Torrid O-line deploys in hostile setting

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Left guard Clint Boling is drawing some of the league's top grades.

The Bengals are hot.

How hot are they?

They're so hot that Ravens coach John Harbaugh, prepping for Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Baltimore, got away with calling them the NFL's most talented team because it's not a throwaway line.

"Our metrics show that Cincinnati certainly deserves to be in the conversation among the best NFL teams through the first two weeks of the 2015 season, from a pure production standpoint," bannered profootballfocus.com on Wednesday.

Cincinnati Bengals host the San Diego Chargers in week 2 of the regular season.

And if there is any group that typifies how richly balanced the Bengals are with experience and leadership, along with that talent, it is on the offensive line. They're one of three teams that have yet to allow a sack, they're fifth in the league in rushing yards, and their 4.5 yards per carry is eighth best. What do Andy Dalton, Carson Palmer, and Ryan Fitzpatrick have in common besides being all starting Bengals quarterbacks?

They're the only quarterbacks not to be sacked yet this season.

PFF has placed three of the linemen in the top four of their positions with left guard Clint Boling leading all guards, center Russell Bodine tied for second after grading out No. 1 opening week, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth in an uncharacteristic fourth place for all tackles despite not letting anyone breathe on Dalton. On Sunday, he'll be making his 135th NFL start as one of the games' most valued players on the field and in the locker room in the Anthony Munoz-Max Montoya-Willie Anderson-Rich Braham Bengals offensive line tradition.

"I know this," said offensive line coach Paul Alexander. "I've got the best left tackle in the league.  Because his guy never hits the quarterback. He's a technical marvel. He really is. He does everything perfect. Many of the things he does is unconventional but they work for him. "

The fleeting element that so many NFL teams try to find, continuity and chemistry on the offensive line (everyone from the Giants to Saints and the Patriots to the Steelers) has been a constant in Cincinnati in the Green-Dalton Era.

"We have it. I just know we have it,' Alexander said after Wednesday's practice. "You want to sign guys up on your team that are natural, tough, selfless guys. I think you get enough of them together eventually they'll mold together. They have to be smart. Our meetings are more like seminars. We kind of watch the film and throw it around and bounce ideas. You can only do that with smart guys. You don't have smart guys you got to go old school. And that's not the way to go."

The major changes have been adding right guard Kevin Zeitler in the 2012 draft and Bodine two years later. That's it. And PFF reports they've never finished worse than third in pass blocking efficiency since Green-Dalton was born in 2011.

"They've played together a lot. As much as anything, right now it's a blessing because of the way this league changes so fast and so often," Alexander said.  "Our club has made a commitment to try to keep them together."

Bodine, a fourth-round pick out of North Carolina, is one of the latest in a line Alexander, head coach Marvin Lewis and director of player personnel Duke Tobin have found fit the Bengals specifications up front. Big, smart, and athletic enough to bend their knees.

"I don't put too much stock into what the websites say. I don't even look at them," Bodine said. "A full year of experience makes a world of difference. Going into Baltimore for the opener last year versus this year, I can't compare where I am. Having a year experience is invaluable."

A game against the Ravens, who always have one of the league's top front sevens and have been pounding quarterbacks in the Green-Dalton era with pass rushers supreme Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, always seems to provide a come-to-the-mountaintop moment for the offensive line.

At least lately.

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What a difference a year makes for sophomore center Russell Bodine.

In November of 2013, the Ravens dealt the Bengals their last back-to-back loss during a miserable day the Bengals threw it 51 times in one of the league's most hostile arenas against a top 12 defense and gave up five sacks. It was so bad that Whitworth gave up at least 1.5, but he hasn't given up one since in stringing together 24 straight games without allowing a sack.

Then a month later with the Ravens, needing a win to make the playoffs in the finale, the Bengals didn't allow a sack in a 34-17 victory at PBS that also included a rare 100 yards rushing against the Ravens.  

