The Bengals suffered a terrible blow when they lost veteran tight C.J. Uzomah for the year with a torn Achilles' suffered while he caught a five-yard pass in the fourth quarter in Thursday night's 35-30 loss in Cleveland.
And not because he's their most experienced tight end and one of rookie quarterback Joe Burrow's most reliable targets. It's because he has emerged as a key locker room leader and is one of the major figures on the leadership committee.
"Awful," said head coach Zac Taylor Friday. "He's a leader on this team. It's a killer when you get nicked like that, for him, for our team, just because guys are so close to him."
Second-year man Drew Sample is the next man up with Cethan Carter while Mason Schreck figures to get the call from the practice squad. Sample is coming off a career-high seven catches for 45 yards after a rookie season he had five catches for 30 yards. Schreck, a 2017 seventh-round pick out of Buffalo, has played in eight games and is still looking for his first catch. But the Bengals like how he has developed and he had a good training camp.
Carter is more of a blocker and special teams maven with two catches (one for a touchdown) in 33 games, so that leaves Sample as the NFL leader in the tight ends room with 13 catches.
"I'm gutted for him. It's obviously a tough injury. We're going to miss him not only in our room, but on the team," Sample said of Uzomah. "He's one of our more vocal guys. He brings a lot of energy every day in practice, in meetings and especially in games. I know he's disappointed. It's really unfortunate and we're definitely going to miss him."
After missing the second half of last season with an ankle injury, Sample focused on getting healthy and the rest followed because he was one of the most improved players in training camp. He was praised for re-molding his body and getting stronger.
"The first thing was getting healthy, getting back to feeling explosive. That was the main goal," Sample said. "And then just in to that, just continue to grow in my routes, down the field stuff, catching the ball. And then I wanted to build strength and quickness for the run game. I think it just started with me getting back to myself with the ankle injury and with the long offseason I definitely was able to do that. And that allowed me to focus on tight end specific things. And then, that's been able to carry over into the season."
VIP PROTECTION: With the Bengals coaches headed into an extra weekend of prep for the road game against the Eagles in nine days, don't look for Taylor to rip up the scheme. There is angst over the punishment Burrow has taken in his first two games and Taylor was asked Friday if he would change any kind of the offense's structure to step up protection of The Franchise.
"41 of our passes were in two-minute (situations). We had 12 at the end of the first half. We wouldn't have called any runs there," Taylor said. "We had no timeouts. Called 12 passes, went down and kicked a field goal. And then we had 29 throws in the last 10 minutes of the game when we were down two touchdowns. And the issue with calling some runs there is that if it bleeds those 40 seconds off, they were moving the ball pretty well.
"They were running the ball. They had the lead. They were going to continue to do that. You really couldn't guarantee that you were going to get the ball again for a second possession. We scored 14 points on those 29 passes. Again, we don't want our quarterback taking shots. We don't want to live in a drop-back world. But we just felt like in those two moments, at the end of the first half and the last 10 minutes of the game, we threw the ball 41 times and scored 17 points. We're going to do what we need to do to put us in a position to win. "
PASS RUSH WANTED: The pass rush was invisible with Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield barely getting touched never mind sacked. Their two leading sackers from last year, Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard, are looking for their first sacks of the season after tackle D.J. Reader had their lone hit on Mayfield. It doesn't help that Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins (shoulder) has yet to play this season and the other regular tackle with Reader, Mike Daniels (groin) didn't go Thursday.
(Taylor said Atkins may be able to go next week. Daniels should be available.)
"We need to win the one-on-one battles on the edges. It will be good when we get Geno and Mike back in the interior, that will help with D.J. in there," Taylor said.
"I don't care who it is. Somebody needs to step up and get a lot of pressure on the quarterbacks and keep collapsing the pocket, don't give up on the play. Just keep collapsing the pocket so he can't stand back there all day. We have to continue to find ways to improve that."
CLOSE, BUT NO: Taylor saw his record in one-score games fall to 0-10, 0-2 this season. On Friday, he pointed a finger at turnovers. They were minus-two in the opener and even in Week 2.
"You win the turnover battle, you win those one-score games," Taylor said. "That's what it comes down to and we're 0-for-2 right now. Look back last year and it's probably the same story. We didn't win for the first 12 games or so and we lost a lot of one-score games. It's as simple as that in this league."
In only one of those 10 close losses did they have a plus turnover ratio. Under Taylor, the plus-minus for 18 games is minus-16.
O-LINE SCRUTINY: The tackles looked like they played better, but Burrow still got sacked three times and hit three times as much against the Browns. It didn't help that he had to throw 61 passes to stay in the game, but they didn't run the ball well (Joe Mixon averaged less than three yards per carry), either.
Tackle Fred Johnson made his first NFL start at right guard and while he got beat for Burrow's first career sack-strip, Taylor took blame for the third-down play call that resulted in the Browns getting the turnover at the Bengals 1.
"It was a huge momentum change for us, and then, you know, I've just got to do a better job managing that situation to where we can at least punt the ball," Taylor said. "It's not on (Burrow). He's trying to make the throw to an open receiver and gets hit, fumbles and that's really on me just to put us in a better situation there to where we can at least punt it out of there and give our defense another chance to get a stop or hold them to a field goal and save some points. Instead, we put them right back on the field on the one-yard line and that's on me."
But Taylor wouldn't rule out making a change on the line before next Sunday's game in Philly.
"Nothing's off the table. That's for certain," Taylor said. "We don't want to rush into any decisions and make sure we're making the right decisions for the group. In some ways, we had a different right guard in there. We need some reps, some live reps. But again, we'll make the best decisions for that group. We have a couple of extra days here."
Billy Price, who was expected to make that start, had surfaced on the injury report (ankle) earlier in the week.
A.J. RARITY: When Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green finished the night with 13 targets and just three catches for 29 yards. NFL.com reported he was the third receiver in 10 years to have that many targets and finish with fewer than 30 yards.
"We had some matchups we liked … that's just something we'll continue to reassess," Taylor said, "and make sure that we're on top of all the details and finding places where we can get him."
It looked like it was a two-way street. Burrow didn't get it to him on some throws and on others Green didn't make a play.
Check out some of the best photos from the Week 2 contest as the Bengals travel to Cleveland to face the Browns.