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Bengals line in limelight

Andrew Whitworth

Posted: 6:30 a.m.

Melissa Clark Whitworth, a beauty queen whose beauty is she isn't a queen, couldn't believe what was coming out of the TV.

It was a few weeks ago when her husband's anonymous offensive line had helped the Bengals to another improbable victory to continue to pad their impossible pad in the AFC North when she heard the announcers say something like, "We have no idea who is on this offensive line because we've never heard of them."

That was a laugh, she thought. After being crowned Miss Louisiana in 2003, she'd worked in the news business and she knew what was a good story and how to get it. No one is anonymous anymore. And, after all, she knew all those guys on the offensive line because just a few weeks ago they had lumbered into her bedroom to cheer her up. All 10 of them. So huge they had turned the room into a doll house.

It hadn't been but 12 hours since she and Andrew had gotten back from the hospital in the middle of the night after her miscarriage heartbroken and dazed. Just a few days before they had heard the heartbeat. Andrew had texted Coach Lewis and he told him, 'Do whatever you need to do,' so he didn't go to the stadium until practice started at 1 p.m. But he called her a few hours later. Right around the time he was going to be meeting with the line in their usual Wednesday's get-togethers.

"He asked me what I was wearing," Melissa Whitworth says now. "He said, 'You better get ready because you're going to have some company.' And every one of them came over to our house to see me. And they didn't just say hi and leave. It was after practice and it was late and if they just wanted to go home, they could have.

"But all of them stayed with me and Andrew. They were all in our bedroom, standing around, sitting on the bed or the floor and just talking for about an hour. To me, that speaks to the character of all of them and shows why it really is such a special group."

A few more people are going to get to know them this Sunday in Minnesota when they continue their rise from obscurity against one of the best known defensive lines in the NFL. It is the Vikings Miss America vs. the Bengals The Girl Next Door. And Melissa's husband, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, is the one leading the parade down the runway as he attempts to continue his Pro Bowl-like season against one of the NFL's most feared sackers in right end Jared Allen.

"I'll let you know after Sunday," says offensive line coach Paul Alexander when asked if Whitworth has had a Pro Bowl season.

Asked if he has had a Pro Bowl alternate season like Levi Jones had in 2005 when he faced a Pro Bowl roster of sackers and Carson Palmer put up the only triple-digit passer rating in Bengals history in an AFC North championship season, Alexander says, "Ask me after Sunday."

But he says Whitworth is having "a great year," and that he's playing as good as any left tackle in the league. The film that Alexander and assistant Bob Surace watch reflect it.

The working number is one sack allowed in his first full season as a left tackle and his fourth year in the league. The only man who has more sacks than Allen's 12.5 is Denver's Elvis Dumervil with 15 and he got none of them against Whitworth on Opening Day. The only one Whitworth has given up is to the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the Steelers' James Harrison. He's got 10, only behind Dumervil, Allen and Dwight Freeney. But Harrison had eight quarters against Whitworth in the games the Bengals swept.

At times Whitworth has had Jarret Johnson (six sacks) and Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs (only 3.5 because he's hurt) in Baltimore, Kamerion Wimbley (6.5) in Cleveland, along with Oakland's Richard Seymour (four).

"Whit is smart, tough, and he's a well-coordinated athlete," Alexander says. "He looks gawky, but he couldn't be farther from that. And he's got big hands."

And Melissa Clark can tell you he's got a big heart. When she met the 6-7, 330-pound Whitworth in his hometown of West Monroe, La., where she was anchoring the local news, she already knew who he was, of course.

It was Mutt and Jeff, really. She had been everything from Miss Shreveport to Miss Sweetheart to Miss Louisiana Tech but, frankly, she is more at home in sweats instead of sequins. An energetic, slight blond who prefers to do the heavy lifting whether it is reporting or charity work, she wanted to see just who this guy was.

So she refused to Google him because she wanted to find out for herself.

