By Joe Kay
AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — Andy Dalton will run out of the tunnel at the south end of Paul Brown Stadium — the one he used to access the X-ray machine eight months ago — in a big moment for Bengals fans. For the quarterback? Not so much.
Dalton will get back into a game on Friday night for the first time since Dec. 13, when he broke his right thumb while making a tackle during a Pittsburgh Steelers interception return. He’s expected to play a few series against the Minnesota Vikings, coached by former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
It’ll be a full-circle moment for the Bengals, getting back one of the league’s top quarterbacks of 2015. Dalton isn’t attaching too much significance to it.
“It will be nice to be back out there, but I don’t even think about it anymore,” Dalton said Thursday, following a joint practice with the Vikings. “There’s been no residual (problem) from the thumb, so it’s just another preseason game for me.”
Dalton was one of the NFL’s top passers when he got hurt, enjoying his breakout season. His passer rating of 106.3 set a club record and was second only to Seattle’s Russell Wilson (110.1) for the league lead. When he left the field for an X-ray and returned wearing a cast, one of the Bengals’ best seasons had reached a turning point.
“When that happened, I was seated next to my brother and I just looked at him and said, ‘That’s it,’” owner Mike Brown said. “I knew what it meant. Yet we did remarkably well even though we were operating without our key guy. As we went on after that I was very proud of the team, the way it responded.”
A.J. McCarron led the Bengals to victories in two of their last three regular-season games, completing a 12-win season that matched the club record. He had them ahead in the closing minutes of a home playoff game against Pittsburgh, but the defense imploded — personal fouls on linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones moved the Steelers into range for the winning field goal.
Dalton will be back with a few newcomers on Friday night.
The Bengals lost receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu to free agency. They signed Brandon LaFell and drafted Tyler Boyd, who was impressive during practice on Thursday against the Vikings, catching several passes from Dalton.
“It’s been real fun to compete against different guys, just to see how my talent excels,” Boyd said. “You always want to go against different teams to see how much better you’ve gotten during camp.”
Coach Marvin Lewis said the second-round pick has been a bright spot during camp.
“Tyler’s exceeded my expectations at things,” Lewis said. “He’s really done the things we expected him to do. He’s taken it, grasped it and run with it.”
The other significant change is at right tackle, where Cedric Ogbuehi — Cincinnati’s top pick last season — takes over for Andre Smith, who signed with Minnesota as a free agent. Smith and Lewis spent a few minutes on the field after practice Thursday catching up.
“There’s no hard feelings,” Smith said. “I feel like I had a good opportunity in Minnesota.”
The Bengals also will be without starting tight end Tyler Eifert, who is recovering from ankle surgery and hasn’t been cleared to practice.
NOTES: Lewis declined to stay who would be held out of the game, other than Burfict. Lewis will sit Burfict during the preseason, allowing the rest of the linebackers to settle into roles without him. Burfict has a three-game suspension from the league to start the season. … DT Andrew Billings, a fourth-round pick, suffered a knee injury during practice Wednesday and was carted off. Lewis said Thursday there was no further information about his recovery timetable.