Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis didn’t hesitate to say Billy Price would be sliding back in at center when he returns from his foot injury.
That time has finally come.
Offensive guard Trey Hopkins showed steady progress in Price’s six-game absence, but the rookie first-round draft pick out of Ohio State University should be starting Sunday when the Bengals (5-3) host the New Orleans Saints (7-1) at Paul Brown Stadium.
Price has been a full participant through the team’s first two practices with injury reports, and he expects to play this week for the first time since hurting his foot in Game 2 against the Ravens.
“It’s a blessing,” Price said. “You can’t take anything for granted in this league. One day you could be here and the next day you can’t. I’ve got to give a lot of thanks to Trey (Hopkins) and everything he did during the seven weeks I wasn’t playing, and we continued to challenge myself mentally in keeping up with him so the looks he saw I was familiar with because we’re going to play some of these guys again.”
It’s been a long process back.
Price originally was misdiagnosed with an ankle sprain and didn’t learn what the actual injury was until six days later. He also hoped to be back in as little as two weeks after a re-evaluation.
Then after that first re-evaluation, Price spoke too soon in saying he would definitely be back for Pittsburgh in Week 6. He finally got the boot off and resumed practicing in limited fashion ahead of the Week 8 game against Tampa Bay, but just had restrictions removed this week after the bye.
“It’s huge,” Price said. “For the first thing, we’re following what the doctors are saying and keeping up with that progression. It’s finally being able to hit somebody else that’s huge, but to make sure we stayed up mentally and make sure as much as we can do physically working out and staying sharp, I’ve got to give a lot of credit to (head trainer) Paul (Sparling) and (director of rehab) Nick Cosgrave in there in the training room keeping me right.”
It’s a good time for Price to be back, as the offense is slowly starting to heal up at some key positions just as Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green went down with a toe injury that is expected to sideline him at least two games.
Second-year receiver John Ross is back to full participation after being hampered by a nagging groin injury, and Clint Boling’s back injury from the last game against the Bucs wasn’t an issue that crept beyond the bye week. Giovani Bernard (knee) continues to be limited but nearing a return, though most likely not this week.
“The mantra has been ‘next man up,’” Price said. “A.J. is down right now, but we pick up Auden (Tate). Let’s see what he does. I went down, Trey did an excellent job. You’ve just got to continue to go. The team is at a high momentum. The bye week came at a good time to get some key players back and it’s going to be fun to see everybody back in action.”
Now the question is: What happens with Hopkins?
He had never played center at this level besides a few snaps in the preseason, and he had been playing behind Alex Redmond at right guard before Price’s injury. Redmond has rated as the worst lineman on the team, according to ProFootballFocus.com’s grades, and Hopkins did well enough to potentially earn another look at a starting spot at guard, the position he held last year.
“I’m proud of what I’ve done but ultimately those are decisions I don’t get to make so I can’t stress about it,” Hopkins said. “I’m getting more and more comfortable. I’m happy with the steps I made. I feel like I made noticeable improvements each week, but everything else is out of my control.”
Lewis said Hopkins did “a nice job from the communication part of handling his own job, getting on the right person and being able to execute and block his guy.” He’s been pleasantly surprised by the progress of the line overall and expects that trend to continue with Price coming back.
“They (keep getting better, and that’s the important thing,” Lewis added. “They continue to keep getting better as they play together. We still have some occasional miscommunications or bad plays, but I think as a group they’re collectively getting it, they’re understanding it, and they’re coming up with some personality. We’re going to need it. So yeah, from that standpoint, it’s something just like everything else in this building that we have to continue to build upon.”
The Saints have the No. 1 run defense in the league but have struggled against the pass, where they rank 31st of 32 teams.