The Bengals and Browns are going nowhere, but on Sunday they are displaying left tackles with a good shot of both ending up in Hawaii at the Pro Bowl.
Browns left guard Eric Steinbach has played next to both. Before he left the Bengals via free agency, Steinbach helped break in rookie Andrew Whitworth in 2006. Now he'll line up next to an incumbent Pro Bowler for Cleveland, Joe Thomas, when he makes his 60th start for the Browns in the 1 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium after 63 starts for the Bengals.
"He inspired me when I moved to left tackle," Whitworth said of Steinbach this week. "Before, I would always worry about size. 'Biggest always wins.' But after watching him, I started to worry about technique and leverage. He shows you it's not about size. Players can look at him in the weight room and see he's not very big, but he wins with great technique."
The Bengals took Whitworth in the second round in 2006 even though they still wanted to re-sign left tackle Levi Jones. But they also felt Whitworth was a sure-fire left guard with the looming free-agent departure of Steinbach. They coveted Steinbach, but with guard money approaching tackle money, the Bengals put big salary cap hits in their two elite tackles, Jones and Willie Anderson, and decided to develop Whitworth at guard.
It looked great on paper. Jones and Anderson extended before the season and the 6-7, 340-pound Whitworth moved to guard to back up Steinbach. But Jones began to have his spate of physical ailments almost right away in '06, and Whitworth ended up making 10 starts at tackle next to Steinbach.
The next year with Steinbach gone, Jones returning after missing the first three games, and Anderson hurt, Whitworth played 12 games at left guard and together with Jones they helped set the Bengals single-season record for fewest sacks with 17. They started out together in '08, but both got hurt in Game 11. At that point, the Bengals decided they had to move beyond Jones and went with Whitworth at left tackle, where he has allowed just three sacks in his two seasons starting and currently leads the fan voting at AFC Pro Bowl tackle.
The numbers say that Thomas hasn't had as good a year as Whitworth because he's allowed more sacks. But Steinbach is playing well, as evidenced by running back Peyton Hillis' big gains running behind his signature pulling plays while the Bengals have never really found a consistent answer to replace Whitworth at left guard.
But Whitworth knows it was better even than it looked on paper.
"Levi and I worked well together and we had that record year with sacks," Whitworth said. "It looked like it was going to be that way for awhile, but you couldn't see all those injuries happening to Levi. You never know how things are going to work."
It has worked well for Whitworth as evidenced by the remarks of Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in a news conference last week.
"If you just watch the tape and you don't have a newspaper to tell you what they are, they have a very high-powered offense, they've got obviously great receivers and a great quarterback and that offensive line is playing well," Ryan said. "They're big, strong guys. Whitworth sounds like he's finally getting his just due. I think he's one of the finer players in football. It's a great test any time you play these guys. They have the ability to score anywhere on the field as we saw that our first game. Plus the quarterback he can get red hot and that's a long hard day if that happens."
*MORE RYAN: *Ryan noted that Chad Ochocinco surfaced on the injury report, but wasn't buying it.
"You hope Christmas coming early with that guy not being on the injury report, bad foot, but I'm not believing it," Ryan said. "We always take him away. To me I think he's the best receiver in football and I'll always believe that so he's always going to have a hard long day against us because it would take more than some injury report to convince me that guy's not great and we're just going to take him away every time."
Wide receiver Terrell Owens (knee) missed two days of practice, but Ryan is still thinking about his 222 yards in the last meeting.
"We don't want him to catch that many this time, that 80-yarder helped him," Ryan said of Owens's 78-yard TD catch. "We're going to make it a much tougher day on him. He's back to his old self playing like T.O.; we just needed some convincing and believe me, we believe now. He's not going to have the same day he had last time, that's for sure."
Ryan knows that Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer has 18 interceptions, but he also knows he had none against the Browns and 371 yards passing last time while the Bengals racked up 413 yards. And last year's 15-yard scramble on fourth-and-11 in OT to set up the winning field goal still gnaws at him.
But Ryan did raise the issue that maybe Palmer feels compelled to throw to Owens and The Ocho.
"He's still a great quarterback and he's still got the big arm," Ryan said. "Sometimes guys, and I don't care who you are, sometimes there is pressure to play a guy, maybe to throw a guy more passes than you are comfortable doing. If the coverage is taking a guy away and the playmakers want the ball all of the time, I could see that. That's just being human. Maybe he's going through some of that, but really I see a guy that's in control, I see a guy that's a winner, I see a guy that can just drop back there and can throw it and win a game on his own.
"He's still an annoying scrambler where he makes plays, and we know that better than anybody at the end of a game."
Ryan also called his shot on the Cincinnati running game. The Bengals don't run it as much as last year, he said.
"They were explosive last year running the football. I think they ran the ball a little more than they are now, but (Cedric) Benson is still a (heck) of a back," he said. "He runs that ball hard; he's real close to 1,000 yards this year again. We know they will be at their best. He reminds me a lot of (Fred) Jackson. Jackson made a lot of big plays on us last week, but again, I added about 50 yards on to that."
Ryan obviously has no idea who is playing for the Bengals on defense, but he knows his history.
"This is a good football team on offense," Ryan said. "Now I don't look at defense and I'm sure they're great. They have got Ross Browner and Bill Bergey and all of those guys probably. Lemar Parrish, Kenny Riley, Tommy Casanova, but if they are all out there then we have got to beat them. I know on offense, they've got their good players and that (Bob) Bratkowski is 1,000 years old and he does a good job with their offense. We are looking forward to the matchup. We want to play better than we did and we want to win. We were fortunate enough that Peyton Hillis ran wild, but we want to do our part to add in the win."