The Cincinnati Bengals were supposed to have more depth at cornerback this year after using free agency to upgrade the position this offseason.
But two weeks from the season opener, they find themselves short-handed in that part of the secondary and having to move players around to replace starters who haven’t gotten much opportunity to settle in amid a shortened preseason.
On Friday during their last practice before Sunday’s scheduled scrimmage, the Bengals were down three cornerbacks with slot man Mackensie Alexander still away, Darius Phillips out with a “day-to-day” lower-body injury and Trae Waynes expected to miss most of the season because of a torn pectoral muscle.
The Bengals have been looking at Phillips as a potential starter to replace Waynes, so now others will be stepping up for more substantial reps at the left cornerback and slot positions.
“We’re good,” defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “We’ve got plenty of able-body guys that can man that spot. Darius Phillips played last year in there. Torry McTyer took some snaps in there. Tony Brown took some snaps there. We’ve got some guys to man the position for sure.”
Phillips and Alexander should only be short-term absences. Taylor indicated he expects to have more bodies available after this weekend, though it’s unclear how soon Alexander could return.
Alexander left the team to be with family when his father, Jean Odney Alexandre (he uses the French spelling of the family name), went missing Monday in Florida, but the 26-year-old newcomer to the Bengals ended up in legal trouble while away. Alexander was arrested Tuesday on a misdemeanor battery charge after allegedly confronting the man who had taken his father palmetto berry picking in Okeechobee County. The 65-year-old Alexandre got lost, according to the man who drove him, but was found safe Thursday.
“We’ve had conversations with Mackensie,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said, noting the player had not yet returned Friday. “Again, he’s going through a very personal situation right now. But again, we’ve been in great, great communication with Mackensie. No further on update on his status right now.”
Asked if Alexander could face disciplinary action, Taylor said he didn’t have any comment on that.
“We’re very supportive of Mackensie on what he’s gone through,” Taylor said. “Not (any disciplinary action) on our end. But again, I can’t speak for the league.”
When healthy, Phillips could play the inside or outside corner spots, but he was competing for the left cornerback role early in camp with LeShaun Sims, a former Titans defensive back who signed as a free agent this offseason. Sims, a fifth-round pick by Tennessee in 2016, has mainly played a special teams role in his four NFL seasons, during which he has played 56 games with 11 starts.
Phillips, a fifth-round draft pick in 2018, has played in 23 games over the last two years with two starts. He had four interceptions and seven passes defended in just eight games in 2019. Anarumo said Phillips is versatile enough to fill multiple roles.
“Anytime a guy can do both (play in the slot or outside), it’s always a positive,” Anarumo said. “You want to have guys that can jump inside, jump outside. A lot of the things we do, all the corners know some of the techniques that we used in there. We feel comfortable certainly with DP inside or out.”
Phillips came on strong at the end of last year when he recorded three interceptions in the final two games. He was placed on injured reserve after Week 3 because of loose cartilage in his knee but returned in December to play the final five games.
That was enough to put him in the conversation for an increased role this year even after the Bengals dipped into the free agent market to rebuild following the releases of Dre Kirkpatrick and B.W. Webb and departure of Darqueze Dennard in free agency.
“Missing eight games and then coming in from a knee injury, sometimes it weighs on you mentally,” Phillips said. “So me going out there and having the big finish to the season definitely brings me to this upcoming season with my confidence.”
Phillips said he just needs to be more consistent to earn a starting spot, but confidence and feeling more comfortable in the system a second year under Anarumo should help with that. Now he can let his instincts take over like he did at the end of 2019.
“I just feel like if you just know what you’re doing and be in the right spot you always give yourself an opportunity to make a play on the ball,” Phillips said. “That’s just something I live by, just going out there and competing. If you compete that’s half of the job you need to do.”
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