Archdeacon: Bengals’ Prince making up for lost time

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) battles Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Isaiah Prince (75) as he tries to rush the passer during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

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Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) battles Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Isaiah Prince (75) as he tries to rush the passer during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Offensive lineman sat out 2020 season due to COVID concerns

There’s no more improbable personal story among the Super Bowl LVI Cincinnati Bengals than that of the Prince who abdicated the throne.

Right tackle Isaiah Prince spent all of last season at home after deciding to opt out of all the Bengals 2020 games because of concerns about COVID-19.

Yet, if staying around the team seemed risky to him, he knew leaving it could be suicide for his career.

A total of 67 NFL players – thanks to an agreement between the league and the players’ union – decided not to play in 2020 during the height of the pandemic when a vaccine was not yet available.

But few had to bank on such a meager resume as did Prince.

He was untested in the NFL.

The Bengals picked him up late in the 2019 season – his rookie campaign – but made him a game-day scratch for their last four games.

Prior to that he had played in just four games for Miami, which had drafted him in the sixth round out of Ohio State, but cut him in December.

His absence last year certainly didn’t help the Bengals, whose offensive line was a sieve and caused his old OSU pal, quarterback Joe Burrow, to be treated like a pinata.

The beating came to a frightening end in late November when the pocket collapsed in a game against Washington and the sack left Burrow with a badly destroyed left knee that required major surgery.

“Being at home, opted out, just watching, I mean I’m human. There were times I was wondering how am I going to get back (into the NFL),” Prince admitted.

“I was hurt. That was the most trying time of my life. I don’t think I’d ever really missed a game or a practice in college, so for me missing my first (NFL) season was kind of devastating to me.”

When he did return to the Bengals prior to this season, he seemed like a long shot to make the team.

But he is 6-foot-7 and 305 pounds and had been a two-time All-Big Ten performer in three seasons at OSU. Soon his size and skills came to the fore and made him stand out in preseason camp. He moved ahead of Fred Johnson and became the team’s most consistent back-up lineman.

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Ohio State's Mike Weber, right, celebrates a touchdown with Isaiah Prince (59) and Parris Campbell, left, in the first half against Nebraska on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Ohio State's Mike Weber, right, celebrates a touchdown with Isaiah Prince (59) and Parris Campbell, left, in the first half against Nebraska on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

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Ohio State's Mike Weber, right, celebrates a touchdown with Isaiah Prince (59) and Parris Campbell, left, in the first half against Nebraska on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

He was used a swing player until veteran starter Riley Reiff, brought in from Minnesota via free agency before the season, suffered a serious ankle injury in Week 12, sat out a game and then tried to play again, but could not.

Prince replaced him and has started the last six games. The Bengals have won five of them, including three straight in the playoffs to set up Sunday’s championship matchup with the Los Angeles Rams.

This week Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan praised Prince’s role down the stretch, saying he added length and athleticism to the line’s right side.

“I’m forever grateful for a moment like this,” Prince said. “I’m just happy to be here contributing to this team.”

Sunday, the Bengals will need him to contribute everything he has.

The Rams – led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who Bengals’ coach Zac Taylor described as “one of the greatest NFL players of all time,” and veteran linebacker Von Miller, the MVP of Super Bowl 50 – were No. 3 in the league this season in quarterback sacks.

The Bengals were the third worst team when it came to allowing sacks. They gave up a franchise-record 55 and all but four of them were on Burrow, who was sacked more than any other quarterback in the league.

And in the playoff win over Tennessee, he was sacked an NFL-record nine more times.

In the process, he’s made NFL history. He’s the first quarterback ever to have been sacked 50 or more times in a regular season and make it to the Super Bowl.

Statistics like that bother Prince.

It comes down to more than just professional responsibility – Burrow is the future of this team – it’s about personal concern.

Joe Burrow, as Prince put it, is “my brother.”

They’ve been close since they both were freshmen at Ohio State

“Every time I go into a game, I’m thinking about Joe,” Prince said. “I’m thinking about protecting him.”

Down time helped him prepare

After the Bengals upset the Kansas City Chiefs, 27-24, in overtime in the AFC championship game at Arrowhead Stadium, Prince lifted Burrow into the air and started to carry him off the field.

When he finally put him down, the two had a long embrace.

“Joe has been the same person since I’ve known him at Ohio State,” Prince said. “We’ve always been good friends, even when he left for LSU. We stayed close the whole time.

“We were in the same recruiting class, our dorm rooms were next to each other. Whether it was getting on the elevators, walking to our rooms… Joe is probably the first person I met – him and his family. And now this is a very surreal moment for us coming from there.”

And that’s why last year was so tough.

The Cincinnati line he’d walked away from couldn’t keep Burrow safe and when he was lost for the season, the Bengals spiraled downward. They ended up with just four victories and a lot of uncertainty.

“That was a very challenging time in my life,” Prince said. “But I still had to wake up every day and stay focused on the things that really needed my attention.

“During that time I went back to school and finished my undergrad (degree) at Ohio State. I did some boxing and I trained in Arizona with LeCharles Bentley (the former New Orleans Saints and OSU standout).

“I would say that time definitely helped me prepare for this moment. I had to stay focused regardless of what was going on around me.”

‘Chip on our shoulder’

A lot is swirling around Prince and his fellow Bengals linemen coming into Sunday’s match-up with the favored Rams.

Will they be decimated like they were against Tennessee, or will they become a true force like they were in the Kansas City game when they allowed just one sack?

Part of the onus lies on Burrow, who admitted he held onto the ball too long on some of those plays where he was sacked by the Titans. Against Kansas City he got rid of the ball much quicker.

But the Rams’ defenders are better than the Chiefs’.

It not just to that they get to the quarterback, but they also stymie opposing running backs.

They’re ranked sixth in the NFL, allowing just 103.2 rushing yards a game. No running back has gained 100 yards on them since Week 4 when Arizona’s Chase Edmonds rushed for 120 on 12 carries in a 37-30 Cardinals’ victory.

Prince and his mates hope to spring Joe Mixon in similar fashion.

“The key for us is just not lunging,” Prince said. “Staying on our feet, playing good technique, getting our hands on them and just finishing. Playing as hard as we can and letting them know that we’re here to show up every play.”

He knows some people might smirk at such a Pollyanna assessment from an oft-pushed-around unit, but that only fuels Prince.

“We’ve played with a chip on our shoulder all season,” he said. “That’s what brought us to this point.”

To draw on that again might seem like a tall order, but he knows it’s no more improbable than the Bengals story of the returning Prince who has found Super Bowl royalty.

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