"I won the husband lottery," she says this week, taking a break from running the "Big Whit Foundation," a Louisiana juggernaut that develops mentors for youth along with helping financially-strapped families adopt. "He honestly wants to help people." 

His teammates and coaches have to be looking at that second-round pick in the 2006 draft thinking that they too, won the lottery. The draft lottery. Not only when they look at what he's done on the field, but how he has emerged as such an influential leader off it.

Take Wednesday afternoons and Sunday nights. After home games, Whitworth and the other captains pitch in money to host a dinner at a downtown restaurant with all their teammates and families as a way of breaking bread and bonding no matter what happens.

And, with the help of the team's senior NFL man, right guard Bobbie Williams, his co-chairman on the O-line, Whitworth thought it would be a good idea for the line to meet on Wednesdays after everyone else had left the stadium for the day.

"It's a way to watch more film and study, but it's also a way to fellowship more and spend more time together as a group," Whitworth says.

Williams says that Whitworth figured that since they were going to be down there for an extra hour or 90 minutes or so, some food would make it all that much more enjoyable. So every week Whitworth foots the bill for pizzas or chicken, or sometimes Melissa whips up her lasagna the night before that center Kyle Cook calls, "Unbelievably good."

"On those Tuesday nights I cook, Andrew helps me," she says. "Those guys like to eat so much; I'll take three big pans down there." 

She usually brings the load down to the stadium while practice is still going on. On this Wednesday, as they watched Allen, along with the incomparable tandem of Vikings tackles, Pat and Kevin Williams, they dined on Montgomery Inn chicken and Saratoga chips. They also traded quips (left guard Evan Mathis is probably the quickest and the guy with the biggest needle) and some spirit because team chaplain Ken Moyer is a former O-lineman himself.

And if Whitworth sees a wayward DB or backer wandering out of the defensive room, he'll call him across the hall to share.

"Whit thought about the food and that was a good idea," Williams says. "But that's Whit. Great teammate. Whatever he can do for the team."

"Even the rookies hate paying for stuff because that's the rookie job," Cook says. "But the fact he's a veteran paying for it shows you where he's coming from. He's obviously in this thing with us. We're down here eight, nine, 10 hours and to spend another hour shows the commitment."

If there is a poster child for this line that no one knew about at the beginning of the season, it is Cook, a free-agent center out of Michigan State. But, it could also be Mathis, a third-round pick cut by the Panthers. Or, it could be the other left guard who shares time with Mathis, Nate Livings, and the free agent from LSU who played next to Whitworth on a national championship team.

Or, it could be Williams, a second-round pick the Eagles didn't want to re-sign for the right price in free agency. Or it could be right tackle Dennis Roland, cut five times and, at 6-9, thought to be too tall by textbook standards to play.

But this line has dumped the textbook into the used bin. The Bengals have the sixth-best running game in the NFL and while they may not be very pretty with the best pedigree, they have led the charge to control of the toughest division in the NFL by taming hostile environments with a physicality rarely seen in Bengaldom. Their ability to smashmouth the foe and wear him down into minutes on the clock has marked the 9-3 record as much as the NFL's fourth-best defense.

"I think the first Pittsburgh game was the turning point," Whitworth says. "We didn't play very well in the first quarter. We were trying to do too much. But we figured out that, you know what, if we play the way we play, our style, we can win. And pretty much since then we've been able to do that."

For this week, the poster child has to be Cook. Signed as a free agent by the Vikings coming out of Michigan State in 2007, Cook was in the last cut before the season started and the Bengals promptly picked him up and put him on the practice squad.

"Yeah, there was no room for me. They let me go, but I'm glad they did or else I wouldn't be here," Cook says. "But you can't make one game any bigger than the other."

But it can't be any bigger for a new center. In his first year as a starter, Cook has proven to be bright and adept at getting his linemates in the proper places but on Sunday he'll have to do it without being able to hear in the Metrodome. And he'll be trying to block nearly half a ton of man in the Williamses.

