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Training Camp Report: The Two Mikes And How To Win Super Bowls;  Callahan's Takes On O-Line, Rookie WR Iosivas

WR Andrei iosivas catches the ball during training camp at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Sunday, August 20, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
WR Andrei iosivas catches the ball during training camp at the Kettering Health Practice Fields on Sunday, August 20, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

PLAYER OF THE DAY: S Michael Thomas

This is how you win Super Bowls, Part I.

It wasn't until the Bengals returned to training camp Sunday on the Kettering Health Practice Fields after Friday night's split decision in Atlanta that they realized they were down more cornerbacks than they thought.

They knew they wouldn't have Sidney Jones IV and Marvell Tell III. Jones was still out with a hamstring injury suffered on his last snap in the preseason opener and Tell left early Friday night with an undisclosed ailment. And No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, celebrating his return to 7-on-7 in his ACL rehab, isn't doing team stuff yet.

But when they went through Sunday's individuals, rookie cornerback DJ Turner came up sore after playing 53 snaps against the Falcons. Nothing major, but they opted for the safe side and kept him out.

That's when second-year cornerback Allan George asked Thomas if he could play cornerback. Cornerbacks coach Charles Burks already knew. Right before the team period started, he needed a cornerback for the twos opposite George and said only, "You got me, right Mike?"

"The more you can do, right? It's the story of my career," said Thomas, always with a smile. "Whatever the team needs me to do. For a package, a play, or a series, I'm going to be able to go out there and execute."

Heck, that's how his career began.

George can be forgiven if he didn't know that in Thomas' first game in the NFL in those ancient days of 2013, he had been on the Miami Dolphins for about 72 hours after coming cross country from the 49ers practice squad and had to play slot corner on the game's final drive. On the last play, the young buck picked off the GOAT. Patriots' Tom Brady ended up throwing it to him in the end zone to preserve the Dolphins' win.

Now Thomas, 33, is the Bengals oldest player and incumbent special teams captain locked in a roster struggle with Tycen Anderson, born the year Brady was a senior at Michigan. No matter. As the temperature hit 91 degrees on the first day of the last week of training camp, No. 31 was on the corner.

"Hey," said slot cornerback Mike Hilton from the sidelines, realizing the usual life cycle for an NFL defensive back is moving from cornerback to safety. "Mike's trying to extend his career going the other way."

Thomas got here winning the respect of Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. He was the Dolphins secondary coach in Miami that day in 2013 he had to put him in the slot. But every day, Thomas says, is about respect.

"You do what you can to earn the respect of your teammates," Thomas said. "They look up and they say, Look at '31,' he's outside.' I've played corner in games. I've even done it in this training camp. But not when somebody said, 'OK, you're playing corner.' The last time that happened? Sophomore year at Stanford."

Thomas laughed. He said he would have to talk to quarterback Trevor Siemian about beating him deep on a go-ball touchdown to rookie wide receiver Andrei Iosivas. But Siemian saw something else.

"I give Mike a tremendous amount of credit for doing whatever is asked of him," Siemian said. "He's been that way his whole career. Mike is a hell of a player and he's always willing to do whatever for the team. We were down some corners, that's really cool."

That's the thing. He's winning over guys he hasn't played with before. Like starting safety Nick Scott, just over from the Rams.

"You know how rare it is for somebody to be his age and move to a position that requires even more athleticism and running?" Scott asked. "That's impressive. He didn't look out of place at all. It was fun to watch … I told him if he keeps messing around like that, he's going to play for another four years."

Then Thomas went down to quarterback the punt team as the personal protector.

"I love Mike because he embraces absolutely any role you need him to do," Scott said. "He just does it. He's the ultimate teammate."

Which is how you win Super Bowls.

PLAY OF THE DAY: CB Chidobe Awuzie

When Awuzie simply and quietly stepped on the field for Sunday's first rep of one-on-ones, it was his first time in the drill since tearing his ACL on Halloween night in Cleveland.

Well then, this was Christmas as he covered wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase down the field on the first snap. A few plays later quarterback Jake Browning drilled an out to Chase and Awuzie was on it. Chase plucked it despite the tight coverage and Awuzie hit the ground.

But he got right back up.

"That was great for everybody to see," Thomas said. "I know he felt good getting back out there and getting his confidence just moving around out there."

Awuzie has been on the field for individuals and has lined up in team stuff for what are fast walk-throughs, easing him in by knowing what's coming at him. But now that he's in 7-on-7s, the ante has been upped. He has to react to what he sees.

"He's back. I'm not going to baby him," said Burks with an eye to the Sept. 10 opener in Cleveland. "They're not going to baby him in a few weeks."

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Yeh, Chido."

It was uttered softly by the man who oversaw Awuzie's comeback, Bengals director of rehab Nick Cosgray, as Awuzie went out there for the first snap on Sunday's 7-on-7. With some quick golfer's applause.

