Remember when the Bengals beat the Browns and their tenacious defense at Paycor Stadium without two of their top three wide receivers and three of their top four receivers?
It's not ancient history. It happened 11 months ago when Tee Higgins' hamstring injury flared on the first snap to end his day, Tyler Boyd dislocated a finger on the second snap to ice him, and tight end Hayden Hurst was already inactive with a calf injury.
Still, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow navigated a 23-10 victory, and they'd love to use the same script Sunday at Paycor (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Texans after Bengals head coach Zac Taylor ruled out Higgins (hamstring) and basically called Chase (back) a game-time decision.
All four tight ends are ready to go after last Sunday night's break-out two-touchdown game in the win over the Bills, but the defense was dealt a blow when left end and captain Sam Hubbard (ankle) was declared out. Hubbard's rugged 78% of the snaps (four sacks, 37 tackles) leads the defensive line and puts the underappreciated Cam Sample and under-the-radar first-rounder Myles Murphy in the spotlight against Texans rookie sensation quarterback C.J. Stroud.
Here's how they beat the Browns 11 months ago:
Chase had 119 yards on ten catches. Back-up wide receiver Trenton Irwin caught Burrow's 45-yard touchdown pass off a flea-flicker. Free safety Jessie Bates III had a fourth-quarter interception. Rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt knocked down Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson's end-zone pass for one of the Bengals' three fourth-down stops and the defense held running back Nick Chubb to six of his 34 yards in the second half.
So a little improv and defense.
That was Chase's second game back from a fractured piece of his hip, but now he's dealing with a bruised back that has limited him in practice the past two days. Sounds like he'll try it. He said Thursday if he was moving he could do "something." But how well and long?
"He was good," is all Taylor said after Friday's practice. "He managed through it."
Plus, Taylor also said rookie wide receiver Charlie Jones (who practiced full all week) is also a questionable "We'll see."
The Bengals won last month in Arizona without Higgins (rib), 34-20, with backup wide receiver Trenton Irwin grabbing a career-high eight catches on 60 yards, primarily in Higgins' spot.
"It's what I do. I'm ready whenever and where ever they need me," Irwin said after Friday's practice. I've played everywhere in this offense. X. Z. Y (slot)."
That's the basic idea. Every receiver knows every spot.
"You can move everybody around. That's the benefit of how we organize the (offense)," Taylor said. "Put people's names on different plays and try to play them to their strengths.
"We need these guys to be smart when they come in here. They can't really struggle to learn one position because we're going to ask them to play multiple positions. And especially the way we've drafted that receiver, we have three starters. We weren't drafting a guy to walk in the door and start. And so your chance to get on the field has to be backing up multiple positions."
Although Taylor has his two top receivers hurt, there's one advantage he has over the Cleveland game. He's been able to adjust since Wednesday afternoon, when Higgins got hurt. Another advantage is wide receivers coach Troy Walters, who always seems to find guys to produce. He's never coached without both Chase and Higgins, but they are 2-1 in games Higgins doesn't play (excluding the 2021 finale) and 3-1 without Chase.
"Number one, he played the position. So he's an incredibly disciplined human being as it is and played the position, so knows the nuances of it," Taylor said of Walters' strengths. "He didn't exactly have the physical traits stacked his way. He had to make the most of what he got. And his standard's really high. He's really got an elite group of receivers, but he pushes him. He's not afraid to push them.
"I think they respect that about him. The younger guys see that, see kind of the standard they're held to, and they know they've got live up to that as well."
In Arizona last month, Chase set the Bengals record with 15 catches, accounting for 192 yards. So keep an eye on rookie wide receiver Andrei Iosivas. The 6-3, 205-pound Iosivas had a career-high 26 snaps in that game, along with his first NFL catch for nine yards. He's played 27 snaps in the next three games, but also caught his first two touchdown passes with a Higgins-like presence in the red zone.
"Physically, he's big, fast, strong," Taylor said. "He's learning what it means to be an NFL receiver and keep up with the standard that we have here with those guys. I've been encouraged by everything I've seen from him. He just hasn't had a lot of opportunities yet."
SAMPLING CAM : If there are two positives from Hubbard being out, it's that maybe he can be ready for Thursday night's game in Baltimore and people can begin to appreciate Cam Sample. And the depth of their defensive line.
Sample has just one NFL start in three years, which came last season when Hubbard missed his only game of the year and Sample clocked a career-high 95 % of the plays during the win in New England. He's taken as many as 56 snaps in a game, but not more than 29 plays this year, when he's played 33 % of the plays.
But always draws raves for his consistency for his versatility at tackle and end, as well as his consistency.
"Line me up where you want, I'm comfortable anywhere (but nose tackle)," Sample said. "I prepare to be the starter every week. I play as much as the team needs me. If the role increases, then the role increases."
Expect Murphy's role to increase. When the Bengals couldn't stay on the field or get off the field in Tennessee Oct. 1, he played a career-high 19 snaps. He hasn't played more than ten in the four-game winning streak, but says he's growing more comfortable playing at left end. He plays both ends, but didn't play the left side until he lined up over there when he showed up for spring ball two weeks after the draft.
"The biggest change (from college to the NFL) is the in-game adjustments," Murphy said. "It can happen during the play and that didn't happen in college, but I'm getting used to it. The more I'm here, the comfortable I'm getting with play."
Sample, who looks ready to start his second NFL game, isn't exactly looking for exposure.
"If I wanted my name in the newspaper," Sample said, "I would have been a journalist."