Bengals starting linebacker Thomas Howard tore his ACL during Thursday's practice and will be lost for the season. The loss of Howard serves as a brutal blow to the defense. He is their best coverage linebacker and started all 16 games last season and led the team in tackles (99).
Linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy, who was the backup middle linebacker in preseason surprisingly waived on cutdown day, was still unsigned and has been added to the 53-man roster in place of Howard to provide depth.
That doesn't soften the blow of losing the seventh-year pro.
“It's an unfortunate thing anytime a player gets hurt, obviously, a kid like Thomas a good, young talent,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “You got to move on. It's a freak thing that happens.”
To make the timing for Howard even worse, the 29-year-old was at the beginning of a contract year. More than likely, this could mean needing to sign a one-year deal next year to prove he's healthy enough to warrant a longer contract.
“Thomas is young enough, he might just have to take a hiccup for a second and move forward,” Lewis said. “He's a wonderful, wonderful human being and person. He understands things happen for a reason and he'll come out of this well.”
The solution in his absence will be the promotion of backups Vincent Rey and Dan Skuta. Both come with different strengths as Skuta's value comes more against the run and Rey more valuable against the pass. A combination of the two would be a likely scenario for Sunday against Cleveland.
Skuta started three games at middle linebacker last season when Rey Maualuga went out with an injury and knows all three linebacker spots. He's been one of the Bengals top special teams players since making the team in 2009.
“He has good football aptitude,” Lewis said of Skuta. “Obviously a very hard-working person. He's got great intrinsic values. He's been a valuable guy in a lot of different ways.”
Rey, an undrafted college free agent in his second season with Cincinnati, touched the field in all 16 games last season but never started a game at linebacker.
“He's so cerebral,” Lewis said. “He's a very knowledgeable player. You can see that right away on the practice field as soon as he got his opportunity. He's going to add another really, really verbal, vocal guy into the mix. Lot of guys understand it and know it and can't communicate it. Vinny's a really good communicator.”
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