Reader was back to practice Thursday and back to his normal routine. His return gives added push to the pocket, potentially freeing up defensive ends Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson to apply more pressure to Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Wilson’s return would be especially timely with the possibility linebacker Germaine Pratt won’t be available after testing positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday and going on the Reserve/COVID list.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor had said Monday that Wilson was “highly doubtful” to play this week, but on Wednesday, his tone had changed to more optimistic.
“Just how he’s felt (changed), the strength he has in his shoulder, and so we played it a little bit conservatively on my end, not trying to push him to play this week, but on his end, just what he’s done in the weight room, what he’s done with Nick Cosgray,” Taylor said Wednesday when asked what changed. “He started to feel better and better really over the last 48 hours, and so, we’re gonna get him out there (to practice) and let him take that step and then see how he feels throughout the week and then make some decisions later on.”
Wilson had emerged as a leader of the defense this season, his second in the NFL, and Pratt stepped in to wear the green dot as the new player responsible for transmitting coaches’ signals to the rest of the defense. The defense will be tested by a Kansas City offense that averages 396.1 yards per game and 28.1 points per game, both ranking among the top four in the league.
The Chiefs could be without running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who suffered a shoulder injury Sunday and missed at least the first two days of practice this week, but tight end Travis Kelce can create problems for the middle of the defense. The Bengals have struggled against elite tight ends this season.
Taylor said Wilson’s return had nothing to do with Pratt’s status. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo wasn’t surprised to see Wilson ready to practice but remained cautious Thursday about what kind of work load Wilson might be able to handle if able to return.
“He’s working his butt off and been working his butt off to try and get back with the rehab and doing all kinds of different things,” Anarumo said. “You can ask him, I know he’s anxious. I’m trying to just stay even on it because I don’t want to have these high hopes and then it doesn’t work out. We’ll just see how it goes, that’s my approach right now.”
Cincinnati has been relatively healthy this season, especially compared to recent years at this stage, but the defense has been hit hard at the linebacker spot. Jordan Evans and Akeem Davis-Gaither both are on injured reserve, and in recent weeks Wilson, Markus Bailey and now Pratt have been missing.
The Bengals have risen above those issues to have a chance to clinch the AFC North title this week. During the three games Wilson missed, they went 2-1 with an overtime loss to the 49ers.
“It’s a part of the game,” Anarumo said. “It’s a tribute to the players as well the guys that are always preparing behind the starters. We always tell them, ‘Hey, you are a play away from being in the game.’ Especially now with the world that we live in you can be on the practice squad playing in the game. So, everybody has to stay prepared all the time. It’s just a heightened sense of preparing, really, by everyone, the backups as well as the starters. It’s just a different era right now with this stuff.”
Chiefs at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7