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Quick Hits: Hubbard Back Just In Time For Big Ben's Second Hand; Mixon, Hart Don't Practice Again; Hopkins Centering Physical O-Line

Sam Hubbard back at work.
Sam Hubbard back at work.

The good news for Bengals right end Sam Hubbard is he's back for Sunday's game (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) in Pittsburgh after missing the last three with a dislocated elbow.

The bad news is he's welcomed back by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, at the moment the quickest gun in the west, AFC North and everywhere else. Not only is Roethlisberger getting rid of the ball faster than anyone in the league, it's been reported he's doing it quicker than anyone in the last five years.

With three sacks in the last four games, the Bengals are trying to apply heat on a quarterback that doesn't let them.

"It's frustrating, but there are other ways you can affect the quarterback," Zoomed Hubbard before Thursday's practice. "We're going to be trying to bat balls, try and get in his face, try and disrupt him. He's No. 1, 2.1 (seconds) getting the ball out, but there are other ways we can affect him and we're going to try to do that. At the same time we're going to still be trying to get after him."

INJURY UPDATE: Running back Joe Mixon (foot) didn't work Thursday for the second straight day, so it looks like they won't have him for a third straight game, the longest absence of his career. Same with right tackle Bobby Hart (knee), which may put them in a bind. Fred Johnson, Hart's backup who started against Tennessee, is on the Covid list, status unknown. Plus left tackle Jonah Williams (neck-stringer) went limited again. Rookie Hakeem Adeniji made his first NFL start in place of Williams against Tennessee, but it is unclear who can go at right if Hart and Johnson are out.

Also looking like he'll be out is backup cornerback Darius Phillips (groin) after he missed both Wednesday and Thursday. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins has not practiced the last two days for personal reasons.

After missing multiple games for the first time in his three NFL seasons (he's played 36 out of 40), Hubbard plans on playing with a protective brace. He says it won't limit him and he feels strong enough to take on the run and pass.

"I've spent a lot of time these past few weeks making sure I got my strength back fully and doing as much rehabbing as I can," Hubbard said. "I feel strong playing the run and rushing the passer, now it's just a matter of getting your technique back down and getting in game shape. I think all those things play a factor; trusting it when you are in the heat of battle. That just comes with time and reps and that's what I'm doing this week in practice."

Check out some of the best images from practice as the Bengals prepare for Week 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

PHYSICAL IMPROVEMENT: After the Bengals got beat in Cleveland, 35-30, in the second game of the season, they felt like the offensive line got beat physically. It was a made a point of emphasis, center Trey Hopkins says, and he believes they've responded with the help of salty practices.

Another reason for the line's early struggles, he says, was the league-wide phenomenon of both sides of the ball playing high as a consequence of the truncated training camp.

"We've had a lot more fun just being competitive amongst ourselves. With the scout team and offense and defense, it's just become a lot more competitive," Hopkins said. "Guys are flying around having fun and playing fast in practice. It's not as big of a difference. You're never going to have full game-speed reps throughout your week of practice, but the smaller you can make that margin, I guess, is what makes it easier. I think that's one thing we've done better at in practice, just moving around a little bit faster so in the games it's not a complete shock. You're not trying to find it, you know what it feels like and you've done these reps exactly how they need to be done."

Hopkins is a guy that has worked at tackle at times and has been mentioned as a potential emergency. It sounds like he's ready, but wouldn't advise it.

"I had spent a whole year at right tackle at Texas and it was not very good to be honest with you," Hopkins said of a college season that was eight years ago.

The last time he played right tackle in a game was his senior year, one start for the season coming against West Virginia.

Say all you want about the tackles going against Steelers pass rushers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. The interior guys have the toughest assignments with veteran mashers Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward.

"Strong and long, I think would be the words. After years of playing against those guys. It's just pure strength, especially with Heyward," Hopkins said. "The pure strength there and Tuitt, as long as he is, it's very difficult for guys to lock up and maintain blocks on them. The biggest thing we're going to have to do with them is just when you get on those blocks, that's what it has to be about. You have to always think my feet have to be pushing north. Always pushing north, always pushing north. And really trying to maintain those blocks as best you can because that's what these guys are good at."

SPAIN LIKES BURROW's STYLE: Quinton Spain, the six-year veteran guard who had one of the more memorable debuts in Bengals history on Nov. 1, is still getting a handle on who his new teammates are.

He's already played 62 snaps in a 31-20 victory over the Titans, just 48 hours after he made his first appearance at Paul Brown Stadium and got the playbook, but his first padded practice as a Bengal came Thursday, 11 days after he had one of the big blocks on running back Giovani Bernard's 12-yard touchdown run.

"I knew the playmakers and all that. Now I know the offensive linemen, but I still have to know the defense. I know 30, because he's making plays," Spain said of free safety Jessie Bates III. "If you make plays, you're going to know the people who make plays. I just have to get to know the majority of the team, but I'm getting there."

He got to know rookie quarterback Joe Burrow pretty quickly. Burrow approached him in the pre-game locker room and went over the cadence. Spain, released by Buffalo last month, quickly discovered he had seen something similar in swashbuckling Bills quarterback Josh Allen.

"Both of them have a chip on the shoulder. They lead the locker room, they lead the huddle and they want to make everybody better," Spain said. "And they're tough. What Joe did, Josh did before, too, with Josh stiff-arming and breaking tackles. I see that in Joe and that's what type of quarterback I would like to block for."

KAREEM OF THE CROP: With defensive end Margus Hunt on the Covid list and his availability unknown, look for fifth-rounder Khalid Kareem to get plenty of work in Pittsburgh.  

He's already coming off a career-high 43 snaps against the Titans and is part of the most productive Bengals draft class in what may be their history. He thinks he knows why.

"I think the maturity. We're very mature," Kareem said. "Even Tee (Higgins), I mean he came out as a junior. But we're very mature. And I felt like our programs, as far as college, taught us how to be a pro early. And so we took the same work ethic from college, and I feel like we're definitely in the NFL right now"

Head coach Zac Taylor told the rookies during the bye that he wanted them to scout themselves so well that when they came into the second half of the season they should treat it like the second season of their careers.

Kareem went back to the games against Indy and the Browns last month as he looks to improve on his physicality and pass rush. Working 40 percent of the plays against the Colts and then 35 percent the next week against Cleveland, those were his most active outings until the Titans game.

"I definitely showed a lot of flashes there that I can get to the quarterbacks and do that more consistently," Kareem said of the Indy game. "And then far as physicality, I would say the last game against Cleveland, I was just very physical with the tight ends and trying to destroy blocks and the pullers so that's probably, if I could merge the two of those, those are definitely two I would try to build off."