As Bengals head coach Zac Taylor looked ahead to next Sunday's game in Washington, he's not sure if he'll have running back Joe Mixon (foot) but he's encouraged about the status of left tackle Jonah Williams (neck stinger) and defensive tackle Geno Atkins (personal reasons). He also said quarterback Joe Burrow (ankle) looks good to go into his 10th NFL start.
But if there's one thing that is certain about the 2020 season it is the uncertainty spawned by the pandemic. Taylor had four assistant coaches missing from Sunday's game in Pittsburgh because of Covid-related reasons and it's unclear who'll be out five days because of close contact and 10 days because of a positive test.
One thing for sure is that all meetings are virtual this week, which all coaches can attend, of course. But the three defensive assistants who were ruled out Sunday morning can't be at practice until Friday at the earliest. It's believed they rented separate cars and drove back to Cincinnati while the team flew back. It was announced on Friday that wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell couldn't attend the game because of Covid reasons.
"We can't have any in-person meetings anyway. It's not all that different not being in the facility, they just can't be at practice," Taylor said Monday. "It's important to have them at both (game and practice). Whether there are adjustments that need to be made during the game or communicate. Obviously, with practice they get more individual time where they get to focus on their guys at their position. We are not the only team to deal with that. We have a bunch of younger coaches too on that side of the ball that can step up and get an opportunity. It's a great time to see them work as well."
Strong safety Vonn Bell admitted in his Monday call, it's just not the same.
"I said it months ago. We're in a weird time. You never know how you can get the virus," Bell said. "If there's a close contact they track you with those tracers. You might be next to somebody for five minutes and they've got you as a close contact and you're knocked out and it's always a next man up mentality. It affects the whole group because we're not getting that time together where we really break down how can we do this and get details in what we're doing during the game because it's all on Zoom. And you're not getting enough reps sometimes.
"It's crazy. You have to find a way. Nobody cares about that. I had an old coach say 90 percent of the world doesn't care about your problems and 10 percent cares you've got them. We just have to figure out how to produce on Sunday and that's the end of it. We just have to find a way."
The Bengals did get one player back from the Covid list Monday in practice squad cornerback Brian Allen, who appeared to be a close contact.
O-LINE CONFIGUATION: Backup right tackle Fred Johnson wasn't available Sunday after going on the Covid list about 10 days ago, so it looks like he'd be available for Washington if Bobby Hart (knee) can't go. But the fact is, their replacement on Sunday, transplanted left guard Quitnon Spain, was terrific in his first NFL start at right tackle. So was Hakeem Adeniji, starting in place of Jonah Williams for the second straight week on the left side.
Taylor was pretty open about how he lines up this Sunday because he saw how it can change so quickly as late as Friday.
"It certainly has been that late. You don't want it to go that late," Taylor said. "You want to do it before you go practice on Wednesday so you can communicate to the guys and they can settle into their position, but that was late in the week we had to make some adjustments there. Hakeem and Quinton did a great job of handling it."
Pro Football Focus agreed. Adeniji, who has yet to allow a sack, gave up his first QB hit to go with two hurries in a great effort against six-sack man Bud Dupree, a guy that also had 11 hits. Spain, making his 67th NFL start, made sure T.J. Watt didn't go off. He did give up a sack, a hit and four pressures, but when you consider Watt and Dupree came in with 55 pressures and 13 sacks combined, well, that's good enough to win. But Taylor is just waiting on health here and won't say how they'll line up next week.
"I thought overall those guys did a great job targeting and winning some one-on-ones and gave us a chance to be able to do the things we need to do to win the game," Taylor said.
"We have to see where people are coming back. You get good plays from guys who are spot-starting there. Really if you look at thing in a nutshell and just watch each play those guys up front did a great job. We had some efficient runs. They really did a good job moving the line of scrimmage. They won a couple of downs against us. They do that, they're a good defense. I thought pass protection really the only two hits in the first half were a third-and-12 sack where the play got extended a little longer than normal."
And how about center Trey Hopkins taking turns on Stephen Tuitt and Cam Heyward and their combined eight sacks and 34 pressures? PFF had Hopkins allowing just two hurries.
PROTECTING JOE: Taylor has done a pretty good job hiding it, but he is none too pleased with the shots Burrow is taking. Particularly Dupree's late shove into the Bengals sideline Sunday that ended up with Burrow rolling his plant ankle at the end of the half when he slammed into the bench after getting rid of the ball. After that throw, Burrow was six of 16 for 33 yards the rest of the way. Taylor says he thinks that wasn't a factor. But he left no doubt he wanted a flag. Which could have made it 22-10 at the half.
"If there was a camera on me for the next eight minutes, you would have seen my reaction, going into halftime so that would have been very clear had someone been filming that," said Taylor, who has talked about hoping the late hits on his quarterback are more monitored. "Probably falls into that category, and I'll be very careful with my opinions."
WIND-BLOWN: Taylor didn't talk about the 20 mile-per-hour wind impacting Burrow's passing, but he could have. In slightly less windy conditions two weeks ago at Paul Brown Stadium, Burrow carved the Titans. But special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said it was quite a factor and this is a guy coaching his 23rd season of the NFL kicking game.
"Obviously the weather was a major factor," Simmons said. "This is two games in a row for us that we've played in some bad, bad wind games. As windy as I can remember being. Pregame warmup was atrocious."
But that wasn't enough to let punt returner Alex Erickson off the hook for a fumble and some poor decisions to not catch the ball.
"I think he got a little bit unnerved, too, with the wind. It was a factor the whole game. It was a battle in pregame," Simmons said. "Obviously when he fumbles the first one, then he gets spooked after that by misplaying another one. It's like falling off a bike. When you fall off a bike you're got to get right back on it.
"We can't shy away from things. He's got to trust in his ability to catch. He's been reliable in the past for the most part and he's got to rely on his judgment in situations like that and throughout the rest of the game. He's just got to do that stuff better. He's got to trust in himself more."
Which means Erickson is keeping his job. He has to. Darius Phillips is on injured reserve and Tyler Boyd is their leading receiver and isn't going back there.
MORE KICKS: The Bengals came in 10th, according to the special teams rankings of Football Outsider, and the Steelers were 11th and the Bengals were uncharacteristically outplayed. They came in ranked third covering punts, but gave up a 42-yarder to Ray-Ray McCloud. The only new player on the unit was wide receiver Stanley Morgan, Jr., at gunner since cornerback Tony Brown started.
"We had the guy boxed in over there. We had one guy that got out-leveraged. Stanley was right there at the point of attack to try to make the play and fell down," Simmons said. "And we had three other guys right there that should have boxed the play in. One guy jumps to the wrong leverage. It's a standard thing for us that you always keep the ball inside and in front of you. You never let the ball get outside you. That's just basic, basic leverage rules."
But they also didn't get a break. When it was still 22-7 in the third quarter, it looked like the other gunner, Brandon Wilson stripped McCloud at around the Steelers 30 when rookie linebacker Logan Wilson stood him up and Wilson recovered it. Simmons was not happy that the refs ruled McCloud's forward progress had been stopped.
"I do not view it the same way. I think under most circumstances the officials usually error on the side of a late whistle," Simmons said. "There are plays there I've heard no whistle before. That is the explanation we were given. They felt forward progress was stopped and the official blew the whistle. That's what they called. There's not really a whole lot of arguing that can be done about it. I can disagree with it. People can agree or disagree, I guess, but that is the explanation I was given the official blew the whistle to stop the play. I guess that's what we got to go with. Disappointing, though, I can tell you that. We had the ball out and it was a clear recovery by Brandon Wilson."