The Bengals lineup for the stretch run that that starts with Sunday's game in Denver (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) got turned on its head Thursday when their No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie was put on the COVID list and starting right tackle Riley Reiff went to injured reserve with an ankle problem. It came on a day backup right tackle Isaiah Prince missed his second straight practice with an illness.
Given that Awuzie went on the list so late in the week, he may be hard pressed to get back on the corner in time for the game. The Bengals have done a nice job containing the virus, but this could be the first time they're going to lose a starter to COVID.
Complicating matters at the position is they're hoping Trae Waynes, who began the season as a starting cornerback, has played just two games this season and not in more than two months because of a hamstring issue. They hope he can come off injured reserve in time to make the trip, but they've yet to activate him.
Plus, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who played the final 14 snaps last Sunday when Awuzie left with re-aggravated foot injury, wasn't at Thursday's practice. With Darius Phillips on injured reserve, the next men up are veteran Trey Flowers, who played six snaps Sunday in nickel packages, and first-year player Jalen Davis, who has played 56 snaps this season.
On Wednesday, head coach Zac Taylor said Prince doesn't have COVID and kept him home with an illness out of an abundance of caution. Next man up there is Fred Johnson, who has six NFL starts and one at right tackle. But not this year, when he's come off the bench twice in the four games he was active.
Backup center Trey Hill (illness) also appeared to be out a second straight day.
Reiff, the free agent pickup from the Vikings, started the first 11 games before he hurt the ankle in the fourth quarter of the Nov. 26 win over the Steelers. He missed the next game but came back to take 66 snaps before leaving in the fourth quarter last week. They lose their one vet tackle. Although rookie D'Ante Smith, who came back from injured reserve a few weeks ago, is now getting more reps at tackle than guard.
View some of the top images from the Bengals practice ahead of Week 15 against the Denver Broncos.
BURROW, HENDRICKSON, HOPKINS BACK: Quarterback Joe Burrow (finger), right end Trey Hendrickson (back) and center Trey Hopkins (illness) were back on the field Thursday after missing Wednesday. So was nose tackle D.J. Reader after he rested the quad muscle he tore last year.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Everyone knows kickers have a field day at Mile High. But not necessarily quarterbacks. Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who coached for six seasons in Denver, didn't see an impact of the lighter air on the deep passing game.
"I've never noticed that. The ball probably carries a little more marginally," Callahan said this week. "I think the one that really matters is the kicking is much different. As far as throwing you probably get a little extra yardage on it as far as down the field. I don't it's a remarkable difference. When the ball flies through the air on kicks you see it more there than you do in passing the ball." …
But Callahan says the Broncos believe the air gives them an advantage.
"I think they sell it a little bit," Callahan said. "You're a mile above sea level so you lose your breath a little bit fast. It's not a huge deal. Everybody goes in there and plays and it's probably a minor factor overall in the course of a game. You get tired you put the oxygen mask on and suck some oxygen down and go back and do it again. It's part of the process of going to play there. It's an advantage for them, but at the end of the day it's not a huge one, but they play it up as one."
There is that sign the Broncos make sure they put in front of the visitors' locker room:
"They've got huge mural that tells you how high above sea level you are. 5,280 feet."
He remembered the number …
Something has to give Sunday. According to the NFL, the Broncos are 0-5 since 2020 against a team entering the game with seven or more wins. They're also 0-4 against a team with a winning record entering Week 15 or later. The Bengals are 1-7 since 2018 against teams with seven or more wins entering the game ...
Also according to the NFL, Burrow, with a 100.6 passer rating and 14 picks, could be the first since Drew Brees in 2016 to have 15 interceptions and a 100+ passer rating ...