Updated: 5:35 p.m.
It just so happens that Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis had The Talk with Anthony Collins a few weeks ago as the talented but little-used tackle wondered about his lot in Bengaldom. It looked as if there would be no more chances to play with free agency knocking after this season.
"We told him he would be fine. We as a coaching staff feel we have more respect for him than he feels like we do" Lewis said after Friday's practice. "When you draft young guys you want them to have the confidence and ability they can play the game. Anthony has never lacked for that and every opportunity he has gotten and he hasn't (choked). Some guys have."
As fate would have it, starter Andre Smith sprained his ankle in Pittsburgh Dec. 4 and hasn't played since. After sitting out this Thursday and Friday, Smith has been designated as questionable. So Collins's 18th NFL start may very well come against Rams sack ace Chris Long this Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), and he's already hearing that this is a "cash register game" for him.
"Every game in the NFL is a cash game," Collins said Friday. "You have to play every second. I don't want to know what is going to happen (in the future). I just want to live every second."
The 6-3, 316-pound Collins, a fourth-round pick out of Kansas, has been frustrated by his inability to get on the field. Every time he plays he gets praised, but that doesn't seem to translate. Lewis says the club tried to give Collins a shot in training camp in preparation for right guard Bobbie Williams's four-game NFL suspension to open the season. But this year's fourth-rounder, Clint Boling, won that one.
"We trained him at guard this year. He's been able to do it all. He just probably when he got the chance to go and win the right guard job I don't think he embraced it well enough," Lewis said. "He learned a good lesson there. In training camp, into the preseason. He (had) an opportunity to compete with Clint there. I don't think he knew what we were doing."
Now Collins is literally staring at a golden opportunity trying to block Long and his 12 sacks.
"When you get an opportunity, you just go play. Don't play like anybody else," Collins said. "Just go play like you know how to play and let everything else take care of the rest. Knowing that more people are against you than with you."
Collins says he's received a lot of lessons from the tackles that raised him, and he has seen it all, starting with the seasoned and enormously talented first-round bookends of Willie Anderson and Levi Jones. He watched a project, Stacy Andrews, secure a big deal in free agency despite an ACL injury. And he has become close with left tackle Andrew Whitworth and his family as he has watched Whitworth grow into a leadership role on and off the field.
"Good guys who are good technicians," Lewis said.
Long (ankle) himself missed the early week of practice and was deemed questionable after he was limited Friday. But that has been the scenario the last week and he hasn't missed a game.
"It doesn't matter; it will be like playing here at home," Collins said when he was asked if Long reminded him of any other rushers. "He's good. A Pro Bowler. He reminds me of his daddy. I've heard a lot about him. I heard he was The Truth, too."
Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long retired in 1993, when Collins was eight.
WHAT HE WANTS: The Bengals offense may be struggling trying to string together some consistency, but this is the scheme Lewis wanted when he tapped Jay Gruden as his coordinator back in February.
"We're just scratching the surface, but I think we've got a foundation laid that is really strong; I really do," Lewis said. "I have fun watching them every day in practice. We have a lot of versatility. We mesh the run and the pass. We can throw the ball deep down the field, we can throw the ball underneath, we can screen them, we can boot them, we can naked them, we can throw it down the middle, we can throw it outside. That's what we wanted. I think I am very happy with where we are. I think the players continue to grow within it. Every week you see a guy grow and get something down that will help us down the line."
Lewis has been pursuing that versatility for years, particularly from the tight end group, and he thinks he's getting it. If not in the numbers yet from Jermaine Gresham, then from Gruden's conceptual use of Gresham, Donald Lee and Colin Cochart.
"I think that's the thing you got to like; the fact we've gotten the tight end involved," Lewis said. "We got Donald Lee involved, we got Cochart involved. I think the tight end position has been very productive for us this year, too. I think that's something we needed to always take steps forward in and that's been big. I think … the (biggest) production from two receivers since T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) was here. I think that's been big."
While wide receiver Jerome Simpson has been wildly inconsistent opposite A.J. Green, he already has more yards than Laveranues Coles had in 2009 (615-514) and a much better yards per catch than Chad Ochocinco had last season (16.2-12.4).
Now Lewis is hoping the group learns from the mistakes, particularly the ones they made the closer they get to the end zone, as happened the past two games.
"To take basically eight points, four points each off of those two games, and actually got none against Pittsburgh," Lewis said. "Live and learn, we'll learn from it because if we lose a football game we better learn something from it. I feel like we have."
"Lot of plays in the game," Lewis said of last Sunday's teachable moments. "Shoot, 20 plays we could point to that. Whether (safety Reggie Nelson) intercept(s) the football, run to the near sideline and see if you can score a touchdown. Don't cut back into everybody else, keep running. First down in red zone, get the ball one minute, but get out of bounds (Andrew Hawkins) so I don't have to call timeout. Then Jermaine, don't waste time, get out of bounds. He does, but don't waste time. There is a lot of learning."
CLEMENS THE MAN: The Bengals are 9-8 against rookie QBs. They are probably 0-0 vs. QBs that have had five practices with their teams. That is what they get in Kellen Clemens on Sunday with Sam Bradford in a boot and not expected to play.
The Rams problems don't end there. Left tackle Mark LaVoir isn't expected to play and Adam Goldberg gets his third start there this season at a position where he has struggled. Plus, cornerback Jason King hasn't practiced since injuring his shoulder in practice Wednesday and no one knows who'll play nickel if he can't. He's listed as questionable and if he doesn't play, he'll be the fifth corner of St. Louis's top five heading into the season unavailable Sunday.
INJURY UPDATE:Smith, who has been out the past two days, indicated Friday that he suffered a setback in limited work Wednesday. Third down running back Brian Leonard (knee) figures to be out because he's missed every day this week, already limiting the Bengals offense's package. Plus he was listed as doubtful, as close to an out one can get from head coach Marvin Lewis. Fullback Chris Pressley (knee), although he worked out on the side vigorously Friday, was listed as questionable. Lewis's standard usually is if a player doesn't practice all week, he won't play. That may be flexible since Pressley is the team's only fullback and Leonard is his only backup.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has disdained using his tight ends as lead blockers, so if Pressley doesn't play the Bengals just may use multi-tight ends. Plus, they could spread it out to take a shot at the injury-decimated Rams secondary.
Returning to practice Friday was rookie outside linebacker Dontay Moch after a tussle for a few weeks with migraine headaches, but he was ruled out of the game.
The rest of the injured went limited but listed as probable Friday, except outside linebacker Manny Lawson, listed as limited but probable with a full practice.
Practice squad cornerback John Bowie said he tore his Achilles at the end of Thursday's practice and was scheduled for surgery Friday afternoon. Bowie, a University of Cincinnati product, said he was simply coming out of a break when it felt like someone kicked him.