The Bengals defense gets back its best player in the nick of time with perennial Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins expected to play his first game of the season Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Baltimore against Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson's vaunted run game.
But the Bengals own run-game leader, running back Joe Mixon, went limited Friday and is marked as questionable. Mixon, the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week after his 151 yards rushing in Sunday's win over Jacksonville, injured his shin in Thursday's practice.
Slot corner Mackensie Alexander (hamstring) is doubtful after not practicing Friday. Same with wide receiver John Ross III, who has missed the last two days with an illness. He's looking at his third straight deactivation after being a healthy scratch the last two weeks.
Rookie linebacker Logan Wilson (concussion) went full for the second straight day and returns to the lineup after last Sunday's game.
Atkins, coming off his eighth Pro Bowl season, injured his shoulder Sept. 3 in the last scrimmage of training camp and returned to practice in limited fashion last week. He was also limited Wednesday and Thursday before head coach Zac Taylor gave him the go-ahead after Friday morning's full practice.
Jackson (knee), who missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, was back at practice happy and smiling and putting the league's third-ranked rushing attack through the final prep.
"He's been playing in this division for a long time," Taylor said of Atkins, a guy that took his first snap in this rivalry when Jackson was barely a teenager.
"Just to have him back. Obviously we've had a lot of injuries at that position. He's been the force in that group here for a long time. Just to get his presence back. I know he's excited about it. He's had a good week of practice and it's going to be good to see him back in the rotation."
Highlighting the tackle turbulence is that after starting 96 straight before this year's opener, Atkins becomes nose tackle D.J. Reader third different starting wingman. One that took his place, Mike Daniels, signed early in training camp. The other, Christian Covington, arrived here via a trade a week before the opener.
Before all that, nose tackle Josh Tupou opted out, nose tackle Renell Wren suffered a season-ending quad injury in the first week of camp and Ryan Glasgow (knee) never made it to camp when he failed his physical.
To top it off, Daniels (elbow) went to injured reserve after getting hurt a week ago in practice and it's not clear if he'll be back in two weeks or six weeks or somewhere in between.
Reader has proven to be worth every penny when he became the Bengals' richest free-agent in history back in March. Here's a guy playing 79 percent of the snaps when the most he's played is 60 percent after he took a career-high 638 snaps for the 2018 Texans. He's on pace to take 920 plays, but the return of Atkins has to ease that a bit.
"Yeah," said Reader, asked about if there is worry about wear and tear. "But that's on you being a professional just knowing what you've got to do to get your body there. That's important, that's everybody working together to figure out what's best for you. Just to make sure your body is able to last through the season."
It's time for the Bengals to make a stand against the run in the AFC North. When Daniels wasn't in the lineup in Cleveland three weeks ago, the Browns rushed for 215 yards, marking the fourth time in the last five division games the Bengals have allowed at least 136 yards rushing.
Baltimore has been a huge culprit, In Jackson's three starts against the Bengals, the Ravens average 224 yards rushing per game. Reader has a high regard for this offensive line even with the retirement of Hall of Fame guard candidate Marshal Yanda.
"They're a physical group, the guards inside do a good job of combo-ing with the tackles," Reader said. "79 (left tackle Ronnie) Stanley is very athletic, 78 (right tackle Orlando Brown, Jr.) is a big tackle. 77 (center Matt Skura) is very good. He's been pretty good since he came out just watching him work. The other guard does a good job getting his hands on you and driving. They work well together, I think they do a good job being physical in the run game especially and that's what they're preaching and they're doing it."
EVER GREEN: Now is a good time to recall that Jackson didn't always dominate this rivalry. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green used to own this game. And Sunday marks the first time they've played against each other.
When Green caught three touchdowns in the game's first 17 minutes in a Sept. 13, 2018 victory on a Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium, it marked the eighth time in ten games the Bengals had beaten the Ravens. But then Green got hurt and Jackson took over.
But before that, in Baltimore alone, Green caught a Hail Mary TD on the last play to put the 2013 game into OT. In 2014 with the Bengals trailing on Opening Day and the clock ticking under five minutes, Green caught a 77-yard TD from Andy Dalton to win it. In 2015 Green engineered another fourth-quarter comeback with two touchdowns in the last quarter on the way to a career-high 227 yards.
Then wide receiver Tyler Boyd joined the act in 2017 when his 49-yard TD catch on fourth-and-12 in the final minute of the season forged another fourth-quarter comeback and knocked Baltimore out of the playoffs.
With Green off to the slowest start of his career, Boyd has gone off in the slot with a team-high 28 catches for 320 yards and gets assigned Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale doesn't like to travel his corners and we'll see if he stays true to that with the other cornerback Marcus Peters. Or will they be content to leave cornerback Anthony Averett and hybrid cornerback-safety Jimmy Smith on Green? Green has had some nice days with Smith on the field.
Martindale doesn't want to hear that Green has just 14 catches for 119 yards.
"We know A.J. Green. He's A.J. Green, OK?" Martindale said. "He's going to come running out of that tunnel, and we have to be ready to play, because he's A.J. Green, and he's a force to be reckoned with. We all know that."
TAYLOR SATISFIED: Taylor confirmed Friday he's making a change on defense and that would appear to be using left end Carlos Dunlap primarily on passing downs. Dunlap, 2.5 sacks away from the franchise's all-time record and riding a 122-game streak of starting in games he's played, indicated Thursday he wished he was part of the game plan.
"We always do things to put ourselves in the best position," Taylor said. "Sometimes that can lead to frustration. That's OK. But I'm very confident in how we communicate things."
Dunlap said he wasn't aware of the move until he saw a depth chart on a board before Thursday's practice. Taylor said he didn't want to reveal the contents of discussions or meetings, but stood by his communication skills.
"I'm very confident of how we handled that," Taylor said. "We'll keep all those conversations behind closed doors, but I'm very confident of how we communicate things to our players. I feel great about that."