Cosgray is a busy man these days (see Burrow, Joe), but somehow he made it out there for what is a huge moment for both men. "You look like a proud papa," someone told Cosgray.

Cosgray is like your dad because he's been through it all. From the knees of Burrow and Carson Palmer, to both Achilles' of Leon Hall to Sunday's checkup on Awuzie.

HILTON AGAIN: This is how you win Super Bowls, Part II.

Less than 48 hours after he saved the first defense on its only preseason drive with a tipped third-down pass at the Falcons 5 that was intercepted by edge Joseph Ossai, here was slot cornerback Mike Hilton making another play.

This time it was on Browning as he tried to hit tight end Irv Smith over the middle. But the ball ended up where this training camp has been. In Hilton's hands.

After the team period, a frustrated Browning, who kiddingly went up to hit him with his helmet, quizzed him on what offensive coordinator Brian Callahan called "a 600-level," college course play.

"Mike's so smart. He fell off (the route) pretty well and I was just wondering what he saw. Was there a tell?" Browning said. "With him, Chido, Logan Wilson. Our D-ends. There is good communication on both ends. What we see probably helps more than self-scouting. 'What do you guys see?"'

Hilton went through it with Browning and assured him there wasn't much he could have done differently, except maybe get the ball out quicker. Hilton says what the play really shows is how well this defense is playing going into what amounts as its third year together. Since the gold strike of March of 2021 yielded Hilton, Awuzie, and Trey Hendrickson united with the draft gold of Wilson and Germaine Pratt, the other linebacker.

"We were in man and they motioned Tee (Higgins) away and I went with the tight end," Hilton said. "Irv did an over route. I knew I had Pratt on the back side waiting for him. Pratt called me off and knowing offenses are closing one space to open up something else, I just fell back in that window."

Browning asked Hilton what he could have done and Hilton was pretty sympathetic. They've been at each other for pretty much a month now and everyone knows what everyone is doing.

"That's us playing together for three years," Hilton said. "Just knowing each other and knowing (Pratt) will be there for me."

So Browning and Hilton talked it out. Which is how you win Super Bowls.

SLANTS AND SCREENS: After practice Sunday, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan had kind words for what his tackles did in Atlanta. He thought Jonah Williams did well in his NFL debut at right and that Jackson Carman comported himself well playing every snap on both sides. After working the first three quarters at left, Carman went to right in the fourth.

"For (Carman) to get reps on both sides, a lot of it is we don't have as many tackles playing in the game," Callahan said. "So him and D'Ante (Smith) are flipping sides and taking reps and obviously some guys are out there who obviously don't always go out there, too, late in the game. For him to do that is great, he needs the reps on both sides to be able to be valuable for us. And he is a little bit more natural on the left side. He played a lot better this game than he did the last game, too. That was good to see."

Williams has played all 42 of his NFL games at left tackle. Now he looks poised to be on the right side for the opener in Cleveland.

"He's made a pretty seamless transition," Callahan said. "Probably better than a lot of guys might have. And to his credit, I think he deserves a lot of credit for that, for his approach, for how well he's played at training camp and in the preseason games. Very excited about where he's at and very appreciative of how he's handled that transition."

It turns out the coaches and Williams were reading each other's minds. Last week, Williams was ready to go to them to ask if he could play in Atlanta because he felt he needed game work. But he never had to ask.

"Coming off an injury and playing on a new side, I think he wanted to get some live action. I think we were on the same page," Callahan said. "Had we not said anything to him, he probably would have come and asked us to play, I would think. Just to get your feet underneath you in a stadium-game environment I think means something. But he looked very good doing it and he got his reps under his belt and feels good about it." …

In bracing for keeping just nine offensive linemen, the Bengals are trying to find the versatile answers in the backups. After repping Cody Ford at right guard, he started at left guard Friday and later moved for a few snaps to right tackle.

"He's really proven that he's played a lot of football at guard. You see his strengths there. He's done a nice job," Callahan said. "He's played some tackle in those situations as well in preseason games. If you have guys that can play multiple spots you feel really good about it. I've been happy with Cody and what he's shown and I think he's done a nice job." …

Callahan has also been impressed with rookie wide receiver Andrei Iosivas as he battles not to make the roster, but to be active on game day.

"Whether he's active or not I can't make that call now, but he's definitely shown very well for himself," Callahan said. "He's made plays in games. He's made plays in practice. You see his size and speed and that part of it that's half the battle. He's learning as he goes.

"Surprise is probably the wrong word. I was curious to see what he would look like coming from an Ivy League school (Princeton) and not playing at a level some of these guys play at. I liked to see where his football knowledge and his ability to play against NFL-style coverages and players and he's certainly shown well for himself and happy with what we've seen." …

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