Bengals face re-alignment

9-11-03, 6 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

After playing in the carnage and then viewing it on film Monday, right guard Matt O'Dwyer knew the Bengals, "had to do something."

But O'Dwyer had little to say Wednesday when that something turned out to be the first benching of his life as Marvin Lewis came down with his first re-shuffled lineup. In an attempt to jump-start a reeling offensive line, Rich Braham returns to center with center Mike Goff taking O'Dwyer's spot when the Bengals line up against the Raiders Sunday.

"I don't know if this is a permanent thing or not," Braham said. "I'm just going to go out there and do what I've done in the past. Good communication and try to execute to the best of my ability."

Lewis tried to downplay the move by saying all three players are going to see time Sunday in a rotation and that the move doesn't reflect on Goff or O'Dwyer. But he also admitted the line is "struggling," because it appeared the line didn't communicate or execute against the Broncos in allowing four sacks, three tipped passes, and 2.3 yards per rush.

Whether the move has been made because of displeasure with Goff or O'Dwyer is uncertain, but it's clear they weren't the only linemen who struggled Sunday. The consensus is everyone pretty much broke down at one time or another with rookie left guard Eric Steinbach admitting the speed of the game offered him an eye-opener and right tackle Willie Anderson was limited with a hamstring injury.

And it's clear the decision to re-shuffle the line in moving Goff to center when they didn't draft one back in April hasn't gone smoothly as hoped.

Notre Dame's Jeff Faine surprisingly went to the Browns in the first round and Wisconsin's Al Johnson and Iowa's Bruce Nelson were gone by the third, and the Bengals never really got serious with

Titans center Gennaro DiNapoli in free agency. So they re-signed Braham a few days later when minicamp started. They moved Goff, who dabbled in some practices at center a few years ago, from right guard. They moved O'Dwyer from left guard to right guard, his old position with the New York Jets. They promoted Nelson's left guard at Iowa, the second-round pick Steinbach, to left guard, and made Braham a back-up center-guard.

Now, after one game, Braham, 32, makes his 57th start at center and 101st of his career, and he has been here before. After 44 games as their left guard, Braham made the move to center before the 1999 season after the Bengals couldn't find a center in free agency and emerged with two guards in O'Dwyer and Brian DeMarco.

"They came to me with an opportunity and asked me about playing center, and I said, 'Why not?'" Braham recalled.

They may have been spoiled by how well that line with two veteran guards and Braham adjusted. The tough, bright Braham, who has been with the Bengals longer than anyone (he arrived smack in the middle of Blakemania off waivers from Arizona in November of 1994), has snapped to five different starting quarterbacks and silently played through pain. He kept playing in 2001 after being diagnosed with a herniated neck disk following the third game of the season.

Playing center may look like a snap, but it's not. You can't take them for granted. Given that Goff has had so little time there, he's done relatively well learning in the fire of games.

"(The center has) a tough job," Lewis said. "He has to snap the ball between his legs while a 350 pound guy is trying to knock his head off. But other than that, it's easy.

"It's not the main thing, it's part of it," said Lewis of the importance of communication by the center. "Communication can be done by the guards, it can be done by the tackles. It's a matter of guys taking control, and doing it. It doesn't have to be centered in on one guy. It doesn't have to be the middle linebacker on defense. It can be any of the guys, as long as somebody takes responsibility and gets it done."

It's unclear if it was getting done, but Braham thinks communication is a big part of his job, right there with snapping the ball to the quarterback.

"It's not necessarily getting the guys to go the right way," Braham said, "but getting the guy the quarterback wants you to work for, or block who the play calls for."

Ironically, the Bengals play a Raiders' team that has also been going through a transition at center as they ease converted guard-tackle Matt Stinchcomb into the spot of the troubled Barret Robbins.

Oakland head coach Bill Callahan, the club's offensive line coach when they drafted Stinchcomb in the first round as a left tackle in 1999, is very pleased with how he played in his first start ever as a center Sunday night in the loss to the Titans.

"When you have guys that never even snapped before in their careers," Callahan said, "I'm going back to whether its Pop Warner, or high school, or college football, you're getting a young pro of 23, 24 years of age and all of a sudden you're putting the ball between his leg and you're telling him to snap it on the right count, and make the right call, and get everybody on the same page, and the hard part is blocking the man in front of you. It's a tough, tough position and not easily acquired in one season or one offseason."

Callahan said he works all his guards as centers in case of emergency, so Stinchcomb has been working at it for two years, ever since Robbins went down with a season-ending knee injury early in 2001 and Callahan had to turn to Adam Treu as the starter.

Lewis indicated the Bengals are going to keep working with Goff at center and that he'll see some time there Sunday. He said that's the way he expected it to be when they made the switch and why they re-signed Braham.

But it may be easier for Braham than Goff in the din of the Coliseum in Oakland. Braham was there as a starting left guard in 1998 and, yes, it's loud, but he says it's not much louder than any place else near the end zones.

"If we have to go to the silent count (out of the shotgun), then we will. We'll be ready for that," Braham said. "The big thing for us is getting off to a good start. Make some plays early, stop them the first few times and that's going to take the crowd out of it."

Braham knows the two guys he'll be knocking heads against, and they are formidable tackles who have had good games against the Bengals. He has played 33-year-old John Parrella when he was with the Chargers, and 32-year-old Dana Stubblefield when he was with the 49ers.

"They play very low and are very physical," Braham said. "They're going to try and keep you off the linebackers and they'll fire out at you across the line. Tough guys with a lot of strength. And when they double team you, they'll clamp you."

Plus, Braham will have to help a young guy like Steinbach get used to the atmosphere. It's no secret the line has to keep its wits better than it did Sunday.

"The plan is to play with poise," Steinbach said. "We may have got a little flustered out there Sunday. But we'll be ready with the silent count if we have to be."

Steinbach has candidly talked about how the speed in his first NFL regular-season game had him trying to make adjustments. He had two false start penalties, although he said the one on the field goal should have been on the defense because they moved across the line on him.

"The other one was a case of where I was getting antsy," Steinbach said. "You know the speed is up, and that linebacker is flying around, and if you have to go out and get him, you're trying to be off with the sound. I was just a little too antsy."

Steinbach figures it's going to take him a couple of games to get adjusted to the speed.

"They kept telling us," Steinbach said, ' "If you thought the preseason was fast, you haven't seen anything,' and they were right. I think as the season goes, it's going to slow down and get easier."

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