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O-Line embraces move back to '09 style

Andre Smith

INDIANAPOLIS - Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander leaned over the second floor balcony and called down to the lobby of the Westin Hotel to invite left tackle Andrew Whitworth to dinner Thursday night here at the NFL scouting combine.

Whitworth, in town for players meetings, no doubt enjoyed the conversation as Alexander looks forward to the offense under new coordinator Jay Gruden getting back to the run-first style that paved the way to the 2009 AFC North title. With the emphasis coming from head coach Marvin Lewis. Rated as one of the surprise units in the NFL that season, the offensive line took heat in 2010 for a rush average of just 3.6 yards.

"I look forward to getting back to the way we played two years ago," Alexander said. "And I think when we get back to that style, everyone thought like the line was pretty good. I think (Gruden) does and I think Marvin does (want that style)."

Alexander said the decline shouldn't be blamed on fired offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski.

"It was everyone's fault, mine included," Alexander said. "We made a decision to be more explosive and we changed to a no-huddle team. You're either a no-huddle team or you're not. ... On paper it looked like a good decision, but it didn't work."

Alexander also allowed:

» Gruden and the staff have produced two different playbooks. A small one in case of an extended lockout beginning March 4 and a regular size in case things go close to normal. But he's not sure if the coaches can send them to the players because of the current collective bargaining agreement negotiations. A Thursday meeting of coaches and general managers was supposed to yield a decision.

» Alexander says right tackle Andre Smith is still recovering from foot surgery, isn't ready to practice yet, and that he desperately needs to get him on the field if Smith wants to make a big contribution in his third season because his two foot procedures have wiped out so many reps.

"He's talented. He showed flashes of encouragement. If we get him up to speed he'll be quite an asset," Alexander said of the sixth pick in the draft. "I need a few weeks where he can work with me and practice with me."

Alexander says he's not looking to switch Smith to guard "because we've got a bigger need at tackle," and an extended lockout "would be bad for Andre Smith and bad for Paul Alexander."

» Alexander says he's happy with right guard Bobbie Williams as "he's winding down a fine career," and that he feels Nate Livings has played well enough to remain the incumbent left guard. Alexander says last season's late draft picks, fifth-round right guard Otis Hudson and seventh round center-guard Reggie Stephens, are not yet ready to contribute right away. That may change after another training camp because he thinks they have good upside.

» Alexander says it's a solid line draft and, unlike past years, it's going to be deep in the middle rounds.

It would all seem to indicate the Bengals are going to go to more of a power running game with not as much zone while searching for more athletic guards to ease the transition from Williams, heading into the last year of his deal.

But Alexander laughed and said, "If I can't tell the players (the scheme) I'm certainly not going to tell the media."

Yet he did say that he's not going to divert from stockpiling big maulers because it fits his technique and the AFC North: "Little, quick, athletic soft guys don't get it done."

The West Coast offense does have different pass protections, but that's no problem since nine of his first 20 NFL seasons were in a Bruce Coslet system. Alexander also believes having third-year starter Kyle Cook at center is a boon in a new scheme.

"The other advantage we have is it's a very smart group," Alexander said. "I told Jay the good news is that whatever you want to do, anything, Cook can handle it. The guy can handle anything. He's at the top of the football intelligence scale."

So Alexander is going to be looking for guys like he had at last month's Senior Bowl, where he probed the versatility of the top tackles in Wisconsin's Gabe Carmi and Boston College's Anthony Castonzo. Carmi moved to guard for the first time in his life and Castonzo for the first time since high school that week in Mobile, Ala., and both emerged thinking they can do it in the pros.

Alexander has compared the 30-year-old maturity of both to that of Whitworth, and Carmi arrived in the media room Thursday brimming with confidence.

"Because of the players I've gone against, four potential first-round players I've gone against this year, I have a better résumé of going against better talent than anyone else, so that makes me more (pro) ready," he said. "I'm physically stronger and have more career starts and better knowledge of the game than any other tackle out there.

"That's why I'm the No. 1 tackle out there.''

(Those four were Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Ohio State's Cameron Heyward, and Wisconsin's J.J Watt.)

"I'm a physical tough player who finishes plays," Carmi continued. "I can run block as well as pass block. I've been in a pro style offense for four years. When you go to the Senior Bowl, you see how much more knowledge you have coming out of pro style offenses vs. the other tackles that were there at the Senior Bowl."

But both of those guys aren't going to be around when the Bengals pick in the third round, which is where they would probably start thinking about the line. While they need help on the line it would appear the Bengals have more immediate needs on offense at quarterback and wide receiver. So a guy like Wisconsin guard John Moffitt could be the kind of guy they seek in the middle rounds. Alexander says this isn't a typical offensive line draft that "falls off in the second and third rounds."

If he's frustrated with Smith not being able to get on the field, Alexander is encouraged by how Anthony Collins played at right tackle in the last three games of last season as he heads into the last year of his deal. Collins hasn't been able to stay on the field in his three years, but when he got benched in favor of Dennis Roland last year Alexander was impressed with how he hung in there mentally and the improvements he made in the running game by putting on 15 pounds.

"He was focused and played with poise," Alexander said. "He's still a better pass blocker than run blocker."

Alexander thinks the change back in style is going to help the big, physical Livings ("He's improved and can still improve"), but he'd like free agent Evan Mathis, Livings's backup, to return. Alexander realizes Mathis wants to start some place, but for the moment he's keeping Livings as his incumbent. 

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