"They're really good athletes and they're smart," Cook says. "They know how to play the angles. They never get out of their gaps, they make very few mistakes. And, yeah, their big."

Even now, some are wondering if Cook is powerful enough but what does a guy have to do? Against the beast-like AFC North nose tackles, the Bengals ran for at least 100 yards in every game but one.

"Yeah, I think this will be like an AFC North game," says Cook, who doesn't think it's an advantage he worked against the Williamses in training camp. "It's going to be a 12-round fight. It's going to be who lands the most punches. It's not going to be a one-hit-and-quit. It's going to be all day."

"We kind of like being unknown; keep it that way," Cook says and Whitworth says, "I've always felt that way about myself. People look at me as a guard. Even when I came out. They didn't bother to realize I had played 52 games at left tackle in the SEC (a conference record). But I know I'm a left tackle."

Even the Bengals saw him as a guard. He only played left tackle when Levi Jones got hurt, which was often enough that they began to think he could do it. When Whitworth played 10 games there in '06 as a rookie, the Bengals nearly made the playoffs. And when he and Anthony Collins were watching tape of the Kansas City game in 2007 this past Wednesday, there he was doing a pretty good job on Allen in his first life as a Chief.

Jones was hurting in that early part of '07 and when Allen was playing video games with him (2.5 sacks in the first 17 plays), the Bengals moved Whitworth from left guard and he pretty much held down Allen the rest of the way.

"Jared likes to talk out there. Sometimes I'll talk back to him," Whitworth says. "When AC and I were watching it on film, you could tell we were getting after it pretty good. We were getting into it pretty good. It's going to be fun."

Allen isn't a lanky 6-6. Like Whitworth, he's well put together at 270 pounds.

"He's a powerful guy, but I think he's got speed, too," Whitworth says. "He rushes a lot like Dumervil. He's a bigger Dumervil. He's strong. He bull rushes. He doesn't come clean to sack quarterbacks. He knocks tackles into quarterbacks, then makes the sack."

There will be a lot of answers Sunday, but Melissa Whitworth already knows some of the important ones. During a lunch break this week, Whitworth was on the phone with her trying to smooth out plans for "Whit's Warriors," a weekly recognition program for scholar athletes that culminates with Whitworth presenting them with a college scholarship at the end of the school year.

When we have a big fundraiser, I think it's important for the community to know what you're doing with that money," she says off the experience of working for the Make-a-Wish Foundation for several years. "We want to do it so that it's a weekly event with the news stations and that way it becomes a part of the community and it gets exposure."

Like her husband, Melissa Whitworth is older than her years. She looks at a guy like the friendly, outgoing Collins and takes on a kind of mother's role. Collins sees her as a sister. In fact, the African-American Collins calls her "Sis." Short for "Sister from another Color."

And he had no idea she was a beauty queen until he worked Whitworth's camp in West Monroe this past summer and Whitworth showed him some pictures.

"I didn't know she was Miss Louisiana or anything like that. She's like us. Mellow. Laid back," Collins says.

Like the rest of the guys, Collins was pretty shook up when he heard about the miscarriage and wasn't surprised everyone showed up back at the condo.

"That's what families do and we're a family," Collins says. "That's how this team is. That's how this line is. We care about one another. Everyone is willing to give."

Melissa knows what Collins means. She has thought about the miscarriage and says, "It couldn't have come at a worse time," knowing full well it would always be a worst time.

"A Tuesday night? Wednesday morning is their biggest time of the week down there," she says. "But I've been thinking about it. What got us through was all the support here. Not just the line, but the wives, the coaches. I wrote Marvin a letter. People have been so supportive."

So The Girl Next Door will be watching the Bengals line take on Miss America. If she hears the announcers talking about that anonymous line, she'll probably smile.

She knows all about them.

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