After a fourth straight Friday-style practice took place in the IEL Indoor Facility on a picture-perfect early November noon, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor confirmed that's the routine for the rest of a season that has a pivotal moment across the street Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's FOX 19) at Paycor Stadium against the 2-6 Panthers.
With his defending AFC champion Bengals at 4-4 and heading into the bye week, Taylor recalled following Friday's practice a similar point last season when he showed his team the AFC standings. It was at the bye when the Bengals were 5-4 and coming off two straight losses.
"Just to paint a picture that every team in the league is going through a stretch like this at some point in the AFC, at least," Taylor said. "At that time last year, you know, a bunch of five and fours, six and threes and everyone's a game away."
Like this season. Really, probably like all NFL seasons, Taylor said.
"It's you lose and all hell is breaking loose and you win and you're the best," Taylor said. "It's always in between there. And that's what our guys have done a great job of understanding."
If Taylor had pulled out the standings before practice, the Bengals would have seen they are one of seven AFC teams with three or four losses, including the 5-3 Ravens, the AFC North leaders they trail by a game.
"No panic. That's the key is when you're in it and you're in these long seasons, you just know you've just got to focus on the next game," said Taylor, recalling last season's script, which is now this year's. "I went through every team's record. Every team had lost two in a row. Teams have been blown out, teams have been written off. And we knew that everybody is going to be in the thick of it come December, which they were.
"And so we just put ourselves in a position to be in the picture in late December, and it worked out for us. We want to win them all. But we also know that it's a long season and it's just got to be even-keeled throughout the whole process."
SLOT STUFF: The secondary suffered another huge loss Friday when Taylor ruled out slot cornerback Mike Hilton. But unlike No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, Hilton (finger) is back after the bye. The former Steeler who had a pick-six against his old club at Paycor last season, knows the first game after the bye.
Nov. 20. At Pittsburgh.
"Yeah, I know exactly where it is. On Sunday night," Hilton said Friday. "Couldn't miss that one. I'm excited about that one."
But it's a big loss for even a game. Hilton isn't only a fiery team leader (watch the sidelines when the offense makes a play), but he's a standout at arguably the sport's most demanding position.
"It's a different type of game in there," said Hilton of the slot. "You have to be in run fits, you have to be able to blitz and, obviously cover. You have to have all your assets in your game. I think it's the best cornerback position on the field."
It's the first game Hilton has missed in his two seasons as a Bengal and he had played 37 straight, including postseason. Which means his backup, Jalen Davis, hasn't had much work.
The 5-10, 190-pound Davis, 26, a third-year man who has played only special teams in his last 15 games, played 56 scrimmage snaps last year with five tackles and a pass defensed. A total of 23 of those plays came in the 41-10 win over the Steelers in the game Hilton had the pick-six.
But he's maintained his roster spot with back-to-back dazzling preseasons. In 2021 he had two passes defensed and seven tackles and this past year, when he had 78 snaps and a start in the three games, he had ten tackles and three passes defensed.
"He's been around the system for a long time," Hilton said. "He knows it. He knows his role and he's had some starting experience. This isn't a situation new to him. We expect him to go out there and make plays."
Taylor says it could be a lot worse with Awuzie and Hilton out, as well as first-outside-cornerback-off-the-bench Tre Flowers (hamstring) questionable after not practicing all week.
But the way he sees it, they have not hurriedly turned to a rash of street free agents. Instead, Taylor says, they are looking to young guys already in the system they are developing. And they've got a lot invested in Cam Taylor-Britt, a second-rounder starting in place of Awuzie, and Dax Hill, the first-round safety oozing with versatility who looks like he may be backing up Davis in the slot. They saw him on the Michigan tape and how he was able to move occasionally inside.
"You're in situations," Taylor said, "where you find yourself you have to move some guys around.
"Dax has repped a lot of positions for us. He's a guy we've always talked about at various positions. You want him to get really good at one spot first before you ask him to do a lot of different stuff. And just over the course of time, we've put a little bit more in this particular position … He played nickel in college. So he's played man coverage down there before. He's a great athlete. He can handle it."
As for who Davis covers, the Panthers have been searching for a slot receiver. They appeared to have moved on from Shi Smith and Laviska Shenault, Jr., seems to be emerging as a factor. According to Pro Football Focus, five of the 6-1, 220-pound Shenault's eight catches have come in the slot and that includes a 67-yard-run-and-catch touchdown off a semi-screen behind the line.
They also use in the slot Ja'Marr Chase LSU running mate Terrace Marshall, Jr., a second-round pick in 2021 with 10 catches on the outside for 148 yards.
INJURY UPDATE: Right tackle La'el Collins (illness) didn't practice Friday for a second straight day and is questionable. So is Flowers, who hasn't worked since injuring his hamstring Monday night. Backup nose tackle Josh Tupou (calf) has been declared out for a third straight game.
Cornerback Eli Apple (hamstring), wide receiver Stanley Morgan (hamstring) and edge Joseph Ossai (ankle, all limited at some point during this week, all went full Friday.