Three weeks ago the Bengals offensive line hung in there against Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's Rubik's Cube of a defense by holding them sackless for the first time in seven meetings and running for 100 yards (109) for the first time in three.
Center Kyle Cook is drawing rave reviews for his work not only against estimable Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton, but also Ravens Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata two weeks ago and Browns standout Phil Taylor last Sunday in a month he has emerged as one of the line's top players.
"He's as good a center as there is," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said after Wednesday's practice. "I think he's got the toughest job on the field next to the quarterback. He has to handle all the looks and communicate with every lineman, the tight ends, and the quarterback can change it at the last second and he has to change everything back. He's the quarterback of the line and he's done a great job getting to the second level. Outstanding."
Offensive line coach Paul Alexander says simply: "Smart. Smart as a whip."
And Cook's blocking has been just as smart.
"Really, he's only played three years (43 straight starts) and he's one of these guys that just gets better and better and better," Alexander said.
Compare that to right tackle Andre Smith, drafted the same year that Cook got the job in 2009.
"Andre and I were talking today about the field in Pittsburgh because he was asking me questions about it," Alexander said. "And I said, 'My God, that's right. You've never played in Pittsburgh.' How about that?"
It tells us that Smith is finally enjoying his first full season and the Bengals like his progress. He had a tough time in the first half Sunday against Browns rookie end Jubal Sheard, but not as tough as everyone thought. Gruden said Sheard's sack and strip of quarterback Andy Dalton at the end of the half that turned into the last Browns TD wasn't Smith's fault.
"(Running back Bernard Scott) busted the route and the ball should have been long gone; it was Andy's fault," Gruden said. "Technically, you'd like to stay on your block longer, but the tackle isn't expecting the quarterback to be 14 yards deep to his left. (Smith) has done a good job. All these guys have played well at times and the more they play together the better they're going to get."
Smith came on Sunday in the second half to play very well, saying he cleaned up his technique enough so that his shoulders wouldn't fly open. Word from Pittsburgh is that left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who has missed the last month with a hamstring problem, is going to play. Woodley supplied a big moment in Smith's career in Cincinnati last season when he beat him for two sacks.
Even though Woodley didn't play last time, Smith prepared like he would and he said that week that Woodley's play woke him up and showed what he he had to do to block elite rushers. He'll also tell you, "I'm not the same player I was when I played the Steelers last year."
Just how good was that 2010 NFL Draft for the Bengals? If you ask ProFootball Focus, they sacked the rest of the league.
Or least supplied some pressure.
The Web site ranks left end Carlos Dunlap the NFL's most productive pass rusher per snap and tackle Geno Atkins as the fourth-most productive pass rusher from the interior.
Using a formula based on sacks, hits and hurries, Dunlap has a 15.47 pass rushing productivity with three sacks ( 0.75) (11 hits plus 24 hurries)/ 202 snaps rushing the passer * 100.
He's barely ahead of Denver rookie linebacker Von Miller (15.15), but he's missed two of the last three games and he could miss Sunday's game against the Steelers (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) because he worked on the side Wednesday with his hamstring issue.
Atkins, who leads all NFL tackles with 6.5 sacks, racked up a 9.01 PRP with 32 pressures on 297 snaps, just behind old friend Justin Smith, a robot who is 9.19 on a mammoth 449 snaps for 52 pressures. The leader at tackle is Houston's Antonio D. Smith with a 10.66 on 41 pressures in 319 snaps.
GRUDEN DOWNPLAYS: Gruden kidded away Tuesday's report on CBSSports.com that he'll be candidate for the Jaguars head coaching job.
"Is that my mom?" Gruden asked. "It hasn't crossed my mind. Haven't thought about it. Why would I? I have a job to do here. A million to one shot."