Coming off a productive month in which the Bengals offensive line found a groove with a set five, it looks like it won't be so settled starting in November for Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Titans at Paul Brown Stadium.
But for a position group that was seen as a weak link a month ago, it's suddenly a brave, new world. The movement could also reveal new-found depth for a big, athletic crew learning on the job and drawing good reviews while scoring at least 27 points in three of the last four games.
On Friday, two days after they traded for backup veteran center B.J. Finney, the Bengals are expected to sign veteran guard Quinton Spain. The Bengals expect to have Spain on the sidelines Sunday while rookie tackle Hakeem Adeniji and sophomore Fred Johnson could make their second and fourth NFL starts, respectively. And former first-round pick Billy Price, after a strong effort in place of injured center Trey Hopkins last week in which Pro Football Focus named him the line's best pass protector, could start at center for the first time since the finale of his injury plagued rookie season in 2018.
Thursday's injury report looked like the last three snaps of last Sunday's 34-point, 468-yard effort against Cleveland. Neither starting tackle, Jonah Williams (neck) on the left, nor Bobby Hart (knee) on the right, as well as (concussion) were out there.
Also looking to be out for the second straight game is running back Joe Mixon, who has missed five straight practices since injuring his foot in Indianapolis.
All those players except Hart (PFF's top-rated Bengals offensive player in that game) weren't on the field during last Sunday's stretch they scored on the last drive of the first half and every drive after that when they had more than one play and head coach Zac Taylor is looking for more of the same from the backups.
It's unclear which side they'll commandeer, but Johnson and Adeniji, could be Sunday's starting tackles if there are no changes in the injuries. Johnson played pretty well last week when he replaced Williams on the left, but offensive line coach Jim Turner's revolving door training camp practices are paying off since Johnson and Adeniji played both sides.
The Bengals could very well start three rookies in that first huddle with the sixth-rounder Adeniji joining quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins, their first two picks. If one of the rookie linebackers starts and fifth-rounder Khalid Kareem gets his first start at defensive end, that's five rookie starters and it's been a long time since they've done that.
And no matter which side he ends up, it would be just Johnson's second start at tackle after he graded very well on the left side in last year's finale. His stint at guard earlier this season didn't go smoothly, but they have a lot of hopes for the 6-6, 325-pounder on the perimeter and offensive line coach Jim Turner and assistant Ben Martin haven't let up
"That's the position he's played primarily in his life," Taylor said this week. "It's likely the position he feels best at. He's really made a lot of progress these last couple of weeks. I know he got to play for us early in the season at guard. But just repping at tackle, he's been really competitive, really working on his craft. Jimmy and Ben have done a really good job pushing him. He's ready for an opportunity like this. When he gets in there and has to play, we have a ton of confidence in him. He's come a long way since he's been here. He's gotten a lot of reps. We're ready to see him perform."
Remember, after they took Burrow and Higgins, Turner was already up on the table lobbying for Adeniji after he started every game during his four seasons at Kansas. He settled in at left tackle out there, but not before he played some right. When when Turner saw the North coaches put him at guard in the Senior Bowl, he knew he had something if he could get him. Turner came back from the Senior Bowl calling Adeniji a genius.
Jordan, PFF's second-rated Cincy offensive player last week, would agree with that after working with him in camp. Jordan, 22, is six weeks younger than Adeniji and making just his 17th start, but on Sunday that may look like years.
"What I like about him is he's smart, he's got quick feet, great hands," Jordan said before Thursday's practice. "He's got the best hips I've seen. He's able to roll his hips. Talking about his smartness, he's probably one of the smartest guys in the room. Whenever I am out there next to him I feel like I don't have to say anything to him. Even if I say it he's like, I got you, I already know. He's very smart. "
Price is no dummy, either. Injuries, the emergence of Hopkins and bouncing between the three interior spots have put his career on a different path. But he knows what a good game for him at center means.
"I think it's very, very huge for me. It's a situation you don't take lightly," Price said before Thursday's practice. "I think that's probably the hardest thing, especially the last two years is being ready to play left guard, right guard or center at literally a moment's notice. During the week you don't get a lot of time to take equal reps at left or center or right. It's just a situation that mentally and conceptually you have to understand what the goal of the play is. And then the technique aspect of it too. I know in the offseason I was working both left and right guard because center is more natural for me to play."
