Bengals head coach Zac Taylor sounded confident Monday the pandemic that took half a season to catch up to his team won't take it out for Sunday's game (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) in Pittsburgh against the undefeated Steelers.
In response to last week's two positive Covid tests during the bye week, Taylor merely flipped daily schedules and is bringing them back to work at Paul Brown Stadium with a Tuesday walkthrough while giving them Monday off. That news came amid a report that an unnamed Steeler player has tested positive.
"We feel good about how we've handled the entire process, and our communication with the league has been great," Taylor said in Monday media Zoom. "We just move forward every day. We know that these next eight weeks are going to be a challenge for the entire league. We just have to be willing to be flexible."
That means meeting virtually to prepare for the Steelers while putting a premium on getting his players out of the facility quickly and safely as they adhere to the season-long rules of wearing a mask and keeping socially distant.
"Our guys have done a really nice job so far. I think most teams have had some sort of issue in some way, shape or form," Taylor said. "We just have to continue to be on top of this with our guys. They've got to continue to be unselfish. We'll just keep preaching that every day."
Whether Covid remakes the offensive line just like injuries and illness forced them to line up four different starters from the week before when they beat the Titans a week ago Sunday remains to be seen.
Right tackle Fred Johnson, who replaced Bobby Hart (knee) last week, has been placed on the Covid list. They were already waiting to see if Hart and/or left tackle Jonah Williams (stinger) can return after missing the Titans victory and now they're trying to get a read on Johnson.
"It's 10 days if you're asymptomatic from the time you test positive. That's about as best as I can give you there, Taylor said.
It's unclear when Johnson was diagnosed and if he's asymptomatic. What is clear is that no Bengals offensive line has gone through this in at least 33 years. According to Elias, the only time they ever had four different offensive line starters from one week to the next was during the 1987 strike they used replacement players.
It is also clear who is ever healthy has to deal with monstrous Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt on the edge and his seven sacks that anchor the NFL's best 32 sacks.
Watt's ridiculous 24 quarterback hits also leads the Steeler stat sheet that tops the league with 98 pressures, according to profootballreference.com. Not exactly comforting is he has a commanding lead in that department and the guy in second place with 17 is Steelers end Stephon Tuitt.
"What stands out is their experience on that side of the ball playing together," Taylor said. "You look at a lot of those guys that have been in the system for a really long time and have played next to each other. And that shows up on the tape. That's a lot the reason why they're having so much success."
The Bengals defense is on the opposite end of that continuity. The last time Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger faced the Bengals, it was Cincinnati's last game before Taylor became the coach. In that 2018 finale, there are just three defensive starters that lined up that day (defensive tackle Geno Atkins, safety Jessie Bates III and cornerback William Jackson III) that could start Sunday although Atkins has yet to start this season.
Not only that, the only starters on offense from that '18 finale in Pittsburgh that could start Sunday are Hart, running back Giovani Bernard and right guard Alex Redmond. If running back Joe Mixon (foot) is healthy and Hart can't go, Redmond is going to be the only guy.
So while they can talk about the Steelers' 10-game winning streak over the Bengals, they haven't beaten these Bengals.
"This is a totally new football team that we have here." Taylor said. "I like where our team is headed, the work that we're putting in, the confidence they have run themselves in each other. They're really buying into the plan that's put in place and helping it come to life. They're not afraid of anybody. We're going to go out there and put our best foot forward and feel confident that we can play with any team in this league."
The game is one day shy of the 17th anniversary when Cincinnati played an undefeated team so deep in the season and the 4-5 Bengals knocked off the 9-0 Chiefs at PBS. Taylor knows the magnitude of the 2-5-1 Bengals facing the 8-0 Steelers, but he says they feel that type of heat six times a year.
"Our divisional games are always big games whether you're playing Pittsburgh, Baltimore or Cleveland," Taylor said. "Our guys get ramped up. They want to go win these games. I understand that Pittsburgh is a monster game here in the city. I get it. We want to beat them as badly as we want to beat anybody else. But our focus does not change because of who we're playing. Our guys will be locked in and we expect a great week of practice."
And it looks like there will be a normal week of practice. They'll have walkthroughs and practices with the only difference they can't linger in the locker room. They must get out of there with minimal contact and then get home to meet over Zoom.
But Taylor, his players and everyone else has been doing virtual since the spring. The Bengals have been successful with it considering they went remote to select their century's most productive draft class over the first half of a rookie season and Zoomed them into their first NFL training camp via a link.
"Just a couple tweaks virtual meeting wise," Taylor said of the schedule change. "But you can still be on the field for the same allotted time, so we'll still get all that work done the right way. Again, we did a whole offseason similar to the virtual stuff and feel comfortable with all the things we can accomplish that way. There's no concern over losing anything."