If this is Indianapolis week, it must mean there is some kind of trauma for the Bengals tackles as they prepare for what Andrew Whitworth calls the best pass-rushing tandem in the last 15 to 20 years.
The blow came early, in Wednesday's practice, when right tackle Andre Smith broke his foot and is probably out for the season.
Whitworth, the Bengals left tackle, knows all about it. The last time the Bengals went to play the Colts and those Indy 500 Speedway ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, he was shelved and rookie Anthony Collins made his third NFL start at left tackle against Freeney. And the time before that in 2006, Levi Jones was out and Whitworth was a rookie making his ninth NFL start at left tackle.
The Bengals got blown out of both and Freeney ended up with 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles and Mathis had 2.5 and a forced fumble. They can crash a party pretty quickly.
"Those guys were born to pass rush," Whitworth said Thursday. "You can have as good as technique as you want. They find ways to get to the quarterback."
But as head coach Marvin Lewis came off the practice field Thursday, he was probably still in better shape than he was for those two games. Whitworth is four years better and wiser and Dennis Roland is making his 20th NFL start in place of Smith. Plus Collins, who has been backing up both tackles the last two years, is going to be dressed for the first time in six games.
Still, the Bengals had to be concerned about right tackle even before Wednesday. Roland was struggling when he went to the bench for Smith and he gave up a sack in his one snap against the Steelers on Monday night. And Collins has played in just two games this season. Still, Whitworth has a better feeling about it than the last two games against the Colts.
"We've got guys who play hard and know what they're doing," Whitworth said. "We know it's going to be a tough game, but it is for anybody."
The Colts are blitzing a tad more in defensive coordinator Larry Coyer's second season, but Whitworth says these are the same guys and they still rely on their front four to get pressure. Really, the Colts rely on their ends because it is all geared for them and the pass rush. Indy has the fourth-worst rush defense in the league, but the Colts are virtually unbeatable when they get a lead at home, where they've lost 13 games in the last nine years indoors with Freeney racking up the second-most sacks in the NFL in that stretch.
"You see it on film; there's a dramatic difference being away compared to home," Whitworth said. "There's the sound, but they just play really well at home. When they get leads and teams have to sit back there, the quarterback is a sitting duck."
With Mathis at 6.5 and Freeney at five, they have 4.5 more sacks than the Bengals have this season and they're well on their way to another season of double-digits. Most teams blanket Freeney but Whitworth says it's not just the noise that still gives Freeney an edge, but his fabulous speed and the traction he gets on Indy's FieldTurf.
"It doesn't matter; athletic tackles, big tackles, they'll struggle," Whitworth said. "It's his speed that sets it all up. He gets off the ball like no other. You see guys not using their technique because he's so fast. I think he gets a better grip (at home). He gets better footing. But the main thing is on third down he has such a great get-off. He does a great job of reading the quarterback and when the ball is going to be snapped."
Never has the Bengals' inability to get the quarterback been more pronounced than in this matchup. Freeney and Mathis have a combined nine seasons of at least 10 sacks. The Bengals have had one season of double-digit sacks since 1992. But since he had 10.5 in 2006, left end Robert Geathers has had 10.5 and didn't have a sack this season until Monday night.
Mathis has clearly made life easier for Freeney. The Bengals haven't been able to replace Justin Smith at right end since he left in 2008 because of Antwan Odom's problems. While Odom has 11 sacks in that stretch and none this year, Smith has 17 and four this season playing all over in San Francisco's 3-4.
"Teams have to pick their poison sometimes, depending on what kind of team you have," Freeney said earlier this week in a conference call with the Cincinnati media. "Who are you going to turn your protection to? Who are you going to double? If you decide to double both of us, then we have the advantage in coverage. We'll have more guys to cover whatever routes you're trying to run. It's great to have a guy like Robert on the other side because now you're bringing heat from both ends."
But Freeney still gets manhandled.
"The success that you have in the league because you're so good at what you do demands double teams," Freeney said. "It's great from that perspective, but it also sucks because you don't get those one-on-one opportunities and those big number games that you used to see. People who are students of the game understand that. You may see numbers drop, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the player is any worse. It could be multiple things, or it could be that he's getting double-teamed so the opportunities aren't there as often as they used to be."
Whitworth says he deserves it even though he thinks Mathis "is right there with" Freeney.
"Freeney's got more moves. Freeney is probably a little more powerful than Mathis, so that makes him a more exceptional player," Whitworth said. "Don't forget, Freeney gets doubled, tripled, quadruple-teamed, so Mathis gets to be free a lot of the time."
The Bengals don't usually help their tackles, although they have given Smith help at times the past couple of weeks. But even Whitworth, the team's most reliable lineman who almost always never gets the aid of a chip, could get it this week. It may not be that bad of a matchup for the 6-9 Roland against the 6-2, 245-pound Mathis, a guy that doesn't usually go through opponents. Roland has trouble with bull-rushers because they have such a big area to get up underneath his pads, but he'll almost certainly get some help.
"You can't think about that," said Whitworth if he gets help. "It doesn't really play into your mindset because those things don't matter. You have to go in there thinking you have to block Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis one-on-one."
Whitworth might not look as pretty as Levi Jones or Willie Anderson when he faces the elites, but he's held his own. He gave up a sack to John Abraham on the last play of the game in Atlanta, faced down the Dolphins' Cameron Wake for the first series before Miami moved Wake to the other side, and the Steelers' James Harrison came from the other side to get his sack Monday night.
"I think they do a pretty good job of doing different things and keeping guys off-balance," Freeney said. "Obviously, Whitworth is a lot better than he used to be. He was a rookie the first time we played and there are some growing pains you have to go through when you're getting yourself acclimated on how to play in the NFL. I think he's a lot better now and he's doing a solid job for them."
And the Bengals have heard from the NFL this week that the refs wrongly flagged Whitworth for holding Harrison in the first half. How big was that penalty? Wide receiver Terrell Owens had his first down wiped out with the Bengals driving to take a 14-10 lead. But the flag created a third-and-13 two snaps later and Carson Palmer's interception translated into a 17-7 Steelers lead.
Whitworth says the 6-1 268-pound Freeney is a composite of the best guys he's faced this season.
"He's got the exceptional speed of Abraham and the power and low center of gravity of Harrison," he said.