CINCINNATI (AP) — Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is finished with his NFL suspension, looking to put his emphatic imprint on Cincinnati’s struggling defense.
Tight end Tyler Eifert is close to full strength after recovering from ankle surgery, eager to become the top passing option near the goal line again.
The Bengals are finally back together, looking to dig out of their worst start in five years when they host the Dolphins on Thursday night.
The Bengals (1-2) have been out of sync on both offense and defense. They failed to make any game-turning plays in the fourth quarter of back-to-back losses against the Steelers and the Broncos. With Burfict back and Eifert close to form, they’ve got two of their top playmakers available again.
“I just do my job, take control of my defense, just be a leader out there,” Burfict said. “I do what I can.”
The Dolphins (1-2) are simply trying to hold it together. They got their first victory on Sunday in overtime when Cleveland missed a field goal at the end of regulation.
There wasn’t much time to celebrate because of the quick turnaround and a mess on offense.
Tight end Jordan Cameron suffered his fourth concussion and has been ruled out for Thursday night. Left tackle Branden Albert and center Anthony Steen have sprained ankles.
Right tackle Ja’Wuan James was pulled from the game against Cleveland after allowing a late sack. Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey has missed the first three games while recovering from a hip injury.
“We’ll see where it goes,” coach Adam Gase said. “We’ve got a couple of moving pieces, obviously, with our injury situation.”
It’s a game that neither team can afford to lose.
“Being 1-2, in my opinion, we need to definitely finish the quarter (of the season) at 2-2 and go from there, or else we put ourselves in a very tough bind for the rest of the season,” Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said.
Some things to watch on Thursday night:
HOW MUCH FOR BURFICT?
It’s likely that Burfict will play most of the game on Thursday even though he missed the preseason and the first three games. Last season, Burfict was recovering from knee surgery and missed the first six games. In his return in Pittsburgh, he made solo tackles on the first two plays and was on the field for nearly half of the defense’s plays.
“We’ll just see how it’s going,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “That’s kind of what happened in Pittsburgh last year. I said, ‘Every series, just tell me how you’re feeling and we’ll go from there.’”
After getting next-to-nothing out of its running game in the first two games, Cincinnati put an emphasis on it Sunday and got immediate results. Jeremy Hill carried four times for 65 yards in an opening touchdown drive. After that, the Bengals managed only 78 yards on 25 carries, an average of 3.1. It was better, but still not up to standards. The Dolphins’ run defense is second-to-last in the league.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the Dolphins’ leading rusher with 54 yards on the season, and they used four running backs in Sunday’s win over Cleveland with limited success. Gase said he sees progress in the ground game. The rotation at running back came about with starter Arian Foster sidelined by a groin injury.
“You’d always love to be able to say, ‘Let’s get a guy in there and get 15, 20 touches and see how it goes,’” Gase said. “I need somebody to step up and be consistent and do their job throughout the entire game, not just one good play here and then we screw up, and then another good play. We’re too up-and-down.”
PLAUDITS FOR PUNTER
Struggling to find someone to praise this week, Gase cited his punter — perhaps a sign things the season aren’t going well. Second-year pro Matt Darr averaged 48.8 yards against Cleveland and put four of his six kicks inside the 20. Darr understands that punters can make a big impact on a game when the offense is struggling.
“We’ve got all kinds of weapons on this team — offense, defense — and on special teams there should be some, too,” Darr said.
The Bengals are only 10-6 at Paul Brown Stadium in the past two seasons, including a first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh. The Bengals play their next two games at Dallas and New England, underscoring how important it is for the defending AFC North champions to win on Thursday.