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Lining it up

Kyle Cook

After last week's passing camp submerged both lines in the background and in the locker room during the Bengals' first on-field sessions of the season, they line up for the first time when practice resumes this Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

And that man looking a little bit younger than a year ago at this time is offensive line coach Paul Alexander, architect of one of 2009's best NFL stories.

"Last spring is over. Thank goodness. I don't ever want to go through another offseason like last one," Alexander admitted Monday. "There was a lot of anxiety about what would unfold."

It unfurled instead of unfolded. With four players at new spots on the Opening Day line (only right guard Bobbie Williams returned), the Bengals went on to revive their running game with a top 10 attack (No. 9) to go along with a No. 10 finish in allowing sacks per pass.

Now everybody on the offensive line is back and intact from the last season for the first time since 2006. The biggest priorities are improving technique and scheme as well as cutting down on holding penalties and false starts, where the Bengals were among the league leaders last season.

The biggest question hovers over right tackle Andre Smith, last year's No. 1 pick that missed the first 10 games with a broken foot and is still rehabbing it after offseason surgery finished off the healing process.

Alexander says he doesn't know when Smith gets back on the field but does know that Dennis Roland is going to be there at the start.

"And beyond that, I don't know," Alexander said. "That's why I'm not announcing any type of depth order. There are a lot of guys battling."

There are 14 linemen who figure to line up this spring and it is doubtful all go to training camp with the roster at 88 and needing to lose eight players before stepping on to the Georgetown College field.

The Bengals will keep nine or 10 O-linemen at final cutdown. Counting center Kyle Cook, four tackles (Smith, Roland, Andrew Whitworth, Anthony Collins) and four guards (Williams, Nate Livings, Evan Mathis and fifth-rounder Otis Hudson), it is already a competitive camp, isn't it?

Along with right tackle, left guard appears to be the other position in flux. After Livings and Mathis split the job so evenly last year that they rotated quarters during games, Alexander is throwing it open to the convention. The big bruising Livings and the seasoned, athletic Mathis bring different things.

"I had never done that before. I'm opposed to it. I don't think it's the right way to go. I think you settle on a guy and go," Alexander said of the platoon. "But it was a situation where it was better. It was a unique situation. And we'll look at that and decide if it's going to be one of those guys, or both, or what."

The 6-9 Roland was a big story in more ways than one. Signed as a free agent out of Georgia in 2006, Roland was cut six times before he started 13 games last season and provided a big lift in the running game at both right tackle and as an extra tight end.

Also in the mix at right tackle behind Smith is Collins, the fourth-rounder from Kansas in '08. He came off the bench as a rookie and manned up to play a winnable left tackle in the last six games before moving to right tackle last season and starting seven more games. He's versatile, athletic and both player and coach have high expectations.

"I look at him in year three to really start to come on," Alexander said. "The biggest jump in a player is typically year two to year three. And it's good to know his goals are the same as ours. He wants to be more than a help-out guy. He's got talent, but so do a lot of other guys."

There is some concern about Roland's lack of quickness, but his textbook fundamentals have Alexander confident he can combat whatever is thrown at him.

"He's our best technician; he's so good technically," Alexander said. "Between last year at this time and midseason of last year, he made unbelievable strides."

That's what Alexander wants all his guys to do now. He's got them tinkering with new technique if they need it and doing a lot of self-analysis.

"The No. 1 thing in this relationship is I love you," Alexander said of his players. "And number two my job is to find somebody better than you at the same time. That somebody can be someone else or it can be you."

Alexander says he needs to see a different line than the one that ended the season rushing for 171 yards against the league's stingiest defense on 7.8 yards per pop.

"If we're the same as we were last year, we're going to be worse," Alexander said. "It's like a tree. If it stops growing, it dies. That's a lot like the football business. If you don't grow technique-wise, scheme-wise, or talent-wise, you die. And that's our challenge: Take the next step."

In order to take that next step, the Bengals have to make sure they don't step too early. After a season with an inordinate amount of holds and false starts, Alexander said they have plans to address those issues but he didn't want to reveal them.

"I think as much as anything," he said, "it's a matter of guys having their experience and confidence."

