Lines of contrast

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander and his colleagues from around the league sat around talking on a scouting trip earlier this year and came to this conclusion.

Whenever Denver comes to town with the NFL's lightest offensive line, the other offensive line coach always gets the same question.

"How come your philosophy is bigger and heavier guys?"

Sunday's Bengals-Broncos game provides the quintessential contrast. Here come the Broncos averaging 287 pounds across the front and 135 rushing yards per game. That's 31 pounds lighter and 31 more yards than the Bengals.

What turns up the heat under the microscope is the Broncos have the sixth-best running game in the NFL with their back du jour. This week it's someone named Mike Anderson, a sixth-round draft pick out of Utah who is the AFC's third-leading rusher on 4.7 yards per carry.

But apparently you could put Lonnie Anderson behind these guys and make a playoff run. Terrell Davis, a sixth-rounder, and Olandis Gary, a fourth-rounder, have each had at least a 1,000-yard season for offensive line coach Alex Gibbs.

Meanwhile, a Bengals' front averaging 320 pounds is getting just 3.5 yard per carry for Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon this season.

Throw in that Denver has allowed 14 sacks in seven games and the Bengals 24 in six, and Alexander knew this week would be his turn.

There is a school of thought that says the Bengals are too big and not athletic enough to cut off penetrating linebackers and defensive backs swarming Dillon. But Alexander disputes it.

"It has nothing to do with big or small," Alexander said. "Last year we were arguably the best running team in the league. We've got athletes. We don't have fat guys. There are no blubbers out there. You have to be powerful and explosive. You've got to be quick enough."

The Bengals finished 40 yards shy of the rushing title last season in tying for sixth, six spots ahead of Denver. And Alexander says the team currently leading the NFL in rushing _ the Vikings – has a bigger line than the Bengals.

And Alexander's unit helped make Dillon just the eighth man in history to gain at least 1,100 yards in his first three seasons.

But it's not happening now. Maybe because of the injury to center Rich Braham. Or the inexperienced passing game. Or philosophy? P> People espousing the-don't-have-to-be-big theory range from Denver head coach Mike Shanahan to Bengals Hall-of-Fame tackle Anthony Munoz. . .

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The style and makeup of the Broncos' line reminds Munoz of the Cincinnati unit regarded as the NFL's best in the late '80s.

Munoz pointed to left guard Max Montoya's ability to pull and clear out "the next level," of defenders behind the line.

"I've always been a firm believer in you don't have to be that big," said Munoz, who played at 285 in his prime. "Denver runs a lot of similar stuff. Guys like Max were able to get out in front and get to guys before they were in the backfield. Denver does a nice job of keep coming at you for 60 minutes. They come off double teams quick and can pick off the back side."

Munoz says the crowning moment of Denver's philosophy came in the Broncos' Super Bowl victory over a beefy Packers' defensive front.

"By the end of the game," Munoz said, "those 300-pounders were bending over."

John Jackson, promoted this week by Alexander to start at left tackle, replaces the 330-pound Rod Jones. At 300 pounds, Jackson is suddenly the club's lightest lineman. His roots are in a Steelers' offensive line that dominated the AFC in the mid-1990s with 305-pound right tackle Leon Searcy the heaviest player. . .

"We were pretty mobile," Jackson said. "You've got to have the great feet. We did a lot of hitting guys on the run."

Shanahan swears by his line coach, Gibbs.

"We try to get athletes between 285 and 290 pounds," Shanahan said. "It's good if they can run and are in excellent shape. . .You don't have to be 320 pounds to be a great offensive lineman. If you're an athlete in the 290 range and you can move your feet and play four quarters or 60 minutes, we think you have a chance to be something special."

Alexander says when he's looking for college linemen, he's not looking for a first-rounder. Since he took the job in 1995, his one first-rounder is 340-pound right tackle Willie Anderson.

Alexander thinks most of the time the first round should be reserved for skill players because, "they make the difference in this league. You've got to be good enough so your skilled guys can play."

Until this week, the Bengals lined up with Jones, a seventh-round pick, the first-rounder, a college free agent in center Brock Gutierrez, a third-rounder in right guard Mike Goff and a free agent in left guard Matt O'Dwyer, a second-round pick by the Jets.

But the Bengals' line is actually more decorated in the draft than Denver. For much of this season, the Broncos have lined up with two college free agents (tackles Tony Jones and Matt Lepsis), a 10th-rounder via free agency (left guard Mark Schlereth), a seventh-rounder (center Tom Nalen) and a third-rounder in right guard Dan Neil.

Alexander's qualifications while scouting linemen are, "tough, big, explosive. I'll take size, athleticism and strength over productivity because I think guys can learn how to play. Most college guys that are real productive and aren't athletic end up not being good enough."

A prime example in the difference in philosophies is listed on the Broncos' depth chart at backup right tackle. Melvin Tuten was Alexander's first draft pick, a third-rounder in 1995 who was athletic enough to dabble in basketball at Syracuse and ponder a career in Europe.

But Tuten, a 305-pounder, had trouble adjusting to the physical aspect of the Bengals' scheme.

"Two things," said Mike Anderson, when asked to name the strengths of his line. "The ability to move together and their quickness. The key to it all is their ability to work together so smoothly."

The way Alexander sees it, there's only one reason the Broncos' philosophy is working better than the Bengals' philosophy at the moment.

"The teams that run their plays best, are the best," Alexander said. "Right now they're running their plays better than we are. It's nothing to do with big or small."

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