For the first time since 2011, the Cincinnati Bengals are 1-2 and hopeful for reinforcements when the Miami Dolphins visit Paul Brown Stadium on Thursday night.
"We have to move forward and keep doing things better, whether it be protection or anything," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of preparing a team that fell below .500 for the first time since 2014 with a home loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday. "Every time I come in here, there's something not up to snuff. You'll point it out to me, which I appreciate. But the key is to win the game."
The short week doesn't help matters, but Lewis could get two leaders back soon.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict and tight end Tyler Eifert, who had offseason ankle surgery, could be on the field soon. Lewis said Eifert is "close" but was not ready to make a decision on his status against the Dolphins. Miami (1-2) survived the Cleveland Browns in overtime for its first win of the season last week.
Burfict's three-game suspension is over, and on Monday the team was granted a three-day exemption that allows Burfict to resume football activities and be active Thursday night. Lewis remained noncommittal on Tuesday when discussing Burfict's playing status for the Dolphins, but he said a roster move would be made Wednesday or Thursday to open a spot for him.
The recent suspension resulted from repeated violations of rules pertaining to player safety, including a blow to Steelers receiver Antonio Brown's head that helped set up the decisive field goal in Cincinnati's 18-16 loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC wild-card game.
The message has been delivered.
"He's had enough talks," Lewis said.
Burfict's replacement, Vincent Rey, who started eight games last season, is described by Lewis as a "core player" because of his ability to contribute in spot duty and far beyond. Burfict also battled injuries last season.
Getting Burfict back -- he averaged almost eight tackles per game the past two seasons -- would bolster a defense that was ragged against the Broncos last week. And worse yet, at least as Lewis sees it, undisciplined. Cincinnati forfeited five first downs to the Broncos on defensive penalties.
Enter the Dolphins, who are struggling to run the ball with injuries at running back and shuffling on the offensive line, where mainstay Mike Pouncey, a Pro Bowl center, has been out with a hip injury. The Dolphins rank 26th in third-down conversions, and first-year head coach Adam Gase blames the inability to move the chains consistently on first down. Miami is 25th in rushing.
"The third-down stuff, the problem with that is if we could just stay on our blocks," Gase said. "We got exactly what we want as far as guys coming open. It's hard to throw a ball with any kind of timing where they pressure, and we get it picked up, but we get beat so fast that the quarterback, he doesn't even have a chance."
The problem with solving the puzzle for Gase is he might not have enough potential answers available.
Left tackle Branden Albert (ankle) is questionable, and Pouncey's backup at center, Anthony Steen (ankle), was hurt against the Browns. Right tackle Ja'Wuan James was benched in overtime last week due to his performance, and his job in in jeopardy.
Injuries, especially on the interior line, could be doomsday news against Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who has 41 sacks since 2011, tops among NFL interior linemen.
Gase said the entire offense is in dysfunction, and that includes quarterback Ryan Tannehill, when the line gets out of sync.
"There have been a couple times we're getting pressure," Gase said. "He just knows that where he's throwing it should be wide open, and he just throws it up knowing. ... There was one to (wide receiver) Jarvis (Landry), he threw it in that area knowing, 'There's nobody there if I could get a second to get it there.' That's the frustrating part about playing quarterback."
Landry has been electric through the first three games, producing a league-leading 24 receptions for 314 yards and a touchdown. His individual matchup with Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green -- 22-295-1 -- is one to watch.
But the Bengals, averaging 293 passing yards per game behind AFC-leading passer Andy Dalton (938 yards), also are trying to spark their ground game. Jeremy Hill is averaging 4.1 yards per carry (37 carries, 150 yards) and third-down back Giovani Bernard has 16 receptions for 141 yards.
The Dolphins have won three straight meetings with the Bengals.