Posted: 10:30 a.m.
A mere 10 months ago the Bengals offensive line was stunned by the departure of right tackle Stacy Andrews in a free-agency move that forced massive renovations.
Now after Andrews lost his starting job after one game in Philadelphia, the Bengals head into the offseason looking to improve a blossoming group that came out of nowhere to lead them to their first top 10 rushing finish since record-setting running back Corey Dillon led an assault to No. 2 in the league in 2000.
The No. 9 ranking comes after three seasons the Bengals finished as low as 29th and no higher than 24th and they did it with just one lineman that started in the same spot in 2008, just one who had started in at least 50 NFL games, and a center and right tackle that didn't have an NFL start in their spots.
But if he was admittedly worried sick last year, offensive line coach Paul Alexander is now excited about what this O-line can do with another year together.
"Too many holding calls and the rookies still have to keep working on their pass-blocking techniques," Alexander said this week. "But another spring and training camp together can only help us."
Alexander won't say much about his new three-year deal. In fact, as he heads into his 16th season as line coach, he'll say nothing about it. But he has plenty of plans.
He's hoping free-agent right guard Bobbie Williams also gets a deal even though he'll turn 34 in the third week of the season. He sees a veritable all-you-can-eat 1 p.m. brunch of pancakes with the 340-pound Williams finally teamed full time with 23-year-old right tackle Andre Smith.
Alexander isn't saying for sure that the 340-pound Smith is the 2010 starter and he indicated that the coaches are intrigued enough with the rotations they used at some spots. But he also liked what he saw at the end of the season when Smith was getting more and more of the snaps in his shuffle with Dennis Roland. All signs are pointing to Smith and left tackle Andrew Whitworth being the bookends for at least the next couple of years.
"I've got to look at the cutups and we have to sort through who is going to be where," Alexander said. "Andre is going to be a good player. He had a high percentage of 'Wow blocks.' He had some of the best pancakes I've ever seen. And Bobbie is still one of the few guys in the league who can line up and blow a guy off the line of scrimmage at the point of attack."
Whitworth wasn't one of the biggest of the questions at the beginning of the season because he had played well at left guard and he played well enough at left tackle as a rookie in 2006. But he wasn't a known entity over 16 games, either. Yet now the Bengals see him as a slam dunk.
"As long as he's breathing," said Alexander when asked if Whitworth is his left tackle. "I even graded him higher than he did. He told you he gave up 1.5 sacks? I've got him for one. He had one sack. That's excellent."
Alexander said he also gave high grades to the left guard tandem of Nate Livings and Evan Mathis. Livings started the opener, missed the next two games with a knee injury, and started the last nine games while playing the first and third quarters with Mathis playing the second and fourth.
"They like each other, they respect each other," Alexander said. "I think it's a big reason they graded so well. They push each other."
The biggest question mark was center Kyle Cook, the third-year college free agent out of Michigan State, and in his first 16 NFL starts he offered ballast with quick recognition and clear line calls. He also provided the muscle to block the hulking 3-4 nose tackles of the AFC North. In the four games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore in 2007, when Carson Palmer was the quarterback, the Bengals averaged 73 yards per game on the ground at 2.9 yards per carry. In those four games in '09 with Palmer back, it was 112 per game at 3.7 per carry. And against massive Shaun Rogers' Cleveland line, the Bengals piled up 364 yards in just two games at 4.9 per rush.
"He panned out. Smart, tough, he'll only get better," Alexander said of Cook.
The holding calls are a concern ("way too many"), but Alexander also knows it was a season that they were up all over the league because of the emphasis placed on it before the year started and he wants to see how the NFL Competition Committee reacts. He also knows some of it may be because the Bengals were doing so many different things when it came to unbalanced alignments and rotations.
"That was exciting. Especially with the rotations and playing so many guys. I've never seen anybody do it as much as we did, but I think it helped us," he said, but he was non-committal when asked if there would more of it next season.
"Who knows?" he asked. "The challenge for us is to come up with something just as novel."