Updated: 7:10 p.m.
Don't look for No. 1 pick Andre Smith to make his first NFL start at right tackle any time soon in the heat of a playoff run.
With left tackle Andrew Whitworth locking down his side by allowing just one sack this season and right tackle Dennis Roland a brute force in the running game, offensive line coach Paul Alexander is content with the status quo of his unit. Smith, who made his debut last Sunday in about 10 snaps, figures to continue to get eased in.
But that's about it right now.
"It's hard to get him in there too much," Alexander said after Thursday's practice on the Paul Brown Stadium turf. "Frankly, Roland is playing so good it's hard to disrupt the chemistry of what you've got going."
It basically comes down to this: The Bengals aren't 1-11-1 and looking to cultivate guys for next year.
"Winning the game is way more important than developing Andre Smith," Alexander said. "We're right in the thick of something very special and we have to make sure we see that through."
A couple of things are working against Smith from a physical and mental standpoint. The guy just isn't ready. The weight issue isn't as big as it was a month ago when he was trying to get back from the foot injury, but since Smith has missed a month of preseason because of a holdout and then the next six weeks because of a broken foot, Alexander says he simply needs reps.
"It's almost impossible for an established veteran to miss training camp and have a solid season," Alexander said. "You see it all the time where a lineman misses a lot of camp and he doesn't have that great of a season. That's the challenge he's dealing with."
Plus, this is the season the Bengals have flipped the balance of power in the AFC North with the help of the unbalanced line. The myriad of alignments have become a staple of the physical Bengals running game, but it is also a mental challenge for even the veterans.
"We've given them a huge amount of information to digest every week in the game plan, maybe more than I've ever given them," Alexander said. "Which is amazing because they're young and inexperienced. But they're smart. There were a couple of games earlier in the year where they were (nervous), but they've kind of gotten over that now. They've played in big games. They've executed with poise. We're just growing every day. Good lines play together for years, not just weeks, and we're still in the weeks development of it."
The Bengals think Smith is bright when it comes to Xs and Os (it's a reason they drafted him) and they believe he's done a good enough job in the weight department that he can give them some quality snaps. His weight is still a mystery, but figure he's a shade under 340 because he doesn't look all that different from last year, when he played at 330, which is where the club would like him.
And Alexander says he's not just a run blocker.
"He's doing a good job with just the things we've selected him to do, He's a good pass blocker. He's a talented kid," Alexander said. "The best thing to do is to put him in unpredictable situations, where the opponent doesn't expect him. Whatever that means."
Easing Smith in as the right tackle next to another tackle or picking spots to line him up as the sole tackle (which the Bengals did twice against the Browns) is how Alexander broke in the last two Bengals first-round tackles, Willie Anderson in 1996 and Levi Jones in 2002.
"You can control what plays they need to study; it's a way to teach the offense in pieces," Alexander said. You can't force the pace one way or the other. You can't rush it too far ahead. You just have to let it evolve. You'll know the right time to put a guy in. You can't put a guy in before he's ready and it does no good to hold a guy back when he's ready to go."
Smith is just not ready. Not with the way Roland is playing, Alexander says. Even though he's 26 and this is his third year in the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia, the last six games have marked only Roland's second through seventh NFL starts. He's big (6-9, 350), tenacious (he's survived five cuts), and he's a technician (a coach's son).
At 6-9, he's not going to be an artist in space and he allowed some heat on the passer from the edge in the past two games. Raiders end Greg Ellis got Roland for a sack in Oakland two weeks ago and outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley got him for one last week and some pressures. Those are two pretty good rushers. Ellis has 82 career sacks and Wimbley is a former 13th pick in the draft that averages about six sacks per year.
Alexander is reluctant to stick Roland with the Wimbley sack because it came off a funky play-action move and says, "You almost have to (credit) it to them." But he's still very high on Roland and loves his smarts and toughness and fundamentals.
"He's been a solid guy. He's a real good run blocker," Alexander said. "He's like a first-year player. He'll get better as he goes along."
Meanwhile, that other first-year player is also available.
"He did OK in the game," Alexander said of Smith. "He practiced better this week, which helped him get his feet wet."