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On guard?

Posted Dec 4, 2013

No one knows who is going to play left guard in Sunday's game against the Colts.


Andrew Whitworth

Updated: 9:30 p.m.

After the Bengals outWhit the Chargers last Sunday behind the rampaging play of Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth at left guard, one Bengal said it was like watching an offensive line version of Geno Atkins, the injured two-time Bengals Pro Bowl defensive tackle generally regarded as the best in the game.

Some of the guys on the defensive line went even higher and said Whitworth looked like a Hall of Fame guard blowing up people on all parts of the field.

How good?

Whitworth played so well and with so much fire and intensity at left guard in last Sunday's 17-10 victory that before Wednesday's practice offensive line coach Paul Alexander had to go all the way back to the ancients to describe this classic. It will be recalled that in one of his last starts as a guard in the lost season of 2008, Whitworth's response to the bullying of Jaguars Pro Bowl defensive tackle John Henderson that got him ejected was one of the seeds that grew The Locker Room Renaissance. A move to guard may very well bottle the same type of emotion for this stretch run.  

"He inspired everyone," Alexander said of Whitworth's performance last Sunday. "I told him today it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Philip of Macedonia that says ‘an army of deer led by a lion is more feared than an army of lion led by a deer.’ He was that way, he was ferocious. You want your leader to be a lion and not a deer. He was a tiger.”

The Bengals are supposed to be deep and on Sunday they were deeper than Aristotle in the no-huddle. Their defense missing their two best players held an MVP candidate to one touchdown because the Bengals re-signed all their regulars from last year. Without their two starting guards the Bengals steamrolled the clock for 164 rushing yards with two veterans that combined for more than 150 starts in the league as veteran backup tackle Anthony Collins seamlessly moved from right to left at the tweak of a knee with 20 NFL starts of his own.

"It's a luxury to have the group we have," Whitworth said before Wednesday's practice about his offensive line. "We have people miss games and it's not really shown up and it's not been a point of emphasis. I think that's a credit. If you're a lineman, nothing said is better. Those guys have been able to plug in. It's definitely something that is probably not paid that much attention to, but is definitely something that has helped us."

Whitworth, who hasn't made a start at guard since he injured his ankle in the Donovan McNabb overtime tie against the Eagles in 2008, looked a bit wistful when asked about Whit If?

Whit if he had played guard all these years and left tackle Levi Jones played out his contract extension instead of getting hurt and …

"Probably," Whitworth said when asked if he would have been a Pro Bowler at guard. "I felt like I was playing at a high level. There were opposing coaches that would come up to me after games and told me I had played well. I think I made some headway early in my career."

Truth be told he would have been in the Pro Bowl a lot sooner at guard than at tackle, which didn't happen until this season. That's what Whitworth was projected to be coming out of LSU in 2006, but when Jones got hurt and Whitworth showed he had enough athleticism to hold down the edge, the Bengals had a left tackle that is now on the verge of protecting the blind side of two different division-winning quarterbacks. His 112 starts are the most for the Bengals at one of the league's premier spots since Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz's 183rd and last start 21 years ago.

“He could be a Pro Bowl tackle or guard.” Alexander said. "He's big and strong and smart. He's a good football player. He can play anything. I don’t know if he can play center. He might have his leverage working against him there. He moves much better than you would think. He knows where the ball is. He knows where backs are, where receivers are, and he can take good angles. That’s half the battle. Some of these guys are very athletic but they’re not taking the right angles to block people. And he's very smart that way."

Of course, after all this, one knows if Whitworth is going to play left guard in Sunday's 1 p.m. game (Cincinnati's Channel 12) against the Colts at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium. Whitworth, like he did for all but five plays last week, after moving from left tackle? Or Mike Pollak? Or somebody else?

Don't ask. Alexander hasn't even told his players. It may be a moot point. Right guard Kevin Zeitler was on the field Wednesday for the first time since he injured his foot Nov. 10 in Baltimore, but he didn't have his helmet and was working on the side. If he doesn't go, it figures again to be Whitworth at left guard and Pollak at right. And if Zeitler has another "did not practice" Thursday, he probably won't go.

But then again ...

"I told them this morning I feel best when we've had a lot of years we played a lot of guys," Alexander said after practice. "Not just five. I really like that kind of thing. You can get a blow, you can be more aggressive, you can go hard, (the foe doesn't) know exactly what you're doing. There are advantages in that. I would love to play that way."

Alexander also likes the fact everybody is guessing. Not just the Colts. Even his own guys.

