*Bengals left guard Clint Boling is using his experience in practice against Geno Atkins in his matchup with Rams Pro Bowler Aaron Donald. *
BENGALS O-LINE VS. RAMS D-LINE
It's as basic as the ball getting inflated and the coin toss Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) when the Bengals (8-2) play the Rams (4-6) at Paul Brown Stadium.
It's the Bengals offensive line looking to regain its Midas touch of the first part of the season against the Rams defensive line gold plated with five first-round picks, the most sacks in the NFL since 2012, and the NFC version of Geno Atkins in second-year tackle Aaron Donald.
Whoever wins wins.
The Rams' best formula to springing the upset is shackling the Bengals offense with their front four while rookie running back Todd Gurley controls the game on the ground.
If the 24-year-old Donald is the heart of a young, speedy front where four of the first–rounders are 27 or younger, then the soul of the Bengals' proud, veteran offensive line is the team's oldest player, 33-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
Whitworth's white-whiskered jaw is set this week after a rare natural disaster Sunday night in Arizona. Cardinals' future Hall-of-Fame rusher Dwight Freeney beat Whitworth for a sack for the first time since Whitworth's rookie season of 2006. And although profootballfocus.com says Whitworth's streak of 31 straight regular-season games without allowing a sack came to an end the week before against Houston, that's up for debate since it came on a two-man stunt.
But Whitworth, perennially one of the league's highest-rated pass-protecting tackles, knows exactly what happened against the 35-year-old Freeney. It hadn't happened in the regular season since Nov. 10, 2013 against Baltimore's Elvis Dumervil.
"First time I got beat one-on-one in 32 games," said Whitworth fiercely. "I'll take that. If I can get 32 more games I'll take that.
"It was a good spin move. An inside move on a protection we were going the other way."
Now comes the next generation in 25-year-old Robert Quinn, a 6-4, 264-pound edge sprinter that Whitworth calls "a human highlight reel." Quinn (back) missed practice Wednesday and has missed two of the last three games, but he still leads the NFL in forced fumbles since 2012 and has the third most sacks in that stretch. While the Bengals guards are dealing with The Other Donald, Whitworth is looking at a two-time Pro Bowler well on his way to having a career like Freeney's.
And Whitworth loves it. The Bengals rarely help their tackles with a chip now and again, even against Hall-of-Famers. So even if they help some on Donald, there won't be any left over on the perimeter.
"It's one-on-one. It will be fun. That's what I do," Whitworth said. "(Quinn) as a 4-3 guy, I don't know if there's anyone better. He's super special. He's limber, long. Lean. He looks like a big safety or linebacker. He's like (John) Abraham. He's a sprinter around the edge and can get you in a world of trouble. You have to prepare for it all. He's able to go around you, under you, and he can run you over."
The sack Whitworth allowed Sunday night is a bit symbolic of what his line has been dealing with for the last four games, when they've allowed 12 sacks after allowing two in the first four games. It was third-and-16 and the Bengals were backed up at their 14. They seem to have been behind the chains like that for a month as they've searched for a consistent run game to counter the excellent pass rushers in Pittsburgh, Houston, Arizona, and now arguably the best of all in the Rams.
As Whitworth says, when the defense knows you have to throw, they should win the pass rush. But he (and Rams head coach Jeff Fisher) would dispute the notion that the Bengals offensive line is struggling. He looks at how they put up 31 points on the NFL's No. 3 defense last Sunday and the Monday night before that how they relatively held in check the Texans' J.J. Watt with just one sack before Watt blew up the Jets last Sunday with a dominant performance.
"The thing about the NFL is you have to gauge how good your opponent is," said Whitworth, who believes the offense in general is starting to come out of a mid-season funk.
"We played great the first six games, then came the bye and we didn't play well in Pittsburgh. Then we played great the next game. Then a Monday night not so good against Houston and then Sunday night we put up 31 points on a great team at their place . . . Now we finally get to play consecutive (Sunday) games. That's what our offense does. It gets in a rhythm. It gets in no huddle and that's where we make our hay . .. We had six games where we played really well. Then we had two games in a month's time. That's a lot of dead time."
The lack of a consistent run game has been a theme of the last month and sometimes Whitworth looks longingly at teams like the Steelers with their signature runs that are so productive because they do it over and over again. But he also knows the best part of his offense is its versatility, unpredictability, and ability to do so many runs.
"We have to find the runs we're really confident in and just go with them," Whitworth said. "We've been all over the board. That's part of this offense. We do so many different things."
Whitworth says it simply comes down to blocking each play, not a string of them. Particularly this week.
"This is a special group,' he said of the Rams. "This is a game where we have to have a plan and you have to stick with that plan to make it work."
The big part of that plan is blocking the 6-1, 285-pound Donald, tied with the 6-1, 300-pound Atkins for most sacks by a tackle at seven. There may be no one who has gone against Atkins more than Bengals left guard Clint Boling, his teammate at Georgia, and he admits that's pretty good training for Donald.
"I've been trying to block Geno for a long time, so it's a good experience. I think it helps" Boling said. "They talk about the similarities and you watch them and it's like watching Geno on tape. He might be a little longer than Geno. But for the most part they're similar and that means he's a heck of a player."
As for Donald, he embraces the comparisons and admits that Atkins' Pro Bowl appearances may have very well paved the way for his first-round selection in 2014 because of how Atkins disrupted games as supposedly an undersized guy. And that's what Donald calls what he and Atkins do. "Disrupt.' Inside penetration is a huge factor in preventing points. The Bengals are fourth in scoring defense, the Rams 10th..
"The thing about Geno is that he's so strong, you can't sit on anything he does," Boling said. "He makes it tough."
Donald is known for his video game speed. But right guard Kevin Zeitler, who could get Donald just as much as Boling, says speed isn't all he has.
"He can do whatever he wants depending on the week," Zeitler said.
Boling knows what has to happen this week. He's part of an offensive line that had big days against top fronts from Kansas City, Seattle, and Buffalo.
"Can't get those third-and-longs," Boling said. "We have to clean up some things and get after it like we did."