-boggling escapes that had Price calling Burrow "Houdini," the day after Halloween.

As they planned for the second series the coaches thought they could use Spain's experience.

So there was Price next to Spain, who was next to a rookie that had taken seven NFL snaps before Sunday, sixth-rounder Hakeem Adeniji, and was making his first NFL start at left tackle. It was little more familiar on the right side, where right guard Alex Redmond was making his 23rd Bengals start. And next to him was Fred Johnson, a second-year player with 181 snaps this season and making his third pro start. But his first at right tackle.

It sounded like Turner and Martin might get a game ball, too. Houdini didn't get sacked, they ran it well enough to keep it nearly 36 minutes with 32 runs that were a nice balance to Burrow's 37 passes without lead back Joe Mixon (foot) as running back Giovani Bernard went for 4.1 yards per his 15 carries, his most in more than two years.

"Jim Turner and Ben Martin have done an unbelievable job. This offensive line has been underappreciated these last few weeks," Taylor said. "Joe's been hit a few times on extending plays when he leaves the pocket, and he knows it. But these guys have been improving every single week and are buying into what Jim and Ben are telling them. You get a group of guys like Hakeem Adeniji, Billy Price, and Fred Johnson, who have been in that locker room for a while now. It's next man up. The expectation is that they'll play like a starter, and that's what they did. They were ready for their opportunity.

"None of them were nervous. Jim and Ben had them in the meeting room the second they got to the stadium. They were going through cadence, code words, and on-the-ball calls. We knew Quinton was going to be ready — he's been here for 24 hours, it's time to go play ball. They got him up to speed and he bought in. We got him in there earlier than anticipated, but we needed his presence — needed a big body. He did a great job. All of them did a great job. I couldn't be prouder of that entire room, starting with the coaching staff and ending with the players. It's awesome to watch those guys embody what the whole team is about: Next man up, everyone's ready, and everyone's buying in. When you get your opportunity, you make the most of it. I'm really proud of those guys."

On Thursday night, the massive 6-4, 330-pound Spain talked about staying in a downtown Cincinnati hotel for six days per the Covid protocol and how it was rather fitting the Titans were in town.

Since they were the team that signed him out West Virginia undrafted and where he had those first 48 starts. He talked about finally getting in the facility the next day and just going and doing what they wanted him to do.

On Sunday in the last minute of the first half they wanted him and Adeniji to combo block inside on the Titans best down lineman, Jeffery Simmons. They buried him and Bernard scooted through the hole to their left for a touchdown that made it 17-7 at the half.

 Bernard was asked if he would have recognized Spain on the street. Now, he could.

"The emphasis was to take care of the down guy, take care of the big guy, the nose tackle, the 3 technique, whatever it may be, and just move him," Price said. "Displace him. And that was something we put a big emphasis on all the way across the board with the offensive line.

"Communication. You have to be targeted correctly. Spain had no walk-through reps and Hakeem has played with the ones this week and we've been on scout team together, so the communication of how I ID things and how I communicate things it made it nice and we gelled nicely up front. It was everybody on offense doing their 1/11th and you can't complain when good execution happens."

How good were Adeniji and Johnson at tackle? They were good, no question. Clowney and Vic Beasley, two Pro Bowl sackers, are still looking for their first sacks of the season. Yes, the tight ends and the running backs helped. But the biggest help of all was Burrow getting it out if his hand quicker than Price snapped it back to him.

"We had to do that this week," Burrow said. "We were in a unique circumstance with four new guys in there on the line. They played great, but we had to help them. We got the ball out fast, ran the ball efficiently and did what we needed to do."

They were good enough to get the Titans where they had to. Tennessee came in historically bad on third down and the Bengals were a devastating 10-15. They were near the bottom in the red zone and the Bengals punched in their last four trips.

"We felt like our inside zone run game is one of the strong points in our offense," Bernard said. "It's a testament to the coaches knowing the type of team we are and not deviating from that and doing something pretty and cute and all that stuff. It's about, 'Hey, we're going to continue to do this no matter who we're going to play.' We continue to do things that we know we're good at. So my hats off to Coach Turner and Coach Taylor up front being able to get those plays and get those yards."

If it was a day for the offensive line, the day belonged to Price. Injury, coaching changes, new schemes have all stalked him since they took him No. 1 three years ago. On Sunday, that stood for something to Taylor.

"He's a guy who came in with expectations and never wavered from that. His opportunity hasn't always been exactly what he thought it would be, but he comes in with a smile on his face every day and goes to work," Taylor said. "He encourages everybody, (saying) "What can I do to get better? Do you need me to play on the scout team? Do you need me to play guard?" His personality has never wavered for one second. I couldn't be happier for Billy because he's earned this opportunity. You never know how things are going to shake out, but I'm really proud of the person, the man, and the player he is. Our guys can learn a lot from Billy."

With a game ball in his locker, it was also Price that seemed to have learned something.

"It just goes to show you the work, and this process is long. Again, you've got highs and lows, and when the opportunity comes, take advantage of that. And don't take a day for granted," Price said. "It means a lot. It's respectable to understand my value in this organization. I definitely appreciate that. Over the past two years, this process, the highs, the lows, it's nice to be rewarded. But there's a lot more work to be done. Guys are going to get healthy and we're going to continue to develop this offensive line room and we're going to get better in the weeks coming up."