Rookie center Russell Bodine is impressing with a take-charge approach.
BENGALS OFFENSIVE LINE VS. PATRIOTS DT VINCE WILFORK
The vibe coming out of Foxboro is after Monday night's 41-14 disaster in Kansas City the Patriots are going to try and play an AFC North game with the defending AFC North champions in order to protect their beleaguered and chaotic offensive line. Not to mention the franchise in quarterback Tom Brady.
So it is a Wilfork-slobber-knocker kind of game, where New England needs its underachieving defense to play like its news clippings. A Bengals offensive line kind of game that has punched out wins in six of its last nine AFC North games.
This Patriots defense bears no resemblance to the one that allowed 162 yards rushing to the Bengals in last season's Cincy 13-6 victory at Paul Brown Stadium. Not only do they have new two Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, but the heart of their defense returns in the very large person of the 6-2 Wilfork. He's the guy that springs the Pats trio of microbrew backers in a physical, effective front seven. it hasn't been brain surgery. When the Pats held the Vikings to 54 yards and then the Raiders to 67 yards rushing, they won. When the Dolphins lit them for 191 on the ground in the opener and the Chiefs strafed them for 207 Monday night, they lost.
Wilfork wasn't here with a torn Achilles last year but he's very much in the middle of a Patriots defense that is going to play a lot better than it did in Kansas City. A multi Pro Bowler and captain of the defense for the last seven years, Wilfork's shadow is all over the place on and off the field. They list him at 325 pounds, but he's got to be closer to 370 and his value to the Pats is incalculable.
"He's just a huge human being. A big man. Really strong and a guy that's played a lot of football," says Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, a rookie when he faced the third-year Wilfork some in 2006. "He understands football. He's not just a big guy standing there. He knows how plays work and how to stop them."
It's a gold-plated matchup because the Bengals offensive line has been one of the biggest stars of the 3-0 start. Not only has it not allowed a sack, but it has also muscled foes well enough to be 4-for-4 on third-and-1 while producing five red-zone rushing touchdowns for their running backs after netting 11 all last season.
They're emphasizing improving their 3.6 yards per carry average, but the Chiefs didn't gash the Pats on 5.4 yards per 38 carries by running at Wilfork on Monday. They took a shot at the soft edges and, who knows? maybe Wilfork ends up there to stop the bleeding.
"They'll put him on anybody. They'll put him anywhere they think they can get a favorable matchup up front," Whitworth says. "It's the type of thing where they'll look at where we go with the majority of our runs and all that kind of good stuff and put him there."
Or, Wilfork could test rookie center Russell Bodine, but the fourth-rounder from North Carolina has held up well in his first three NFL starts. Bodine had offensive line coach Paul Alexander dropping his jaw in the line's meeting room before the last game against the Titans. In his 20 seasons here he's had extremely bright centers like Rich Braham and Kyle Cook who became very involved in the meetings.
But not this early in their careers.
"He showed real leadership," Alexander says. "He spoke up and talked about how he'd handle situations. He was very clear, very direct and that's what you're looking for in a center. Cook was that way. It took him a couple of years. Richie was that way. It took him a couple of years. For him to do before his third start, I wanted to stand up and cheer.
"He's running the show, but I'm sure he's getting help from some of the other guys. We've had very few mental mistakes."
Alexander also wanted to cheer the way he graded Bodine after the Titans game. Despite strong games from guards Clint Boling and Mike Pollak and another solid effort from Whitworth and Andre Smith at tackle, Alexander says Bodine was probably their best lineman against the Titans.
He's had plenty of help. Pollak, the seven-year backup center with 47 NFL starts who has come off the bench to play for the injured Kevin Zeitler, has been a stabilizing force with the fourth-year Boling and the NFL top-tier tack tandem of Whitworth and Smith.
"As a center in the league when you face a guy like Wilfork and you stand your ground against him, you can pretty much go against anybody," says Pollak, who thinks Bodine's debut against Baltimore helped. "Baltimore having (Haloti) Ngata and those other guys have the size you're not used to seeing in college, that's definitely some experience right there.
"Every week's been that way," Pollak says of the rookie test, "and he's done a pretty good job so far."
Pollak had his time in the mosh pit against Wilfork when he was with the Colts and he doesn't paint a pretty picture.
"It's going to be hard for even a double team to move him out of the gap," Pollak says. "He might be in a lot of different places during a game…He kind of hangs in the gap, but he shows some flashes he still has some athleticism and that's why he's still out there."
If Wilfork isn't a dancing bear, he's at least a nimble one. When the Pats beat the Raiders two weeks ago, he was athletic enough to secure the win in the last minute when he snatched a tipped pass at his 10.
"For somebody like him, you try to get him going in a certain direction," Boling says. "It's just a leverage thing. He's so big; it's going to be hard to move him off the ball. You have to do the best you can and hopefully it works."
This line is clearly thriving as it adjusts to new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and its own maturity. Scheme and experience seem to be percolating at the right moment.
Pete Prisco, CBS Sports' NFL guru, says under Jackson the Bengals offensive line is moving forward and not backward.
"We probably run the ball more with Hue than we did with Jay (Gruden), so I think you can just characterize that in the sense that we go forward more than backwards," he says. "Everybody's a year older. There's another year of experience, another year of playing and you're hitting those peak years of playing in the NFL right now. Hue's great at play calling. It makes it fun when you're in there really trying to run the ball and have some fun plays to kind of work with."
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, raised in the West Coast offense like Jackson, attacked the Pats Monday night with concepts that are now Jacksonian to Bengals fans. Multiple personnel groups, two different backs, a fullback, a combination of zone and power runs, and plenty of misdirection.
But when it comes to taking on Wilfork and that formidable front seven, Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, at heart still the 10-year Bengals offensive linemen, is hoping Jackson is looking at his own game plan against the Ravens instead of what Reid did against New England.
"You can't run downhill and smoke him, that's playing into their strength," Lapham says. "You can do a lot of what you did in Baltimore. Screens. Bubble screens. Make Vince Wilfork run. He's lost a lot of his lateral stuff. Make him move around. I thought that was brilliant against Baltimore."