After Bengals all-time right tackle Willie Anderson saw his No. 71 placed in the club's Ring of Honor earlier this season, he watched one of his technique disciples, La'el Collins, wear it in his position and help lead the offensive line in a surge that has been a big part of the best Cincinnati stretch run in more than 50 years.
"It's sweet to watch. We always say when you've got big guys on both sides of the ball who are dominating, that's when you start to win," Anderson says. "This offensive line should get a lot of credit … Just being tough, physical guys. In this winning streak that's been a huge deal for them. Running the football. Being physical. Aggressiveness."
So when the Grinch stole Christmas on Sunday and the Bengals dealt with the news that Collins tore his ACL and is out for the year, Anderson, one of social media's respected offensive line gurus, talked Bengaldom through the positive with Hakeem Adeniji, in his third battle-tested season, stepping into January as the right tackle for the AFC's hottest team.
Anderson aches for Collins, but he also sees Adeniji as a good athlete more naturally suited to tackle than the guard spot, where he started the last 13 games of last season and the playoffs. He also knows Adeniji has filled in on the occasions Collins has been out during brief stretches of games and played fine.
Like those 64 plays last Saturday in New England after the injury, which represented 77 percent of a game Pro Football Focus graded Adeniji on his 19 run plays as their best run blocker of all but Collins. He gave up no sacks and hits, the website said. Throughout the season Adeniji has also been their extra tackle in big formations and took close to 100 snaps in that role.
The 11-4 Bengals appear to be turning to in-house options to replace Collins with two games left and the AFC's No. 1 seed at stake in Paycor Stadium games against the Bills Monday night and Jan. 8 against Baltimore. Adeniji is clearly the first man up with his experience of 14 starts at four different spots, one at right tackle, three at left tackle, one at tight end and nine at right guard.
Quick scouting report: Extremely bright (graduated in three years from Kansas). Not known as a power player, but athletic. Ran his 40-yard dash coming into the 2020 draft in 5.17 seconds. Durable. Started all 48 games at Kansas and his one major injury in the pros came before the 2021 training camp.
And the Bengals feel set enough on the O-line with a pair of 2021 draft picks they continue to be high on as possible tackles (Jackson Carman and D'Ante Smith) that when they put Collins on injured reserve they may fill the roster spot with another position.
"Huge loss. I feel so bad. To see La'el go through that, how he overcame being out through training camp and overcoming some injuries," Anderson says. "I think the Bengals are fortunate (Adeniji) has some game experience and played in some big moments. That's really what it is. Can your young guys play in big moments? That's what he's been doing. He went in there Saturday and you didn't hear about him. It's all about confidence. I think his confidence is getting back with him playing tackle. He's a natural tackle.
"When I signed in Baltimore I started out as the third tackle," said Anderson of his last NFL season in 2008 when he signed the week of the opener. "It got me into a rhythm with the offense. It got me acclimated to being in the huddle with those guys. You're not just a guy behind the bench coming into play. I think that's going to help him."
Andrew Whitworth, the multiple Pro Bowl left tackle Anderson mentored, was here that Ring of Honor night as an Amazon analyst and while paying homage to his big brother he also checked in with his younger sibling Collins, another in the line of LSU tackles. On Monday Whitworth said the Collins injury isn't going to get him to backtrack from his pronouncement on last week's show that the Bengals are his favorite to repeat as AFC champs.
"To me, it's all about matchups. If I look across the AFC landscape, out of Khalil Mack with the Chargers, who is that power guy that concerns you?" Whitworth asks. "(Gregory) Rousseau is a big guy in Buffalo. He ought to be a good challenge for (Adeniji) on Monday night. That's probably the biggest size and power guy. If you survive that, I think you learn a lot. In Kansas City, Carlos Dunlap isn't that kind of guy anymore. Miami doesn't really have a big power guy. When you look at some of the matchups, it's more about can he just go out and execute and play technique, that kind of deal."
Whitworth says the Bengals' ability to diversify their run game with quarterback Joe Burrow in the shot-gun formation has been a big factor in the seven-game winning streak and while a key ingredient there has been Collins' quick power as they run more traps and pin-and-pulls, he thought Adeniji showed up well Saturday against the NFL's leading sack edge tandem in Matthew Judon and Josh Uche.
"It's going to be a learning process of what he can and can't do as the guy," Whitworth says. "But (Adeniji) had quality snaps Saturday. Watching the New England game when he was going up against Judon, he had some quality snaps against a guy having a really good year and watching those make me less concerned."
Whitworth agrees with Anderson that taking one player out of a five-man offensive line mix doesn't destroy chemistry, particularly at tackle. The offensive line continuity has been a rare luxury for head coach Zac Taylor. In his first three seasons, Taylor had 24 different starting offensive line combinations.
When the Bengals went out in free agency and signed Collins, right guard Alex Cappa and center Ted Karras and then drafted North Dakota State left guard Cordell Volson in the fourth round to join left tackle Jonah Williams, 2022 Opening Day was the 25th combo.
With Adeniji expected in there at right tackle against Buffalo, it took 16 games to get to No. 26.
"The spirt of that line is already intact," Anderson says. "Watch the Bengals games and you never hear anything bad happening at the left guard position. You don't hear his damn name. That's how you know the kid is playing really good. There are no replays where they're saying, 'The rookie is struggling.' That's great when you look at where they were at that spot and he solidifies that position. The run game really starts inside out. You've got to get some pop out of the guards and the center and they've been playing some really good football."
Big Whit says the Bengals are better than they were last year: "It's about complementary football. I just think as great as (Patrick) Mahomes is, Cincinnati and Buffalo are (the AFC's) most complementary teams when it comes to offense and defense."
Big Wil says it comes down to the big guys.
"Look how the Bengals are playing on both sides of the lines," Anderson says. "Then you look at those playmakers, you're going to have success."