Two-time All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth returns to his first Paycor Stadium game as a fan Monday night (8:15-Cincinnati's Channel 5, ESPN) to watch his two teams play before heading over to Green Bay to analyze Amazon's Lions-Packers game next week.
The induction of Chad Johnson into the Bengals Ring of Honor at halftime sealed the decision to attend. But it is the first Bengals team without Johnson that Whitworth says a young but gritty Rams team resembles during a rather surprising 1-1 start since no one picked them to win the opener in Seattle. Or much of anything else.
Whitworth goes back to 2011 to make the comparison. His Bengals were supposed to be awful without Johnson and quarterback Carson Palmer. Instead, they made the playoffs with rookies A.J. Green and Andy Dalton going 9-7 to lead a crew that was fast and physical as well as nervy and nameless to a Wild Card.
Of course, courtesy of the salary cap, any resemblance to this Rams team and the one Whitworth helped lead to a Super Bowl LVI victory over the Bengals merely 19 months ago is purely coincidental with five Rams who started that game starting last week's 30-23 loss to San Francisco.
"Day and night difference," Whitworth says.
(Against the Ravens last Sunday, the Bengals started 14 Super Bowl starters.)
"This offseason when I was around, I reiterated that kind of year to them," said Whitworth, who lives in the Los Angeles area and is close enough with Rams head coach Sean McVay to pop in and out of the building. "I'll never forget that in 2011 people thought we were going to go 0-16 and we ended up making the playoffs.
"That's the kind of mindset it takes when you don't have great experience all over the board. Can you get your team to resort to that physicality and toughness it needs to overcome that? That's what this team does. They've got a great energy and they play physical. I think what is interesting is what this Rams team did in Seattle and how well they played against the Niners last week. It's almost some good in some mystery. Teams don't quite know how to stop you. If you can play physical and with a lot of energy and passion, you're kind of a team's worst nightmare. They don't know what to take away from you."
Whitworth stopped by last week's game against the 49ers and got an eyeful.
"When the Rams play the Niners at home, it's a Niners' home game. They're on silent (count) and the Niners aren't. The whole stadium is red. You're playing against All-Pros," Whitworth says. "This team didn't flinch a bit. I didn't see a young guy even care. This team is afraid of nothing."
The Bengals' 0-2 start doesn't have Whitworth back-pedaling from his preseason prediction that Cincinnati is going to win it all. He's still all in on his striped descendants because of their track record.
"The last three years, the first two to four games haven't been pretty and all of a sudden they put a game in there and they get it together," Whitworth says. "They go on runs. When you've been there and done it before, you always feel like you can do it again.
"They're fine because they've got the players and they've won the last few years. They know how to get hot. When people talk about the Chargers' roster compared to the Bengals' roster, the Chargers have not proven to me they can win consecutively or win in big moments. I could care less who's on their roster until they show it. This Bengals roster has done it. They've been in it and said, 'Let's go,' and they've rattled off 12 wins out of 14. They've had streaks to go to the Super Bowl. Until they show me they don't have that anymore, I still think they have a shot. They just have to find themselves."
Whitworth says he's not surprised at their slow start (he reminds you they could have been 0-2 in '21, too, if they didn't win the opener on the last play of overtime), but he'll be surprised if they don't pull out of it.
Here are a few matchups Whitworth says the Bengals need to watch Monday:
"The Rams are a lot bigger than we were up front when we won the Super Bowl. Joe Noteboom (6-5, 320) is a big, athletic guy they were hoping would replace me, but now he's a right guard and a heck of a player. He's banged up so I'm not sure what his status is. (6-8, 330-pound tight tackle) Rob Havenstein played with me. Good player.
"On the left side they've played the kid from TCU (second-round guard Steve Avila) from day one. He's a big, athletic dude (6-5, 332) and so is the left tackle (6-7, 285-pound Alaric Jackson). The Bengals' defensive line has to take advantage of their experience going against the left side of that line, a rookie guard in his third game and a guy with fewer than eight starts as an NFL left tackle."
The Bengals match up pretty well there with Pro Bowl edge sacker Trey Hendrickson on Jackson and Super Bowl vets D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill lined up at one time or another on Avila.
"That's a big group and they played really well and physical against the 49ers' good front," Whitworth says. "And the Rams running back (Kyren) Williams runs that way," although he's just 5-9, 195 pounds.
Their spectacular young receivers aren't much bigger and yet they will test a Cincy secondary trying to shore up a middle Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson exploited to convert 64% of his third-down tries.
With Bengals-killer and NFL Triple Crown receiver Cooper Kupp on injured reserve, the 6-1, 205-pound Puca Nacua, a fifth-rounder out of BYU, just set the NFL record for most catches in the first two games of a career with 25 and became the fourth player in NFL history to have 10 catches and 100 yards each in the first two games of a season.
The 5-9, 165-pound Tutu Atwell, who was a rookie on injured reserve for the Super Bowl, has used his speed to rack up 196 yards himself, eighth most in the league as he makes trouble on the edges.
"I keep joking Puka is the Rams' Deebo Samuel. A bigger, thicker guy, physical at the catch point," Whitworth says. "He falls forward every time he catches the ball. He's run over guys catching hitches. He's one of these physical receivers, kind of like a running back when he catches it. A tweener tight end just tough in space.
"Tutu has a lot of speed. He's challenging. You have to play with technique. You have to wrap and tackle when Puka gets the ball."
And there is 35-year-old Matthew Stafford, the quarterback who seemed to disappear last year after his last-minute drive in the Super Bowl and one-yard flip to Kupp for the winner crushed Bengaldom. But there seem to be no more ailments and if Joe Burrow is healthy it sets up the ninth Paycor Stadium game featuring opposing overall No. 1 draft pick quarterbacks. Stafford lost one of those games when Carson Palmer's Bengals beat his Lions here in 2009, Whitworth's first year as the Bengals' full-time left tackle.
"Matthew Stafford is healthy and when that guy's healthy, he's special," Whitworth says. "Even last week, the two interceptions were basically drops. One of them was a route that could have been run better by (wide receiver) Van Jefferson and the other one the ball just went through the hands. Matthew has been playing really, really well."
The last time Whitworth was at Paycor, he worked last year's Thursday night win over the Dolphins. The family is back on the coast, where the youngest, Kathryn, is already eight and playing on a soccer team coached by her mom, Miss Louisiana Melissa. The next youngest, Sarah, is playing volleyball while on Monday Whitworth coached 11-year-old Drew's baseball practice from 3-5 and then 12-year-old Michael's football practice from 5-7.
Cramming for the Thursday night broadcast was a breeze after all that. He's looking forward to spinning some stories on Monday.
"When I heard Chad was going in this game, I had to be there," Whitworth says. "I saw him last week at "Inside the NFL," and got a chance to hug him and say hello. I heard a lot of the guys will be there. I heard Marvin (Lewis) is going to be there. It's going to be fun."
So should the game. Imagine if the 2011 Bengals played the 2023 Bengals.
"Great matchup," Whitworth says. "A Super Bowl-caliber team waiting to get hot against a young team playing physical with a lot of passion."