It was a line that had never tried to hear in that sea of sound of Baltimore or stand in their own end zone during a frantic fourth quarter in San Diego, or deal with a dome deficit and din in Minnesota. With Cook emerging with high grades following his first 17 NFL starts, Alexander sees improvement.

"I told you from the beginning I was never worried about Cook," he said. "I was worried about the group. The dynamics. The communication. We lived through some of those things and we'll live through some more."

But the Bengals are banking on this spring being much more livable.

LINE LOOK: A glance at the 15 offensive linemen on the Bengals roster by uniform number:

50 - C Jonathan Luigs, 6-4, 315, 2nd season: A fourth-round pick last year. Played in eight games as a rookie but is currently on the shelf rehabbing from offseason hip surgery that may keep him out until training camp.

60 - G Otis Hudson, 6-5, 320, R: Fifth-round pick. Strong, athletic guy that played tackle at Eastern Illinois. Backing up Bobbie Williams at right guard.

61 - C Reggie Stephens, 6-3, 314, R: Seventh-round pick with good versatility. Before moving to center this past season at Iowa State, he played two seasons at guard.

62 - G Nate Livings, 6-5, 330, 3: In a rotation with Evan Mathis last year at left guard he started nine games and brought size and power to the table.

63 - G Bobbie Williams, 6-4, 345, 11: Hasn't missed a game since 2006 and since arriving in Cincinnati in 2004 has played in 94 of 97 games. Nickname "Bossman" says it all. Big, strong, smart guy who gives the line stability and savvy.

64 - C Kyle Cook, 6-3, 312, 3: Coming off his first season as a starter and major figure in the line's rags-to-riches storyline. The ability to communicate to a group that had four new starters is as important as his strength against the AFC North's 3-4 nose guards.

65 - G-C Dan Santucci, 6-4, 304, 4: Seventh-round pick in 2007 plagued by injury problems. Missed the last two seasons and last year reinjured his foot in training camp after hurting it during the spring. Smart, productive guy at Notre Dame looking to show he still has the same strength despite missing so much time.

66 - G-C Evan Mathis, 6-5, 295, 6: In rotation with Livings at LG. Made nine starts. Seasoned, quick, athletic. Can get out and pull when needed. Can also play center and has worked at all five spots in practice in his NFL career.

70 - G Jason Shirley, 6-5, 338, 2: The fear is he's done for the year with a ruptured Achilles suffered in a Bengals charity basketball game. Showed some intriguing promise last year when he switched from defensive tackle in the middle of training camp.

71 - T Andre Smith, 6-4, 340, 2: No. 1 pick in '09 still rehabbing from offseason surgery to repair a broken foot that wiped out the first 10 games of his career. When he got into the lineup he played, at the most, 30 percent of the snaps. But for the most part he showed power and brute force that made him the sixth overall pick. When he gets back is now the big question.

72 - T Gabriel Manns, 6-6, 323, R: Free agent out of North Carolina Central. Started at left tackle in all 11 games last season. After lining up against Duke, three-time small-school national champion Appalachian State and nationally-ranked small school Liberty, he was selected to participate in two postseason all-star games. Missed only one game because of injury in four years.

73 - T Anthony Collins 6-5, 315, 3: After a rookie season he started the last six games at left tackle in '08 and then started last year at right tackle in the first five games, he's flashed versatility and athleticism. Looking to string those attributes into more of a full-time role.

74 - T Dennis Roland, 6-9, 325, 3: One of the great stories of '09. After being cut six times in a career that began as a free agent out of Georgia in 2006, he started 13 games last year, including the playoff game. Mainly played right tackle, but was also used frequently as an extra tight end, where bulk and technique at both spots helped revive the Bengals running game.

76 - T Andrew Mitchell, 6-5, 308 R: Free agent out of Oklahoma State. Began last year as starter at right guard and ended at right tackle in final four games of 3-1 finish. Began college career as tight end but became first team junior-college All-American lineman while at Snow JC.

77 - T Andrew Whitworth, 6-7, 335, 5: Emerged as a bona fide NFL left tackle last season in which he made all 17 starts and was credited by coaches with allowing just one sack. Also became a locker room leader when he was voted by his mates as offensive captain and club's NFLPA rep.

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