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I.Q. test for O-line

Kyle Cook

Posted: 7:25 p.m.

The left side of the line is embroiled in a season-long wireless game of Scrabble.

The center's most recent favorite book is a psychological treatise.

The new right tackle has had more addresses than an Army brat because his father coached football everywhere from NAIA to Division 1-AA and bequeathed the game to him at the tragic young age of 51.

And keeping them all together is the knowledgeable, passionate 10-year vet. The right guard. The Bengals offensive line's last link to the day in 2005 when they bowled over the Steelers at Heinz Field to win the AFC North and gave quarterback Carson Palmer so much time he was able to lob bombs into the heart of Pittsburgh.

Bobbie Williams was there the next year, too, the last time the Bengals beat the ferocious Steelers defense, 28-20; back on Sept. 24, 2006 at Heinz on Palmer's four touchdown passes.

And he thinks he's going to start using that institutional memory.

"I think we've forgotten some of that. I think I've got to let my guys know that. They weren't here," Williams said Thursday. "I mean, T.J. was wiping his shoes with the Terrible Towel in Pittsburgh. We went down there in the toughest of places and won. And in the playoffs when Carson went down, they were mocking our song and singing 'We-Dey.' I haven't forgotten. I want to remind some guys."

Big Bob is going to have to get the overhead projector out for this lesson.

The last time the Bengals beat the ferocious Steelers defense, center Kyle Cook was second team All Big Ten. Right tackle Anthony Collins was playing at Kansas. The other right tackle, Dennis Roland, was on the Tampa Bay practice squad. Left guard Evan Mathis was playing in Carolina. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was on the bench.

They may be unproven as a unit. They may have been plagued by penalties in the first two games. And they remain a question mark heading into the blender of a defense that has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in the past 20 games, three in the past 84, and has finished in the NFL's top three in seven of the past eight seasons.

But, so far, the Bengals have been able to run the ball for long stretches and give Palmer enough time to win, two elements to be tested severely Sunday. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander also likes the brains.

"I find the meetings invigorating because it's like a group crossword puzzle," Alexander said. "They can all talk and figure things out. Whit is a brilliant football player. He can do anything in a game plan you ask. It's unbelievable. I don't know if I've ever had a guy like that."

After a couple of holding penalties Sunday and a miscommunication with Mathis on a sack, Whitworth is ready to put the Packers behind him. He has to. He's got the marquee pass-rush matchup with the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison.

"He's a great athlete, he's quick, you always have to know where he is," Whitworth said.

Whitworth and Mathis have embarked on this Scrabble game that began on the Green Bay trip with Whitworth holding a 2-0 lead.

"We fooled around with it a little bit in the preseason and decided to keep score for the whole year," Whitworth said. "We do it through an application on an iPhone. Evan's pretty good, but he's been hurt by letting me get too close to the big numbers. It's an interesting way to pass time. Evan is our fun fact guy. He's always coming up with some stuff."

Cook is making his third NFL start and it's the biggest assignment he may face all year. He has to make sure the powerful, seasoned Steelers nose tackle, Casey Hampton, doesn't muscle him back to ignite the dangers of Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme.

Williams loves Cook's study habits and not only his grasp of the offense, but his ability to communicate. He once did it so well publicly that Alexander pondered putting Cook on media probation because he felt he was too loose with the schemes to a reporter.

When Cook's not going through the playbook, he may be leafing through Mind Gym, written by sports psychologist Gary Mack.

"It's looking at the way to think when you play; a way to dissect the game," Cook said. "It's about positives and keeping focus. I don't have rituals or superstitions. You get taped and put on your shoulder pads at the same time, stuff like that, but for me it's mostly focusing on technique."

Cook has graded out highly this year on his ability to recognize the maze that a 3-4 defense can offer before the snap. He has clues and reads and keys, "but I can't share them with you," he says.

"With Pittsburgh, you know they're coming after you," he said. "They're going to come with the pressure packages and you're going to have to read defenses."

Collins and Roland have a huge task with left end Aaron Smith in base and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley in nickel. Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has long called Smith a strongman with a powerful bull rush, one of the most underrated players in the NFL.

"They have a lot of pressures and you have to study both the defensive end and outside linebacker," Roland said. "You have that extra guy and they have different abilities, different looks."

Collins, the starter, rotated with Roland in Green Bay and while Roland got about 18 snaps, Collins also held his own against a veteran sack ace in Aaron Kampman. Collins is a conscientious texter, always probing Williams or Whitworth, while Roland is a veteran film watcher as the son of Dennis Roland Sr.

Roland Jr. was born in Lynchburg, Va., when his dad coached at Liberty University and he graduated from Bolivar High School in Missouri when his dad was the head coach at Southwest Baptist University. He played at Georgia about the time his dad got cancer. Senior moved to Atlanta to get treatment while coaching in high school before succumbing at age 51 early last year.

"I grew up in the environment. Do you want the complete list of everywhere he coached?" Dennis asked with a smile. "We'd watch film together. I never played for him, but we'd watch film of my high school games. I think of him every day."

Roland says Senior taught him to play the game hard and study hard.

"And to be honest," he said. "It's a moral thing. Be honest with people, work hard, and good things will happen to you."

They are starting to work out for him after bouncing around as an undrafted free agent in 2006. The Bengals picked up Roland for the practice squad just before last season and he made his NFL debut and first NFL start in the last two games when right tackle Stacy Andrews got hurt.

Roland, the tallest Bengal ever at 6-9, has got on the field because of his technique and coach ability and has forced the Bengals to take a look at him and Collins. Bratkowski is also using him at tight end in some formations and Alexander says Roland no longer has problems with leverage because of his height.

"The big thing for me is just getting used to being out there on Sundays; I've never done that before," Roland said. "I'm just trying to get into the flow."

No, these may not be the guys that once gave Carson Palmer enough time to shoot down the Super Bowl champs. But Williams thinks these guys can, too.

"This is why I love playing on the offensive line," Williams said. "You meet so many guys from so many different backgrounds. It's interesting to me to talk to them all and I'll tell you, there are some good offensive linemen in Cincinnati. And they're smart."

Just like their descendents did all those years, the Steelers test will tell them how smart. 

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