Updated: 5:35 p.m.
Nearly a month after the news broke, the NFL Wednesday announced Bengals SAM linebacker Dontay Moch's four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances.
Although Moch can practice and play in preseason games, he won't be eligible for the 53-man roster. His suspension starts the first week of the regular season and ends Monday Oct. 1, the day the Bengals start preparing for their fifth game, a Paul Brown Stadium game against the Dolphins on Oct. 7.
The move does nothing to alleviate the numbers crunch at linebacker for that final cutdown.
Because he never saw the field last season as a rookie after he injured his foot and then suffered migraine headaches, Moch, a third-round pick, has been scrambling this spring to impress the coaches. He's flashed as a speed rusher, but defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says the lack of snaps has hurt his transition from college defensive end to NFL linebacker.
Plus there are two established SAM backers in front of Moch and after Wednesday's practice linebackers coach Paul Guenther said incumbent Manny Lawson and backup Dan Skuta are virtually neck-and-neck for the starting SAM spot.
"I think it's close; Skuta is having a great spring," Guenther said. "He's played a lot of roles. He's played defensive end, he's played SAM, he's played the middle. He's played in the nickel. His goal is to start just as it is for Manny to keep his starting job."
How Skuta's major role on special teams would be affected remains to be seen. Since signing as a free agent out of Grand Valley State in 2009, he's got 39 special teams tackles in 40 games. A combine wonder, Moch is thought to be a potential factor on special teams if he proves he's ready. But with the Bengals maybe only keeping six backers and players like 2010 fourth-rounder Roddrick Muckelroy along with free-agent rookies Vontaze Birfict and Emmanuel Lamur vying for spots, as well as another incumbent in special teams ace Vincent Rey, it's hard to see where Moch fits when he returns.
A few highlights from Wednesday's mandatory practice:
» A good day for second-year man Ryan Whalen in the wide receiver scrum. This is why the coaches like him: He runs sure routes and he's always where he's supposed to be.
On one corner route he got behind safety Taylor Mays and cornerback Jason Allen to catch a perfect over-the-shoulder touchdown throw from quarterback Andy Dalton. Then a few snaps later Whalen rescued a play in the middle with a nice inside catch of a bullet as Dalton hurriedly threw backpedaling.
Meanwhile, while Whalen and the offense worked, slot receiver Jordan Shipley, rehabbing from an ACL tear, was working on the side in drills after participating in some football drills the past week or two.
» Dalton had a nice day himself with a couple of smooth long balls to wide receiver A.J. Green and some nice leading bootleg passes to tight end Jermaine Gresham cutting from the middle of the field to the sidelines.
It's funny, but Green is just so methodically good you can be lulled into forgetting how good he is. And Dalton loves to go to him whether it's seven-on-seven, 11-on-11, or the last two minutes against Cleveland. Dalton showed his confidence in Green on a simple quick-hitting slant. He knew Green would box out safety Reggie Nelson and as he shielded him Green threw a dart inside as Nelson could only ride Green's back.
Of course, even a fifth-round rookie can figure out that Green is a favorite target and late in the practice Boise State safety George Iloka jumped an intermediate route for Green in the middle for an interception. The 6-4 Iloka has looked good this spring and seems to be around the ball more often than not.
» Free agent rookie quarterback Tyler Hansen of Colorado had a welcome to the NFL moment when The Dean virtually stole the ball from him. Left end Robert Geathers plucked a pass that was barely out of Hansen's hand and chose to immediately roll to the ground to avoid any contact.
» With cornerback Leon Hall's rapid rehab from his Achilles injury, it's time to revisit what the Bengals hope is a deep and versatile secondary that opens up defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's Pandora's Box of Xs and Os.
Hall acknowledged this week that not only can he play safety, he has before in certain spots. Zimmer has also said the other starting corner, Nate Clements, can play safety, and cornerback Jason Allen has played safety in his two previous NFL stints.
It's an intriguing scenario for Zimmer, especially in the context of former linebacker Brandon Johnson signing in Pittsburgh this week. Johnson was Cincinnati's best linebacker in the division title run of 2009 and always a top-flight as well as intelligent cover player whose length (6-5) caused problems in the passing lanes.
But with the emergence of the faster Thomas Howard at WILL last season and his ability to play all three downs, Johnson didn't get nearly as many snaps last season and the Bengals didn't pursue him in free agency. And now with big safeties like Taylor Mays, Robert Sands and Jeromy Miles roaming, as well as the ability of some corners to slide to safety, Zimmer may now be able to show different cover looks on third down.
While the defense evolves, his former mates are sorry to see Johnson, 29, go.
"A great guy, a really smart, smart guy that could play anywhere for us in any situation. I'm happy for him," Howard said. "I know we've got some smart guys here now, too."
The Bengals may have a young Johnson in the making in the 6-4, 232-pound Emmanuel Lamur, a free agent rookie out of Kansas State.
"This young guy here," said Howard, nodding at Lamur, "has a high football IQ. You tell him once, and he locks down on it."
Guenther sees Lamur's similarities to Johnson ("He's lean, he's got length, he can run in pass coverage") and he likes the fact he played safety before going to backer the last two years.
"He's the kind of guy," Guenther said, "where you turn on the tape and say, 'Who's that guy?' 49? He's pretty good.'"
» Hall, by the way, is shaking his head over the whispers about how a ruptured Achilles is a virtual death blow for a corner. Particularly after watching director of rehab Nick Cosgray get former tight end Reggie Kelly and Muckelroy back from the same injury.
"Muckelroy is back now and looks good," Hall said. "I've got confidence in Nick and the technology and training is better than it was 10 years ago. My plan is to be new and improved."
Plus, Hall spoke to his former Michigan teammate Marlin Jackson about the injury and he said the Achilles wasn't a problem, although he has battled knee injuries and is trying to get back into the league.
» One Steelers beat reporter thinks Johnson is in a battle to make the 53-man roster and that the move was made in part because the club needs bodies at backer with James Harrison and Jason Worilds coming off injuries.
» Running back Brian Leonard surfaced in a knee brace Wednesday after leaving the field Tuesday and didn't work. But he said he'll be ready for the July 27 start of training camp.