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Preserve and protect (Palmer)

Posted: 5:10 p.m.

Only the Steelers' James Harrison has more AFC sacks than Texans defensive end Mario Williams since 2007, the same stretch in which the Broncos' Elvis Dumervil is making a run and is only 2.5 sacks behind.

With Williams coming to town Sunday, Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth can take solace in that he's already pretty much blanked Harrison and Dumervil this season. But he won't.

"I was joking with Carson (Palmer) that it feels real good to play well against (Terrell) Suggs, against Harrison, against (Kamerion) Wimbley.  But there's always another guy lined up," Whitworth said. "And (Williams) is no different. He's one of the best. I guess that's life for an AFC left tackle."

Williams has just two sacks this season but that means he had 14 sacks in '07 and 12 in '08. The Bengals have allowed 10 sacks in five games, which means they're on pace to surrender just 32 after a year they allowed a whopping 51.

Which means Whitworth and the right tackle tandem of Dennis Roland and Anthony Collins are holding up well against the iron. And while they're not exactly getting a lot of help from other blockers, they are getting help from head coach Marvin Lewis' mindset.

"We're a step back and throw it team. We're not a team that keeps in its backs (to help the tackles block)," Whitworth said. "We've got to fend for ourselves a little bit."

More Whitworth than Roland, the guy suddenly now getting more snaps ahead of Collins, if the coaches think a back or tight end is needed to chip for one of the tackles. Williams is expected to do what Suggs did in Baltimore last Sunday and rush from different sides. Whitworth and Collins hope they can do what they did last week and shut out Suggs.

Roland, the tallest Bengal ever at 6-9, is turning into one of the many great stories on this team. Undrafted out of Georgia and cut four times by two teams when he showed up here in the middle of last season, Roland's steady technique has won him a lot of time against some elite pass rushers. 

"I don't know if they're really that different," Roland said. "They're both big and strong. I've seen some speed rushes out of (Williams). The main difference is the 4-3 scheme. Suggs and the Ravens stand up and move around. You know that Mario is pretty much going to have his hand on the ground but I don't know that makes it any easier. The guy is a great player."

But what Lewis is making sure the Bengals are doing is running the ball, which is protecting Palmer as much as anything. And he also hinted Friday that they are doing so many things in the scheme to make sure that Palmer is protected by an inexperienced group of linemen and tight ends that the load can partly explain the large number of pre-snap snafus. Last week three delay-of-game penalties and two false starts gummed things up as the Bengals rolled out some unbalanced lines and varied formations.

"We're taking care of a lot of different things right now," Lewis said. "Making sure the quarterback stays upright ... we've got a lot more thinking going on and it has to be right. Things we're doing on offense, they're taxing us a little bit. We have to make sure we do a better job to give Carson enough time at the line of scrimmage."

Easing the fears has to be the mobility Palmer has flashed the last couple of weeks, particularly in Baltimore last week. Not only did he fourth-down scramble for the second straight week, but he also moved out of the pocket to make some big-time throws.

But that doesn't make Whitworth feel any less obsessive about protecting Palmer. Call it the Miss Louisiana-Mr. Heisman compact.

"I have a contract to protect two people in my life," Whitworth said. "My wife that I married in that contract and I have a contract to protect Carson Palmer. I'm saying if I can keep this guy off him, he's got a chance to make a play with the ball."

But Whitworth admits Palmer looks friskier nearly four years after reconstructive knee surgery. 

"He's got to be in the best shape of his life," Whitworth said because whenever he sees Palmer in the facility and there's not a practice or meetings, he sees him in the weight room lifting or climbing the stairs or rolling around on the floor with a big ball to improve his flexibility.

The sprained ankle that cost Palmer three weeks of the preseason looks to be a distant memory. But all the rehab on his lower body and the experience of seeing a rush for seven years has seemingly combined to get him out of pocket.

"And when you see a lot of two-man coverage, where (the defense) doesn't put anybody on the quarterback and just let you go," said quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. "When you're injured, maybe you don't think you're real good at it. Then all of a sudden you're starting to feel better, the ankle isn't as bad and you feel the body start to move smoother and all of a sudden one or two things open up and you say, 'I can do this.' ''

Zampese says it hasn't been planned, but it's something that has been encouraged and he thinks it doesn't show that Palmer is uncertain in the pocket but that he is getting more comfortable with the guys around him.

"I'm real excited about it," Zampese said. "It keeps plays alive and it's a killer for a defense."

But Williams is on deck carrying the big lumber. The 6-9, 320 pound Roland, a self-described technician, is looking at film and trying to figure out what is the best position for his size 17 shoes to battle Williams' long arms. The 6-7, 330-pound Whitworth is looking at the film to see how physical Williams is being or if he's being more finesse these days.

"It's somebody new every week," Whitworth said.

But so far the Bengals have prevented that somebody new from making his name bigger. 

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