Banged-up Bengals defensive line faces huge challenge against Colts

Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap (96) is able to sack Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) in spite of being blocked by Ravens offensive tackle Orlando Brown (78) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Indianapolis has one of the top offensive lines in the NFL

The injury bug continues to bite the Cincinnati Bengals defensive line. Now, they have to replace two more starters for an extensive period of time, and those called into bigger roles will be matching up against one of the best offensive lines in the league this week.

Cincinnati is scheduled to play the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, despite a brief scare Friday when the Colts found out one player and three staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. After re-tests, all four came back negative and the game remains on track.

While the Colts were dealing with their run-in with false positive tests, the Bengals continued their preparations, and one big concern is how a makeshift defensive line can handle what ProFootballFocus.com considered the best offensive line unit in the league going into the season.

Three days after nose tackle D.J. Reader was diagnosed with a season-ending quadriceps injury, the Bengals also had to place defensive end Sam Hubbard on the reserve/injured list Thursday because of an elbow injury. Both injuries occurred during Sunday’s loss at Baltimore, and that is now five defensive linemen out of the active roster.

“We can’t waste any time worrying about that,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “We’re collecting a group of guys who want to do it the right way and are giving us all they got. You saw that last week. You’re going to see it again this week. That’s a group that I’m proud of. The job that Nick Eason has done with those guys to get them ready. Some of them on a month’s notice, some of them on a week’s notice, some on a day’s notice. That just speaks to the character that we got on this team and the guys that we’re bringing into the building. They got the right stuff and we’re going to get the most out of them.”

The Bengals started training camp down one interior lineman when Josh Tupou opted out of the season. Then, tackle Renell Wren suffered a quad injury in practice and was placed on injured reserve Aug. 23. Rotational defensive tackle Mike Daniels joined him Oct. 3 with an elbow injury.

Cincinnati just got back tackle Geno Atkins from a shoulder injury. He was limited in his season debut Sunday and is still working back to full participation in practices, but his return comes at a crucial time.

“It’s not just his impact on the field but his impact as a leader,” defensive end Carl Lawson said. “It’s a big boost and we just appreciate having him.”

Lawson had just moved into a starting role on the right side with Carlos Dunlap’s demotion to a third-down pass rushing role that Lawson previously held. Hubbard, a versatile player who Lawson called “a big piece of the defense,” moved to the left side, but now it’s likely Dunlap’s spot again with Lawson opposite him.

The Bengals signed defensive tackle Xavier Williams, who started the season with the New England Patriots, to fill Reader’s place on the roster, but fifth-round draft pick Khalid Kareem could be called into action for more snaps at defensive end with Hubbard out.

“He’s very good at converting speed to power,” Lawson said of Kareem. “He’s a long guy and has real good length. He’s really fluid. Overall for his talent, I do believe he could’ve been drafted higher -- just watching him and seeing him. I think he’s a good guy.”

The Colts' offensive line, which features Lakota West graduate Ryan Kelly at center, won’t make it easy for the Bengals patchwork defensive line. Indianapolis has allowed just five sacks, ranking second behind only Green Bay’s 0.8 sacks per game allowance. The Colts were the only team in the NFL last year to start the same five linemen all 16 games.

Kelly, a first-round draft pick in 2016, is a big piece of the interior offensive line for the Colts, and the organization indicated as much when he signed a four-year, $50 million contract extension in September to become the league’s highest-paid center. Kelly has started all 56 games he has played.

“Physically, he’s a great player,” Colts coach Frank Reich said on a conference call with local media Wednesday. “Mentally, he’s a great player. He’s got mental and physical toughness. He’s got elite football intelligence. You were talking about protection. He’s our alpha dog who is running the show up front. Making the calls, telling everybody where to go. Getting the protection calls right. It’s like having another quarterback on the field. And he’s just physically tough as well. Great leader for us.”

Taylor said the Colts offensive line poses a great challenge for his team.

SUNDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Colts, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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