The Cincinnati Bengals are off to about as good of a start as they could hope for in terms of the results, but the same cannot be said for the health of the team.
Cincinnati (2-0) travels to face the Carolina Panthers (1-1) on Sunday and will be using some backups at key positions in an offense that has been rolling through the first two games.
Starting running back Joe Mixon underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus Saturday and is expected to miss two to four weeks, and now the Bengals learned Wednesday that rookie center Billy Price is going to be out at least two weeks with a foot injury .
They also lost third-string running back Tra Carson to an undisclosed injury that Marvin Lewis said occurred Monday in practice. The Bengals waived him Wednesday and signed former Seattle Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls, who spent the preseason with the Jets.
“It’s just the next-man-up rule,” running back Giovani Bernard said Wednesday when asked about taking on a bigger workload. “When one guy goes down, you just have to pick it up and get ready for it. … It is what it is. When your opportunity comes up, just take advantage of it.”
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“I feel like people are freaking out, but my goodness, it’s football,” he added. “Guys are going to go down and the next man has to step up and just be prepared.”
Mixon played through his injury Thursday after he felt a tweak in the first quarter against Baltimore but learned Friday he would need surgery for the first time in his playing career. He said Wednesday he already feels better and will return as soon as he can comfortably make cuts at full speed.
Price was more fortunate in that he doesn’t need surgery, but ultimately he could be out as long as, or longer than, Mixon. After going down late in the first quarter Thursday, he was originally diagnosed with an ankle sprain and didn’t learn what it actually was until Wednesday morning.
The former Ohio State University is required to wear a boot 24 hours a day, but couldn’t disclose the exact nature of his injury or a timetable beyond that he will be re-evaluated in two weeks. He said the injury is not a lisfranc (mid-foot), which can include ligament strains, tears, fractures and dislocations of the bone.
“It’s great news,” Price said, noting the injury itself is frustrating. “I don’t want surgery, so to not be on the table is the best thing.”
Guard Trey Hopkins replaced Price for the remainder of the game Thursday and will start in his place Sunday, but Lewis would not say who will back him up. Clint Boling has some experience at center and could be an option to slide over from left guard if needed.
Hopkins, last year’s starting right guard, saw some snaps at center in the preseason but had never played an NFL game at the position.
“I think a great credit to him that, when he did come in, we had no communication problems, we had no snap problems,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “(During) the mock game way back in camp and the balls were all over the place, with everyone, not just him, and we can’t take that for granted. One of the first things the center has to do before he has to worry about blocking the nose guard is get the calls right and get the snap, and he did that. That was a great credit to him. We have a lot of faith in Trey. He’s helped us play winning football before.”
The team has perhaps even more faith in Bernard and the impact he can make on the offense as a reliable contributor since he was picked in the second round of the 2013 draft. He only carried the ball seven times for 25 yards through the first two games, but the 5-foot-9, 205-pound “warrior,” as Lazor called him, has almost 3,000 yards rushing for his career.
Mixon, who ranks second in the league with 179 yards rushing, isn’t worried about the running game falling apart in his absence. Rookie fourth-round pick Mark Walton said he is “ready to showcase” his ability in his first NFL action Sunday as Bernard’s backup, and Rawls hasn’t done much lately but brings experience from a successful 2015 rookie season when he carried the ball 147 times for 830 yards with Seattle.
“With Gio I’m sure he’s going to do his thing,” Mixon said. “Thomas, I haven’t seen him. Mark, I’m sure he’s ready to carry the load also. All of our backs are ready. It isn’t like they can’t go in and make something happen. That’s just what we do. I’m very confident in that running back room. Gio knows what to expect and what to do so I’m not worried at all.”