Down a bunch of weapons, there's not much margin of error for left tackle Andrew Whitworth's offensive line Sunday against the Panthers.
BENGALS Ts ANDREW WHITWORTH AND ANDRE SMITH VS. PANTHERS DEs MARIO ADDISON AND CHARLES JOHNSON
Without their sleek young thoroughbred in Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green, Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) is for the Bengals' old war horses up front and in the secondary.
The Bengals' trio of savvy cornerbacks with a total of 349 NFL games is assigned to contain the thrills and spills of the kid, Carolina's emerging playmaker at wide receiver, first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, so the Panthers don't get up early and unleash their pass rush.
Meanwhile, the Bengals Old Reliables The Double A Highway of Andrew and Andre have to make sure quarterback Andy Dalton is protected from Carolina's highly-regarded front seven so it doesn't have its way with an offense desperately running out of weapons in the passing game.
Carolina isn't nearly as good rushing the passer than if they had franchise player Greg Hardy at defensive end. With him last year they led the NFL with 60 sacks. But the Panthers are still a load with four ends rated in the top 41 of profootballfocus.com's rankings of 4-3 ends rushing the passer.
Just ask the Bears' Jay Cutler, who was sacked three times in the fourth quarter last week, twice in the last desperate series of the Panthers' 31-24 victory in Carolina.
The 6-3, 260-pound Addison comes in with four sacks and five quarterback hurries while the 6-2, 285-pound Johnson has just one sack, but three hits and 13 hurries on the quarterback. And then there is the 6-5 270-pound Wes Horton, ranked ninth in pass-rushing among PFF ends. They can line up on either the left or right tackle and they will.
They're still 13th in the NFL in sacks per pass without Hardy. Last Sunday, seven linemen played at least 20 snaps.
"They're like our D-line," says Bengals right guard Mike Pollak, who played in Carolina two years ago. "They're deep, they play a lot of guys and that keeps them fresh and makes it hard for us. You've got to bring your hard hat and lunch pail because it's going to be a long day of work."
But the Bengals can respond with a tandem that offensive line coach Paul Alexander calls "the best pair of tackles in the league." He says Smith is having the best year of his six-year career and Whitworth is the rock at 32, still giving up a sack, it seems, about once every election cycle.
Neither has given up one yet this season and of the several tackle tandems in the NFL that have not allowed a sack, The Double A Highway has allowed the fewest combination of hits (2) and hurries (4) on the quarterback, according to PFF.
"Our mentality when we go out is that we are the top tandem in the league," Whitworth said. "Our goal every week is to go out and shut people out. Anything short of that we feel disappointed."
Alexander says Smith had two bad sets in pass protection against New England on Sunday night, but said he drew the short straw as both plays unfolded. Yet Smith says there's no excuse for his false start on the first drive. But this has been his coming out season because everyone knows he can run block you into eternity and now he's doing the same in pass pro.
"The thing about Carolina is they play extremely hard for all four quarters," Smith says. "You saw that on film in their last game when you saw how they kept playing to the very end and got the win."
Indeed, in the fourth quarter the defense produced an interception and fumble recovery to go along with the three sacks.
"Yeah, they're like our line," Whitworth says. "They're a 4-3, they get off the ball, they're hard charging. They'll rush you similar to us. They'll do some games, they'll do some twists, they'll get off the snap count. They'll rotate guys in and out.
"We have to do what we've done for the first four games,' Whitworth says. "Keep the quarterback clean and try to run the ball. Keep them out of third-and-10."
If ever a game begged for the Bengals to run the ball, this it for so many reasons. They don't have three of their top four receiving options. They're playing an excellent pass-rushing team. And fellow AFC North clubs chewed up some yardage on the ground against the Panthers last month with Pittsburgh running for 264 yards and Baltimore for 127 yards.
And there is the Green-less factor.
"The only way for us the game changes is if you get in a situation where you're down late and you don't have a guy like A.J.," Whitworth says. "Then somebody has to step into the passing game and make plays. That would be your worst fear. We've got guys that can do it. That's why they're here.
"At the end of the day you see teams throughout the league all the time that don't have a skill guy of some kind and win games," he says. "A.J. will tell you there are a lot of factors why we win that aren't just about A.J. It's going to still be important to keep the quarterback clean and run the football. Somebody will have to make some catches and kind of step up in that role he plays."