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Analysis: O-Line makeover


Posted: 1:50 a.m.

The Bengals finished 32nd out of the 32 teams in the NFL last season in total offense. They were also last in scoring. Only three teams ran the ball for fewer yards than the Bengals did in 2008.

Their quarterbacks were sacked a combined 51 times and harassed more often than anyone in the organization would care to remember.

The offensive line was far from being the only suspect unit in last season's disconcerting 4-11-1 campaign but it is the unit that is getting the most pointed review. Plain and simple: better play from the offensive line in 2009 will give the Bengals their best shot at again being a playoff contender.

It will also give the defense, which finished ranked 12th in the league, a chance to continue improving.

"The best defense is sitting on the bench drinking Gatorade," said head coach Marvin Lewis during a pre-draft press conference last week. "I think offensively, our inability to run the football early in the year really hurt our defensive football team. Those are the things we'll try to get addressed."

With that in mind, the Bengals used their first-round pick in this weekend's draft to take Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith. They then added Arkansas center Jonathan Luigs in the fourth round.

That's a start to the retooling of Paul Alexander's front line. Just what that lineup will look like come late July when the Bengals report to Georgetown College for training camp remains to be seen.

Last season ended with the line riddled by injury. Left tackle Levi Jones missed the final six games with a leg injury. He was replaced by rookie Anthony Collins. First-year player Nate Livings was signed off the practice squad to start the final six games at left guard because both starter Andrew Whitworth (ankle) and top backup Scott Kooistra (knee) ended up on injured reserve due to injuries suffered in a 13-13 tie against Philadelphia.

Dennis Roland then made his first career start in the season finale against Kansas City replacing right tackle Stacy Andrews after Andrews left the previous week's game at Cleveland with a severe knee injury. Only center Eric Ghiaciuc and right guard Bobbie Williams started all 16 games last season.

Williams' spot at right guard is the only position in the starting lineup that can be consider a lock at this point.

Ghiaciuc and Andrews are both gone – Andrews signed with Philadelphia as a free agent, while Ghiaciuc was allowed to enter the free agent market without the Bengals making a serious effort to re-sign him. The health status of Jones, Whitworth and Kooistra is improved but questions will remain until the pads are put on in July. Whitworth and Kooistra have been working out regularly at Paul Brown Stadium during the team's voluntary offseason conditioning program, while Jones is working out on his own at home in Arizona.

Kyle Cook has the inside track on replacing Ghiaciuc. Cook, a first-year player last year, played in four games before being sent to IR with a toe injury. He has impressed coaches with an on-field demeanor and attitude similar to that of former center Rich Braham, who retired at the end of the 2006 season.

Just because the Bengals spent a draft choice on Luigs doesn't mean the job is his.

"He will compete for the starting center spot," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander. "We have a number of guys that are hear now that are in line to compete for that job and we look for him to improve."

Lewis and Alexander were also non-committal on the just what spot their No. 1 pick will end up at. Smith played left tackle at Alabama and certainly has the necessary skills to play the position in the NFL, but the Bengals have three players who have multiple games of experience at the position already (Jones, Collins and Whitworth) while the right tackle spot is without its returning starter.

For 12 seasons Willie Anderson manned right tackle for the Bengals. When Anderson was released at the end of last preseason, the job was left to Andrews. It is open again.

"The trait I like about him the most is that he really understands blocking," said Alexander of Smith. "He knows when to turn, when to push, when to cut. He just really understands how to play the game."

It's a trait that easily describes what Anderson meant to the Bengals during his career in Cincinnati.

"I don't want to make that comparison at all, but that was Willie's best trait," said Alexander. "Willie was the best player I've ever known that really understood how to block."

For a unit that's looking to regain a once well-earned reputation for being the foundation of one of the NFL's up-and-coming teams, that's not a bad place to start.

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