Bengals could get two defensive starters back for Chiefs game

Baltimore Ravens running back Le'Veon Bell (17) applies a stiff arm on Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson (55) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Credit: Gail Burton

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Baltimore Ravens running back Le'Veon Bell (17) applies a stiff arm on Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson (55) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Credit: Gail Burton

Credit: Gail Burton

The Cincinnati Bengals defense could be getting two key players back just in time to face one of the league’s top offenses.

Defensive tackle D.J. Reader was cleared off the Reserve/COVID-19 list this week after missing one game, and linebacker Logan Wilson appears on track to return from his Week 13 shoulder injury, thanks to three straight practices as a full participant.

With the Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) coming to Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, Cincinnati (9-6) has a chance to clinch the AFC North title with a win.

“(It’s a) great opportunity for the players, for all of us and for the whole organization,” defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said of the importance of the game. “You work so hard to get to these types of games and when you’re here the excitement level goes up and at the end of the day you gotta treat it like any other game, stay calm, make sure that the guys are paying attention to the little details of their jobs. That’s what will win us the game, just doing the little things the right way and no unforced errors on Sunday.”

The Bengals opened the week looking like they would be without Wilson for a fourth straight game and uncertain, but hopeful, that Reader could be cleared. New COVID protocols cut down the isolation period from 10 to five days for asymptomatic positives and made it easier for players to return to play quicker.

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.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Chiefs at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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