Bengals right guard Kevin Zeitler and his fellow interior mates need to come up big Sunday.
BENGALS OFFENSIVE LINE VS. REX's FRONT FOUR
Sunday's game in Buffalo (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) is more like a Thanksgiving pickup game in the mud when it comes to this matchup where everybody knows your name.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Bills head coach Rex Ryan have already traded golf stories this week with the media that spawned from the days Ryan worked for Lewis' Super Bowl and NFL record defense as his defensive line coach in Baltimore at the turn of the century.
"He's sharp as hell. In Baltimore, we were never short of ideas," Lewis says.
Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth and Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams renew their Bayou brawls from high school days.
That's back when they were the two biggest kids around and they eyed each other gingerly. Whitworth played basketball for West Monroe High School and Williams brought his friends over from Ruston to sit close enough to harass him and try to pull his shorts down when he took the ball out of bounds in a heated Louisiana slugfest. Whitworth would return the favor by getting his friends to drive over to Ruston in a convoy of trucks and give Williams hell from the right-field line as he tried to play first base. Both played football and naturally Whitworth recruited Williams to Louisiana State, where they roomed together and became lifelong friends.
Wouldn't you know the Whitworths live in Ruston, about 500 yards from Williams and his family?
"We'll probably go up against each other a few times," Whitworth says. "You never know with Rex. You have no clue. He could line up a cornerback over you . . . Kyle is all day. He'll keep bringing it. He's an all-day sucker."
Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander had to block those Lewis-Ryan defenses in the late '90s and early '00s and usually the Ravens had their day but the Bengals stunned them when they were world champs. Since 2005 the Bengals have met Ryan as either the Ravens defensive coordinator or the Jets head coach ten times with their No. 1 quarterback in a game that mattered.
So take away a 2008 Bengals-Ravens game that Carson Palmer missed and the 2009 finale when both the Bengals and Jets had already locked up a post-season berth, and the Bengals are 6-4 against Ryan with a passer rating of 86.3 composed of 16 TDs and eight interceptions.
Not bad, since in that stretch Ryan's defenses were ranked No. 1 twice, as well as Nos. 2, 3, 5 and 6. Alexander shrugged when asked how they could block the combustible brew of speed, strength and Ryan's Xs and Os that blitz protections with unorthodox, unpredictable alignments.
"It doesn't matter Sunday. They don't give you points for those," Alexander says. "Rex is just one of these guys who is a brilliant coach. He's so good. When he does something you step back and say, 'There's a reason he was dead on.'"
Maybe the most intriguing connection up front is Jim McNally, Alexander's mentor; the guy Alexander calls "the acorn,' from the tree that gave root to the school of modern offensive line play. McNally brought it to dominance when he molded the Bengals Super Bowl protection of 1981 and 1988 during his 15 seasons as Cincinnati's line coach and now as a Bengals consultant he helps Alexander scout that week's defensive line.
"He's very helpful with our profile tapes on the video,' Alexander says.
McNally is not only tried-and-true Buffalo all the way, but the man who turned him from a walk-on into a starting lineman in the early '60s at the University of Buffalo is defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, the father of Rex. In fact not only did McNally coach the Bills offensive line a decade ago, but after that he was a consultant to Rex Ryan when he coached the Jets.
""They do a lot of blitzing. Particularly on third down," McNally says. "They play a lot of different defenses. They blitz defensive backs and drop defensive linemen. Guys who are supposed to cover blitz and guys who are supposed to rush are dropping. It's the scheme Rex Ryan had in Baltimore and took to the Jets. The Cleveland head coach (Mike Pettine has been with Rex), so this kind of style won't be foreign to the Bengals."
It's a style that McNally says started with Buddy Ryan in the '80s when he was the Bears defensive coordinator and Rex has taken it to another level.
"There's no question that the two best defenses of the last 30 years are the '85 Bears and the '00 Ravens," says McNally, who should know since he schemed against Buddy in the '80s and lost the '00 Super Bowl to the Ravens as the Giants offensive line coach.
"That Baltimore defense didn't have to do a lot of that moving around and blitzing. They had two great tackles, two good rushers, a shut-down corner. Things have changed so much. The looks and blitzes are so complex and exotic."
McNally has had a birds-eye view of the Bills for more than this week. He's living not far from where he grew up and attended the first Bills practice ever in 1960 in East Aurora, N.Y., where he remembers watching their first center, Dangerous Dan McGrew.
Now he sees some dangerous guys on the other side of the line and he's trying to help the Bengals beat them. It just may be the best line Ryan has had since the Super Bowl.
At the tackles Williams and 2011 first round pick Marcell Dareus are beasts. Dareus led all defensive tackles with 10 sacks and left end Mario Williams, the overall No. 1 pick from 10 years ago, is coming off a career-high 14.5 sacks. Right end Jerry Hughes is coming off a 10-sack season and is relentless against the run.
"They do a lot of blitzing. Particularly on third down," McNally says. "They play a lot of different defenses.
At the moment Dareus has one sack (the Bengals' Geno Atkins has four and trails Tampa's Gerald McCoy by .5 for the D-tackle title) and there is a bit of uneasiness at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Jerry Sullivan, the long-time sports columnist at The Buffalo News who has nicknamed them "The Quarter Billion Club," notes the Bills are currently ranked 27th in sacks per pass and the question of the week is if they're going to be able to adapt to Ryan's style.
McNally and Whitworth don't want to hear any of that. Whitworth says he never remembers a Rex defense having two big tackles that are so good and strong and such pass-rushing threats. Whitworth has been saying forever that Williams "was Geno Atkins before Geno Atkins."
"They have four good players. Particularly inside. Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus are disruptive. Particularly in the running game," McNally says.
"Kyle Williams goes 300 miles an hour every play. He's got a low center of gravity, he's over 300 pounds, he's got great leverage. I've seen Dareus run right over guys. Run right over the top of them and knock them on their back. The one outside guy, Jerry Hughes, is more of a speed, quick guy. Mario Williams has a lot of moves. He still has some power. He's got very long arms, which means he can make multiple moves with his arms. Swimming, ripping , slapping. The ends are good. But the middle of that line is very good."
Alexander is glad that they're seeing the Bills coming off the Seattle game.
"Seattle is good practice for anyone. They're so fast," Alexander says. "It helps out the young center. By living through that you realize how fast things can go because of their speed and everything else seems to slow down. Same thing when guys like (left guard Clint Boling and right guard Kevin Zeitler) were younger. That's when Pittsburgh had a really quick defense and at first it was, 'Hey . . .' But it's good for you."
McNally is also using Seattle as a measuring stick for the Bengals offensive line that is seventh in the NFL in protecting the passer per snap.
"Seattle's got a great defense," McNally says. "That was a tough one and just to be able to hold up and be productive, it shows you how well they're doing."