BENGALS RT ANDRE SMITH VS. DOLPHINS DE CAMERON WAKE
Smith had his breakout year last season in his third year but no one really knows it. If during Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-ESPN 1530 AM) he can solve one of the NFL's top pass rushers coming off a monstrous 4.5-sack effort, that should go a long way in sending his calling card to the rest of the NFL.
The subplots are just riveting. Wake is part of a defensive line the Bengals believe is as good as any on their schedule and is currently leading NFL rush defense by allowing a mere 57 yards per game on just 2.4 yards per carry. And it is directed by defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, coming off a highly-regarded 11-year stint in Cincinnati as the coach of a Bengals secondary that racked up enough turnovers to put the club among the NFL leaders during head coach Marvin Lewis's tenure.
Since Coyle worked for the last four seasons with Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, there is mirror ball in play. The Dolphins have switched from a 3-4 to the kind of alternating 4-3 over-under front used by Zimmer. Like the Bengals, they don't have a heavy diet of blitzes, but when they do come it's disguised and been smartly set up. Both men preach a sound scheme that makes offenses drive it and not allow big plays. The Dolphins haven't given up a run of 15 yards or more this season.
And, like the Bengals, they have two relentless ends, a relentless motor at nose tackle, and an athletic three technique next to him. No two-gapping here. Penetration and explosion. Coyle also has a crew of big, speedy and physical linebackers that close down the second level. The Dolphins don't have the experience the Bengals have in the secondary, but they are holding teams to a 77.9 passer rating.
So this one clearly starts up front and the 6-3, 250-pound Wake sets a tone the 6-4, 335-pound Smith must blunt. Wake had no sacks this season until he strafed Cardinals rookie right tackle Bobbie Massie, but he does have 27 sacks in his last 36 games.
On the surface it appears that it is Wake's speed vs. Smith's power but Smith says Wake has power most speed rushers don't have. He says Wake has the speed of the speediest guy he's ever faced, Robert Mathis of the Colts, but Wake has more power.
Dave Lapham, the long-time Bengals radio analyst who played all five offensive line spots during his 10 seasons in Cincinnati, thinks Smith is playing well after struggling early in his career with consistency with technique. He thinks Wake's speed is paramount in the matchup.
"It's something Andre has to deal with. He has to study and see the best way to attack him," Lapham says. "Wake is obviously a guy that's going to give you effort every snap. He doesn't take any snaps off. He's one of these guys where in your mind you think the play is over, but you've got to go to the whistle on this guy. He's one of those big motor guys.
"With guys like that, you basically have to take away his best move and go from there. Andre has got to take away the edge, but you can't overcommit or expose yourself inside."
Lapham thinks the play of the tackles has been first rate with Smith and left tackle Andrew Whitworth keeping quarterback Andy Dalton clean for the most part.
"I think Andre is playing pretty well. He's having a good year. Really, Andre and Whit have held up well," Lapham says. "What Andre has to do is avoid a lapse, a lull. Treat every play like it's the last play of a game-winning drive. That type of mentality. Particularly against a guy like this. You can't take it for granted that, 'I've got this guy figured out.' It's more of a challenge for him mentally than physically."
Smith is still upset with how he played against Wake in the 22-14 loss to the Dolphins on Halloween of 2010. That was only his fourth NFL start, he was in his second season and it was ugly all the way around. Miami put the Bengals through 10 straight unsuccessful third downs.
"I didn't do too well in that one. It was growing pains. I lived and I learned. I'm not that guy I was then," Smith says. "He's not that guy he was two years ago. He's a lot better than he was then."
And Smith thinks he's a lot better than he was ("Night and day"), and shudders at his play of two years ago.
"Oh my gosh, did I do that? Why did I do that? That's wrong. That's wrong. Working with Paul and having two training camps under my belt has helped tremendously," Smith said of his tutoring from offensive line coach Paul Alexander.
Going back to the bookend brilliance of Willie Anderson and Levi Jones in the last decade, the Bengals have always put faith in their top-caliber tackles to block the best sackers one-one-one. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden indicated not much is going to change.
"Anytime you can get help from time to time, that would be great. But we're not going to help him every time," Gruden says. "He's going to be one on one a lot with him ... he'll be up to the challenge. I know he'll be ready for it. It's a big year for him. He knows it. I think people last year started to realize he's the guy we drafted. It's important for him to put two years back to back and get better each year and he has."
When Gruden talks about Wake, it's almost like he's talking about Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap.
"Wake has surprisingly good power for his size. He bull rushes a lot of guys to the quarterback. He gets sacks he doesn't get credit for with the pressures and the hits he puts on the quarterback pushing the tackle right into the quarterback's lap and forcing a bad throw," Gruden says. "Those are just as important as sacks. He does disrupt a lot of plays. He's got power. He's got a lot of moves. He's got a lot of counter moves. He's got great hips. He's got a great low center of gravity. He's everything you want in a pass rusher.
"He's got hips where he can bend and get those hips turned. He's a talented guy. He had (4.5) sacks in a game last week. That says a lot."
But Smith has got some hips, too. Enough that rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler has become astounded with how athletic Smith is.
"This guy's a phenomenal athlete," Zeitler says. "Getting out of his stance, it is just hard to believe a guy that big can move like that. We'll be on a (combo) block and there are times he's beaten me there. That makes me feel terrible, but it just shows you how quick and smooth he is with his hips for a big guy.
"He's having a good year and this is a big game for him. He can put a stamp on his season so far."
Smith, a first-rounder from Alabama, has no problems getting his arms around that one.
"Where I come from," Smith says, "they're all big games."