Andre Smith admitted the blast of 30-degree weather when he emerged from the Paul Brown Stadium tunnel for Thursday morning's practice on the game field took his breath away. And his arrival from the desert to a familiar oasis underscored this breath-taking spate of injuries that has put the Bengals' post-season hopes on a 5-6 respirator.
Jake Fisher, the man who replaced starting left tackle Cordy Glenn (back) last Sunday against Cleveland, became the 14th Bengal to go on injured reserve with a back injury of his own. Glenn didn't work again Thursday and it looks like he won't go in Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12, order tickets) against Denver's two monstrous pass rushers. What that leaves for tracking Hall-of-Famer Von Miller against the Bengals' right side and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Bradley Chubb on the left with their 19.5 combined sacks looks to be anyone's guess.
Right tackle Bobby Hart is the guy on Miller. But will they opt to roll out Cedric Ogbuehi again at left tackle after Myles Garrett nicked him for a sack in Ogbuehi's first extended action of the season? Other options are true longshots: left guard Clint Boling after he started at left tackle in last year's final two games and fended off future Hall-of-Famer Terrrell Suggs on that famous fourth down in Baltimore. And Smith, even though he only has one NFL start in that spot (Oct. 1, 2017 in Cleveland for the Bengals), played it some off and on in last season's tackle rotation.
"Whatever they want me to play," said Smith, who said he was "All over the place," during practice.
Miller is a terror and Chubb looks like the 2018 model. Since he came into the league at the start of the Green-Dalton Era in 2011, Miller leads the NFL with 94 sacks and 25 forced fumbles with 10.5 and four, respectively this year. When Smith played the right side for the Bengals in 2014, 2015 and 2017, Miller didn't get a sack, so Hart, who has been charged with giving up five sacks by profootballfocus.com, has been more solid as the season goes along and could get some help from Smith as an extra tackle. That was Fisher's role before he went down.
Photographs from Bengals practice as the team prepares for the week 13 matchup against the Denver Broncos.
Hart and Glenn have struggled at times, but they have also held up enough that the Bengals are a quiet seventh in the league allowing sacks per pass. They face a pass-rush not so quietly ranking eighth generating the same stat.
Smith just played 43 snaps against the Chargers in his eighth start of the season last Sunday before Arizona cut him free of a two-year deal and, not only that, he's played in five post-season games with 95 games and 81 starts for the Bengals since they took him with the sixth pick in the 2009 draft. Smith, 31, is in his third re-incarnation with the club and if he wasn't a Pro Bowler when he re-signed in 2017 he was at least a godsend when then, like now, tackles are dropping like flies.
"Oh yeah," said head coach Marvin Lewis, when asked if Smith can play Sunday. "It will help that the guys he's played with can tell him, 'This now is that.' He's familiar with the surroundings and we know he's going to compete and fight his butt off."
But since last season the Bengals offensive line has undergone massive renovations that appear to ticket Ogbuehi and Fisher, the second-round pick right behind Ogbuehi, for the exits after the season. New offensive line coach Frank Pollack has stuck with Glenn at left tackle and Bobby Hart at right after they were obtained in the offseason via trade and free agency, respectively. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has also crafted a new playbook and Smith just flew in last night from The Coast.
But he's unperturbed as he looked around the locker room that has been his home for eight of the previous nine seasons: "There's a lot of new faces, but most definitely it feels like old times."
"I've been in a lot of playbooks. I've played a lot of football," Smith said. "I just played a game Sunday. It's not like I'm just coming off the street. I just played last Sunday, so the main thing is just to make sure I dive head first into my playbook so I can figure out what's going on.
"The technique is different, but it's still football at the end of the day. The field is still 100 yards, 53 whatever yards wide. I just have to go out there and fight and compete every day … The verbiage and terminology is a little different, but it's still football. I've played a lot of football. I've been in a lot of playbooks, so it should come pretty easy."
Smith cleared waivers Tuesday, got on a plane Wednesday and got in about 10:30 p.m. before getting a physical and signing his contact Thursday morning. When he hit the field he became the only man to block in a practice quarterbacked by Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton, A.J. McCarron and Jeff Driskel in a week they were starting as they prepare for Driskel's first NFL start. Driskel's off-the-charts athleticism is a nice chip against that Broncos' wrecking crew and Smith saw it in last season's training camp.
Get your first look at the customized cleats Bengals players will be wearing on December 2nd to show support and raise awareness for charitable causes.
"He's a little more athletic than the first three, but he's still a great quarterback," Smith said. "Good guy. I look forward to the opportunity."
Boling, who has actually played more Bengals games than Smith with 106, has been here before when the injuries pile up. His own 2013 ACL tear moved left tackle Andrew Whitworth into left guard for the final four games and the Wild Card Game. So after Smith got whacked from the Cards, it seemed to be in the cards.
"Good to see big Dre again. Haven't seen him in a while," Boling said. "It's just one of those things that happens at this time of year when guys get banged up … Andre was playing on Sunday. You know, so he's obviously in football shape. He hopefully has somebody that we can communicate with him and let him know what's going. He's a guy that's played a lot of football and he'll be able to pick up on what's going on pretty quickly."
It's the first time in the 16 seasons Lewis has been the head coach that left tackle has been such a huge question mark going into a game. But Smith isn't taking a side. Just a chance.
"There's a lot of people at home right now, so I'm just taking advantage of the situation," he said in his NFL home once again.