"They'll tell me who's playing by the way they practice," Alexander said.

There's another glimpse of that depth. The key man here is not Whitworth, but Pollak, the six-year veteran. The coaches like how he has filled in for Zeitler the past two games. If Zeitler comes back this week the Bengals have to decide if they want Pollak to move to left guard or keep the line the way it finished Sunday with Whitworth at left guard in place of injured Clint Boling.

Pollak had 41 starts at right guard for the Colts in the last few years of the Peyton Manning era and the first year of the non-Manning era, but they decided not to re-up Pollak after the 2-14 season in 2011. He got hurt after playing one game in Carolina last season before signing with the Bengals this spring.

“He did a great job last week,” Alexander said. "He did all the techniques well. He was extremely productive and played a solid game.”

The 6-3, 300-pound Pollak, a second-round pick in 2008 out of Arizona State, came into the league as a center and even though he has one playoff start at right guard under Manning in 2010 to go along with 43 now in the regular season, he still feels he's a natural center. But he's one of these quiet, workmanlike guys that just does his job. The Bengals liked him in the '08 draft, their scouts kept their eye on him, and when he came free after a one-game stint in Carolina in 2012 they signed him.   

"I'll fight at any position for you," Pollak said. "I'm just trying to fit into the scheme of things to help our team win."

How crazy is the NFL? When the Colts didn't re-sign Pollak in 2012, they picked up guard Mike McGlynn after the Bengals didn't re-sign him and he has started 26 of the last 28 games since. But McGlynn got benched for this game that Pollak may start.

"It's really a completely different team. After my last year there, they pretty much got rid of everybody from top to bottom," Pollak said. "You go 2-14 and someone has to answer for a season like that. It's hard to put the blame on just not having Peyton there. I wasn't part of that plan and I moved on. They just wanted bigger, beefier guys up front. No hard feelings; it's a business."

Pollak says he may have had an edge about it when the two met in this year's preseason finale, but that's all gone. He did end up suffering a knee injury instead and missed the first seven games of the season. When he got the call to start against Cleveland three weeks ago, he was still working out the kinks but said he felt better in San Diego.

"There was the next-man-up mentality," he said. "AC came in, Whit slid down to guard, and it was just back to business. We had a game to win. It didn't matter who was playing out there. I don't think I've ever been part of a line like this where so many guys can play in so many different spots. It's going to help us. It's a long season."

And then there is Whitworth.

"He didn't miss a beat. He was fired up. He was pulling great and making some great blocks," Pollak said. "He really took a leadership role out there and getting guys fired up to be out there. You've seen Whit through the years and this season. He's a fiery guy and when he gets in that mode it inspires others."

And that may be the very reason the Bengals make the move. Oh sure, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis followed Whitworth's pulls to the win in that last drive in San Diego. But there is something more to it.

"Yeah, I do think I can help set the tone easier at guard," Whitworth said. "You're in tighter, you're not outside, you can be more physical and I like to be physical and pound it."

If it sounds like Whitworth wants to play guard, he does because he thinks it will help his team win. He also thinks he can help his team win at tackle. But the coaches have gone to the nth degree this week to make sure he wouldn't be upset with the move. What the Bengals are getting back is what you'd expect from an offensive captain:

"I think I've in every way on and off the football field, given everything I have to this organization," Whitworth said. "That goes from mentoring guys to just being a voice and leadership. So whatever that role is. If they want me to do kick return, I'll do it."

But he does make a very powerful argument to play guard, starting with his own physical, aggressive self.

"At guard, it's more of a mauling position; it's a physical, strong, violent position. A lot of things you can do at guard, you're not allowed to do at tackle," Whitworth said. "You can't grab and throw guys, you can't really drive on guys that much. You just don't have that leeway because the position you play a lot of the times, there's no way. Those guys are too athletic for you to do that stuff to them. So guard's definitely a more physical position."

And that's just it. Whitworth plays Pro Bowl tackle with a left guard mentality.

"That's kind of who I am and my style. When I came out of college as a tackle, that's what I was. I jumped guys and just got real physical with guys all the time," he said. "That's kind of the guy I was and that's why guard was an easy transition for me early in my career. But yeah, I love that for sure. Any time at tackle you get those opportunities, you have to take advantage of it because a lot of times you don't get them throughout a game very much. So playing inside, it's a lot of fun. You get to bang and hit and be violent, so that's what makes it fun."

Now the fun will be to see how the Bengals line up. And then it may just be beginning.

"Who knows?" Alexander said. "The second snap might be different."

 

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