You're only as good as your offensive and defensive lines, right? Two young players to watch as the Bengals head into the last month of the season get a chance to answer their status before the unknown of 2011.
Anthony Collins looks to be back in a rotation with Dennis Roland at right tackle and left end Carlos Dunlap is on the verge of coming up with the club's most rookie sacks since Justin Smith in 2001.
Dunlap, the second-rounder out of Florida, became the first down linemen to come up with two sacks in a game this season last week against the Jets and his modest total of three leads a team desperately seeking something and someone consistent on the pass rush. He should be able to pass linebacker David Pollack's rookie total of 4.5 in 2005, but he'd need more than a sack per game in the last five to pass Smith's rookie record of 8.5.
"I have to give it to the coverage," said Dunlap of his double dip of Mark Sanchez. "He had to scramble. We had good pressure, but we had coverage when he looked downfield and it gave me time to get to him."
The Bengals are bringing the 6-6, 285-pound Dunlap along slowly, giving him about 15 to 20 snaps a game with all but about five coming on passing downs. Defensive line coach Jay Hayes likes Dunlap's length and explosion off the ball and his potential versatility is off the charts because Hayes swears he's still growing. Both sacks came off pass-rush downs, but Hayes is looking for the consistency that can allow him to play all three downs.
"He's good getting up the field and if someone makes a mistake he can chase them down because he's that kind of athlete," Hayes said. "He's played a little base. We're looking to get him better against the run. I get a little nervous if he's going to do everything right. But it's not because he's not smart. It's technique. He's a little lacking with his hands, getting quicker with his feet, better with his pad level. But he's obviously got outstanding skills and we're just going to let him keep it going."
Dunlap is so athletic for his size that the thinking is he might be able to move inside at some point. Hayes emphasizes this is a guy that doesn't turn 22 until February and he needs some time to ripen. The size and speed of the jump don't seem to bother Dunlap.
"Technique," Dunlap said of the transition from college junior to NFL freshman. "Understanding the playbook and why you're doing things."
Collins understands the importance of the last five games. If you're wondering where the fourth-rounder from 2008 went, he's with you. He filled in capably for injured left tackle Andrew Whitworth in the last six games of 2008 and got switched to right tackle last year, when he rotated the first half of the season with Roland. With the Bengals running the ball consistently, they opted for the technique of Roland instead of Collins' athleticism and when first-rounder Clint Boling returned from injury, Collins fell even deeper down the depth chart.
Before Smith broke his foot this season, Collins had been inactive for five straight games and the first eight games of '09 looked far away. He played a lot when the Bengals broke to 6-2 and was on the field in the last drive against Pittsburgh. Now that he's back with Smith hurt and Roland struggling, his presence can get the hot stove league working. If he plays well, is there a chance the Bengals can make Smith a guard?
Collins isn't in to all that. He's just embracing the shot to play again.
"I've got to work harder to get my spot back, if I get it back this year," Collins said. "I'm just keeping my head down, keep pushing."
The explanation for Collins' disappearance runs along the lines that he's a better pass protector than run blocker and that he needed to mature. He's an emotional player and didn't make any friends with the coaches when he said some things as a rookie after his battle with Colts Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney. But that's when he had just turned 23. Now at 25, he's quietly been plying his trade the past two seasons.
Whitworth has always been a supporter.
"I've always felt like AC was a good player with a lot of skills," Whitworth said. "He's one of those guys that kind of had to hone in on them, learn what it meant to be a pro a little bit. He's definitely got tons of upside. He got in there last week and played well and he's played well for us in stretches. He's definitely capable. He's an emotional player and in this league that can hurt you at times, but emotion also helps him. He gives us a lot of energy."
Collins says he's worked at all facets of his game, including reigning in the emotion when needed.
"That's how I play. I feel I've improved on that every year since my senior year in high school," Collins said. "I try to get better at two or three things every year so by the time I come of age, I hope to be a great player. I've put on a little weight (from 317 to 324 pounds) and my feet are getting better."
Both Collins and Dunlap are in key roles Sunday against the Saints. The Saints defense likes to move around and blitz the quarterback en masse. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is lethal out of his moving pocket, but at 6-0 he has to be careful getting his passes tipped against the Bengals' NBA front line. There is the 6-6 Dunlap, the 6-7 Michael Johnson, and the 6-3 George Iloka with his long arms that belong to someone 6-6.
When Dunlap saw his fellow rookie, 6-1 defensive tackle Geno Atkins, he smiled and said loudly, "We're hoping to even get something out of Geno and he's 5-10."