It was fitting for so many reasons that former Bengals Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson was on the Cincinnati sideline Sunday during his old club's visit to the Georgia Dome in his adopted home of Atlanta.
For one thing, he was on hand for right tackle Andre Smith's first full NFL game in which he didn't rotate. After watching Smith take all 74 snaps in quarterback Carson Palmer's 412-yard masterpiece, Anderson came away encouraged.
"Given the conditions, the loud noise, the no-huddle, all the checks, and being down 24-3 and all those things, I thought it was a good performance considering all those things he overcame," Anderson said Monday. "He showed he's got the talent, that he can play. And the thing I liked is he was really into the game. You've got to remember, this is his rookie year."
It was Anderson's first time on the sideline since he stopped playing after the 2008 season and his first in-person look at the offensive line that was revamped last year. Only left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Bobbie Williams are left from his days, but Anderson knows all about them. He has said he'd still be playing if Kyle Cook was his center.
"You forget how hard it is and you get an appreciation watching it down there," Anderson said. "Watching Kyle having to communicate in the noise and the guards having to communicate to the tackles, I thought they played a solid game in the conditions. And when the run plays were called, it was the smashmouth Bengals line. They really went after it."
The numbers say running back Cedric Benson ran right six times for 44 yards and offensive line coach Paul Alexander charged Smith with one sack, which came with 1:54 left to sack ace John Abraham. But Anderson thought it went beyond numbers.
"Do you know how hard is to play tackle in the NFL when you're down 24-3?" Anderson asked. "Not only that, but down 24-3 in a dome. It reminded me when I was a young player and that's just hard. He's got things to work on, but it's not because of talent. He just has to get experience. The thing that I liked is that I really thought he showed some competitive spirit. He was into the game and would get upset when he did something wrong. You know, he talks to his guys around the league. You know they were asking him why he wasn't playing."
After splitting two games with Dennis Roland, after an eight-month long rehab from foot surgery, after a grueling three months to shed the extra weight gained from January to July during the time he was off the foot, Smith finally got his moment. And there were moments he looked like the sixth pick in the 2009 draft is supposed to look.
"I thought he did some difficult things very well; he was a bit inconsistent," Alexander said. "He'll get better as he goes on. There were moments on the film you can see he's a very talented guy. Overall he needs to get more consistent."
Alexander also gave his line a good review after the second-biggest passing game of Palmer's career, noting that two of the three sacks came in the final 1:54.
"Those last two sacks were disheartening," he said. "It was late in the game and up to that point they had run so many twists and I was really happy with the way we handled all the twists, the blitzes. We had some things that looked really, really clean most of the game. Then those last two at the end of the game were like a kick in the teeth."
The ugly sack in the second quarter came off what Alexander called a "FUBAR." He says the operation at the line got screwed up and nobody knew who they had and he ended up charging four guys a half-sack each.
"We haven't had a play like that all year. It was the only mental error of the game ... you can't have them," Alexander said.
When he came out of Alabama, Smith was supposed to be a run blocker supreme who had to work on his pass protection. After a soap opera-ish first year-and-a-half that featured massive weight gain, a holdout, a broken foot, surgery, massive weight loss, a benching in the third game of this season, that is still pretty much the way it is. While Whitworth faced Abraham one-on-one with no help, the Bengals gave Smith aid in the form of backs and tight ends chipping down with him.
"Abraham is really fast and can take you out of doing things the right way," Alexander said. "At some point (Smith) will realize it doesn't matter the speed of the defender. That if the angle is proper you win all the time. Of course, there's no other way to experience it than experience it. He wasn't on him very much. He was on Whit most of the game. He was on him some, which is odd, because Abraham spent the entire pregame on our right, which he's typically on our left. He's a better rusher on the left."
Alexander hooked up Anderson with Smith and the other young tackles last month at a Wednesday and Thursday practice and the plan is to do it again either this week before the Miami game or next week before the Monday nighter with Pittsburgh. Anderson is going to continue to work on Smith's pass sets, but he thinks Sunday was a huge day in his overall development.
"Just to be exposed to that environment," Anderson said. "And people were wondering about if he could play a whole game. Believe me, playing all those snaps in no-huddle ... I used to tell Paul back when I was playing and we would have those hot weather games early that he should rotate us if the defensive line was doing well. I kidded him he didn't do that until I retired. But yesterday he went all the way and that was impressive."
Reports had Smith weighing as much as 375 early in training camp and while no one is saying what it is now, Alexander said he has lost a significant amount of weight and the conventional wisdom is he's down to around 345.
"He did some of the harder things easily, which is surprising," Alexander said. "He played the entire game no-huddle and your lungs have to be in a certain type of shape to play that way. I told them all come Wednesday their legs are going to be dead, which they will. I don't know if you noticed (the Falcons) during timeouts. They were on their knees.
"He's had to work hard. The foot surgery for a big man, it's not an easy thing for a big man to have his foot tied up however long it was tied up."
It was also fitting that Anderson saw firsthand Whitworth holding up one-on-one against Abraham, the defensive end with the most sacks since 2000. That matchup reminded Anderson of back in the day when he was allowed to fend for himself against the elite rushers. It was almost like an official passing of the torch from Anderson to Whitworth as the offensive line leader. Alexander doesn't want to jinx Whitworth's Pro Bowl chances, but he clearly thinks Whitworth is a worthy successor to Anderson's throne. Like Anderson, Whitworth, he says, continually grades in the 90s.
"Whit is a competitive guy, too," Anderson said. "He was getting on Abraham because he comes off the field a lot, and there you are staying out there every snap, and you look up and you have to block his backup. I thought he really hung in there and kept Abraham off of Carson a lot of the time."
Except until the game's last play when Abraham rung up a truly garbage sack on Whitworth. But they all count and Alexander knows Whitworth counts every one. Alexander says Whitworth like to keep track of his sackless games streak and now he has to start a new one because Alexander says that's the first sack he's allowed since giving up 1.5 last year.
"It will give him something to push for," Alexander said.
If Smith is shedding weight, Whitworth is shedding the image that he's a converted guard playing tackle. The thinking is that he played Abraham better then Browns Pro Bowler Joe Thomas did when he gave up two sacks a few weeks ago.
"Every time Whit plays against a good player, he does prove it," Alexander said.
Alexander loves the fact he's got Whitworth and Anderson around to teach Smith. And, for that matter, the other four guys on the line. He says the Bengals know that Smith faced some maturity issues when they drafted him, but they felt surrounding him with solid, mature guys would be influential.
"There's no man alive that knows the technique I teach better than Willie; Willie and I grew up together," Alexander said. "Willie was a 100 percent man when he was 10. He was like Whit is now. The two guys who know my technique best and teach it best are Whit and Willie. It's good to have a guy like Willie talking to Andre, who had a very successful college career. He can take the same kind of things and say it in a different way. Maybe he can relate to him from a player's perspective. It's hard to convince guys to do something that they don't necessarily feel good about doing. Some guys get it a little quicker than others. That's what it's about in this league."
Anderson even got reminded how the sidelines smell.
"Terrible," he said. "Like horses."
It was just one ride, but they like the way Smith saddled up.