Price reads and sees and studies everything he sees. Here's what he thought of the Cleveland tape:
"Very good. Did a lot of really good things. Put a lot of good things on film. And the continuity of the line, that's probably what's more important, over a personal performance. It's just making sure that the communication was great. The guys to the left and my right, we gelled very nicely. There were no MA's [missed assignments]. There were no mike points that were incorrect. Just things that were done efficiently up front."
If the Bengals have to re-shuffle up front, Price isn't worried about the new guys. He trained with Adeniji in Texas during the offseason and he's been working with Johnson for a year.
"I play with these guys on scout team so I know exactly what they expect from me on the scout team. The communication was very, very efficient," Price said.
And if they do re-shuffle, it is going to be their biggest group of the season with the 6-4, 310-pound Price, the 6-6, 315-pound Jordan, 6-5, 320-pound right guard Alex Redmond, the 6-4, 302-pound Adeniji and the 6-6, 325-pound Johnson.
INJURY UPDATE: The Bengals may be without cornerback Darius Philips (knee) after missing the first two practices of the week. Wide receiver John Ross III (illness) was also out Thursday after he worked Wednesday.
ON DECK: The Bengals' inexhaustible personnel department has produced two veteran interior lineman waiting in the club's Covid testing trailer. Even before trading for Finney on Wednesday, the Bengals wasted no time jumping on the massive 6-4, 330-pound Spain after the Bills surprisingly cut him in the same season they gave him a $15 million extension. He's coming from a complicated situation in Buffalo that stemmed from moving 2019 second-round pick Cody Ford to guard because of injuries.
But Spain arrives here with solid rep as a workman-like team guy that comes in with 66 starts for the Titans and Bills and he was rated the 39th best guard in the NFL last season in Buffalo. He's known as people mover who likes the physical part of the game, but the Bengals also liked what he did in pass protection. So did PFF, which had him for no sacks at all. He's also proud of where he came from. He's known as "Mr. Undrafted," on social media.
"I'm going to do whatever they ask me to do. I adjust to the scheme," Spain said. "Power. Outside. Protect. I just want to play football."
He'll be suited up Sunday and while the Bengals would love to keep the continuity of Jordan and Redmond in the interior, they've clearly upgraded the room. Here's what Bills quarterback Josh Allen told the media before Spain hit free agency last season.
"He's been awesome for us," Allen said. "Just his mindset, his attitude, the way he plays, he brings a fire. He's a really good dude, too. I love him and I wish we'd get him back too. I know it's the nature of the business. If I had a say, we'd have him back."
In the 6-4, 318-pound Finney, they've got another guy that doesn't mind doling it out and they like the fact he's done it in the AFC North, where six of his 13 starts have come when he was with the Steelers the previous four seasons.
Finney had to admit that Wednesday's trade came out of nowhere.
"We were about to go into the offensive meeting and the next thing I knew I was going home to pack," Finney said. "I had just about enough time to pack a bag and I caught a flight here."
He's checking with the NFL on his Covid testing status, but he won't be able to get into the building until next week's bye week. Naturally, the first time he can suit for a game is in Pittsburgh on Nov. 15.
CAPTAIN CARL: With Carlos Dunlap now in Seattle, Carl Lawson is the Bengals' most senior defensive end. He had only good things to say about Dunlap.
"I want everybody happy. I'm happy for Carlos. I think the world of Carlos," Lawson said before Thursday's practice. "He's still a mentor to me and a guy I can talk to. I picked his brain when he was here. When I got to Cincinnati, he definitely helped me out with different chiropractors and he did a lot of stuff in the community. I wish nothing but the best for Carlos. I think he will be highly successful. I think he has a shelf life of at least five years because he's just a physical freak."
Lawson has the same answer for trying to get more sacks as he does for the attention he paid to the social media circus surrounding Dunlap the last two weeks.
"I'm kind of on that mindset to keep chopping wood. It didn't really affect me. You ask me what we have to do to get after the quarterback, that's the only thing I was focused on," Lawson said. "The only thing I was focused on is constantly winning games and constantly improving no matter what my record is, how I played the week before or what everybody else is doing. My mindset is always how do I improve and how do I help the team win. I really wasn't paying attention to it."
Lawson leads the Bengals with 3.5 sacks, but they've had just one in the last two games and Lawson hasn't had a full once since he tortured Jason Peters in Philadelphia Sept. 27.
"Just got to keep improving, keep chopping wood. If you don't get it done the next week, you can't sit there in the dumps and not keep getting better," Lawson said. "Eventually you're going to hit gold. That's my thing. Just keep chopping wood, just keep digging and eventually you'll hit gold. That's what I'm going to do, keep working to get better each week."