Bengals ‘excited for the challenge’ of unbeaten Steelers

Cincinnati Bengals tight end Drew Sample (89) runs during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Cincinnati Bengals tight end Drew Sample (89) runs during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The vibe surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals has been a little unusual this week as they continue preparations for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Five players from both teams have been placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list since Friday, impacting the way they are able to get ready for their AFC North rivalry game.

Bengals right tackle Fred Johnson and cornerback Trae Waynes, who is out injured, both tested positive Friday and were joined on the COVID list Saturday by linebacker Jordan Evans and cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Defensive lineman Margus Hunt was added Monday.

On Tuesday, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, offensive lineman Jerald Hawkins, running back Jaylen Samuels and linebacker Vince Williams joined the list after being deemed “high risk” close contacts of a positive individual, meaning they will be isolation for five days. Tight end Vance McDonald went on the Reserve/COVID-19 list Monday.

If Roethlisberger and the other “close contact” players pass COVID tests this week, they would be eligible to come off the list by Saturday and play Sunday.

“We obviously want to be on top (of COVID-19) as best we can, making good choices outside the stadium,” tight end Drew Sample said Tuesday. “We had a couple of things come up and that’s going to happen. For us, I think it’s just being able to adapt and adjust. Thankfully, this is really the first time we’ve kind of had to go through any of that stuff. But I think we’re ready for it. I think we’ve known all along that at some point, this was probably going to happen, just with all the different things going on. So for us, just trying to attack it like any other week. I think this week especially, just the preparation and the mental side of it will have to be more on point. But like I said, we’re excited for the challenge.”

Safety Vonn Bell said players just have to stay in a rhythm themselves when the team routine is off track, and they have to minimize the distractions. The Bengals were back in the stadium Tuesday -- a normal off day -- for a walkthrough after an unexpected day off Monday to adjust to COVID protocols, but more meetings are being pushed virtually to help with social distancing.

Bell is still looking forward to his first rivalry game against the Steelers (8-0), one he always watched without understanding the heat between the teams.

“I don’t know much about it,” Bell said. “I always watched it, so it’s new to me now. I was walking my dog the other day and my neighbor is saying like, ‘This is a big game.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ … He’s like, ‘No, it’s different. We hate these guys.’ I just felt like it from him, man this is intense. I love it.”

The Bengals (2-5-1) are still preparing as though the Steelers will have Roethlisberger and all their weapons on offense.

Roethlisberger sustained injuries to both his knees Sunday in a win over the Cowboys but wasn’t expected to be out this week. At age 38, he’s not moving as well as he used to anyway; however, he still shows playmaking ability and has talented players around him.

Rookie Chase Claypool leads the team with 444 yards receiving and five touchdowns, and JuJu Smith-Schuster adds 439 yards receiving and four touchdowns. James Conner can help take some pressure off Big Ben, as he has 520 yards rushing and five touchdowns.

Roethlisberger has a history of success against the Bengals, owning a 25-7 record against them over 16 years.

“They play as a unit,” Bell said. “They trust the plan, they really feed off each other. Big plays, especially Claypool, JuJu, (James) Washington. Conner is the workhorse on the ground. Him and the group of backs, and the O-Line, they’re huge. They buy time for Ben to make the right reads and the right throws, and they’re just clicking on all cylinders right now. What a challenge. What a challenge for this group and what a challenge for the team. That’s what we breathe for, to be competitors. That’s what we do it for for games like this.”

Cincinnati handed AFC South-leading Tennessee just its second loss in Week 8 and is hoping to carry the momentum, despite a bye in between, to Heinz Field on Sunday. Defensive end Sam Hubbard, who was on injured reserve with an elbow issue, was cleared to practice Tuesday and could also provide a boost if officially added back to the 53-man roster for the game.

Bell, embracing the role of the underdog for the first time in his career, said he sees no reason the Bengals can’t be successful against Pittsburgh like they were against the Titans.

“They come in undefeated, coming off a tough win against Dallas, and why not us?” Bell said. “Why not make the play? Everyone is going to doubt us and put our backs against the wall, but when it’s your chance to make that play, go up there when your number is called. Go hit it out of the park. That’s what you want, and that’s the guys here in the locker room. I can’t wait to see the guys go out there this Sunday.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Steelers, 4:25 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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