The Bengals crossed their fingers Wednesday as running back Giovani Bernard (limited) and right tackle Andre Smith (full go) returned to practice Wednesday in the University of Cincinnati bubble that shielded them from the 35-degree weather. Bernard (hip, shoulder) has missed the last three games and Smith (ankle) the last two.
Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict (knee) surfaced on the field for the first time since his Oct. 29 arthroscopic knee surgery as he began a field rehab that they hope gets him ready for the Nov. 30 game in Tampa at the latest. Also not working were cornerback Terence Newman (knee), right end Margus Hunt (ankle) and right end Wallace Gilberry (back). Running back Cedric Peerman (hip) and right guard Kevin Zeitler (calf) were also limited.
After Wednesday's practice offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said Bernard looked "tremendous," but indicated he'd ease him back into the lineup, much like he did when wide receiver A.J. Green returned from his toe injury to play half the snaps against Jacksonville. It sounded like running back Jeremy Hill is going to get more snaps than before Bernard went down. With Bernard out, Hill became the first Bengals rookie since the 1968 inaugural team to have two 150-yard rushing games.
"He deserves it," Jackson said of more touches for Hill. "With Gio just coming back, it's going to be hard for me to just thrust him in there and let him go again. I think we have to work him into our process. What will determine that is just how fast and how ready he is to go."
The biggest matchup in Sunday's game in Houston (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) is an intramural scrum pitting two former University of Wisconsin linemen who have remained off-season workout partners. One of them, Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt, is bidding to become the NFL's first defensive MVP in years. The other, right guard Kevin Zeitler, is playing well enough that people like Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham think he's playing at a Pro Bowl level. Watt lines up all over the place, but he probably gets the right tackle probably more than anybody. But when he goes inside to pass rush, it could be over Zeitler or others in the interior.
"The guy is pretty freaky in terms of his strength and speed levels and his agility," Zeitler said of his partner. "It's pretty amazing to watch."
Asked if one man can block Watt, Zeitler said, "It would be one heck of a guy. You're better off having some other guy help you out."
Just how dominant has Watt been this season?
"Lord have mercy," said Jackson of his reaction to Watt's tape. "He's one of the best I've seen." ...
The Bengals' George Iloka goes home to play in Houston. He played 10 snaps as a rookie on special teams in the 2012 Wild Card game against the Texans, his first game ever at Reliant Stadium, and the safety comes into this one riding a 26-game streak of consecutive starts. His third season has proven to be a break-out year. Last week's play where he was called for hitting Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham in the head was a game-changing play, according to head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. Along with Iloka, they thought it was a legal hit and Iloka said the guy who threw the flag told him he probably shouldn't have. But the refs couldn't change the fact that Graham had to be helped off the field, where he took a few plays off after the Bengals had sent their message.
(More evidence the hit was legal: Iloka said he didn't get a fine letter from the NFL.)
"I don't want to see a guy get hurt, but that's part of the game," Iloka said "It was more (a help for us). There were a lot of things said after the Cleveland game as there should the way we came out. Guys came out with a chip on their shoulder. We were angry. (Mad) at ourselves. We wanted to come out there early and set the tone."
Iloka, who helped hold Graham to three catches for 29 yards," said "numerous hits set the tone," and pointed to middle linebacker Rey Maualuga ringing his bell when Graham tried to block him…
Lewis responded to a New York Times story where the wife of former Bengals safety Robert Sands said he advised her not to go to the police regarding their domestic problems. Lewis said Mercedes Lewis' side wasn't truthful.
"Mercedes doesn't have a very good memory of things," Lewis said. "We did try and help the Sands.
"Domestic violence is a matter of the law. It's not our deal," Lewis said. "In their case, the authorities were called. That's the way it goes…We prefer that they don't have the things that caused them issues."
The club also released a statement refuting that Lewis or anyone else advised the couple not to talk to the police.
"Instead, the Club encouraged them to work on their problems and to utilize counseling to improve their relationship," the team said. "Unfortunately, the Sands did not take full advantage of the services available to them, and they missed various counseling sessions. The notion that Mrs. Sands was advised not to talk to police lacks credibility. Law enforcement had already been involved with the Sands' situation."