Then in the next year's opener in Baltimore with Bodine making his first NFL start in the den of inequity against a defense that would finish eighth in the league, the Bengals gave up no sacks again in a 23-16 victory. Seven weeks later, with the season on the line at PBS and the Bengals trailing, 24-20, with a minute left on fourth down from the 1, Dalton snuck in behind Bodine and Zeitler for the win.

But Bodine downplays that as a defining moment for the line ("Each play we have to do our job and that play we did") and Whitworth says it was a mere step.

"I think it's just a moment where we continue to grow. We've got guys that have been here that have played, we have young guys that are getting more and more experience," Whitworth said. "So we're just kind of all at the same time peaking together. Hopefully we can all continue to play better every week as a group."

When the Bengals scouted Bodine, he struck them as one of their guys. Bright, AFC North strong and not afraid to engage teammates. He caused some angst in both training camps with some bad shot-gun snaps, and he struggled a bit early this summer. But not now as another trip to Baltimore looms.

 Alexander says Bodine didn't play well in last year's opener, but that didn't exactly shock him. The North Carolina offense had no cadence and no huddle. In a system that might as well have been the Polo club team when it came to getting NFL ready, Bodine himself provided the cadence.

"The first year we just kind of got him through the offense. Block the right guys. Make the right calls, go block," Alexander said.  "This year we broke him down in the offseason. We went through technically how to do every little thing. He's out there thinking about this and thinking about all those things. He has enough natural wherewithal in games to know not to play with that so in games it's not a problem. So he had to work through that. I think the result we are seeing is that it paid off. He's a better player now because he really went back to the beginning and learned how to block with NFL techniques." 

Bodine says Whitworth and Boling and others have helped him immensely, which is music to Alexander's ears. He demands his veterans teach as well as block. Like what Willie Anderson and Levi Jones did for Whitworth when he arrived in 2006.

"(Whit) helps all of them. It's been said so many times it just passes down. If you raise your oldest child right the rest of them fall in line," Alexander said. "There's a theory, players play and coaches coach. I don' believe that theory at all. There's a lot of coaches that say don't talk to him, I'll coach him. No, coach him so he can coach everyone . . . When you teach someone something you know it better than everyone else."

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Paul Alexander says Andrew Whitworth can play with an unorthodox style at times and still be the best left tackle in NFL.

And so it seems Whitworth is leading the line into another mountaintop moment in Baltimore. The Ravens are without the injured Suggs, the traded Haloti Ngata and the departed Pernell McPhee. That's 21.5 sacks from last season.

"The names are different but the style is the same and the attitude they play with is the same," Whitworth said. "There are different guys you have to prepare for, but at the end of the day you know kind of how they're going to play and the style of play that's expected of them and their football team. . . I don't think it's a big thing that you change a whole lot of stuff. . . . For us, it's just, hey, we go forward with who's on the football field and try to execute our plays."

But Dumervil's 17 sacks still haunt Edgar Allen Poe's corridors. The 5-11 Dumervil has always been one of Whitworth's toughest opponents and the leverage factor coming out of Whitworth's eight-inch height advantage would seem to be a reason. But he doesn't buy it.

"Everybody kind of has guys that they block differently or better or worse. So he's a good football player. I've had games where I've played well and had games where I felt I could have been better. So you always have those against different guys in your career," Whitworth said. "I wouldn't say he's the guy that gives you the most trouble. I think he's a guy that's tough. You're going to play on the road in an environment where you're going to have to throw it a lot. The style of rusher he is, he's good."

Translation: don't look for the Bengals to chuck it 51 times in the madness that is M&T Bank Stadium.  And they probably weren't too thrilled throwing it 38 times in last year's opener down there they still won on a Dalton bomb to Green. But they had to with 79 yards on 25 carries. The Ravens live on stopping the run to set up their pass rush. They may  have a new cast of characters, but linebacker C.J. Mosley and friends are holding teams to 3.8 yards per rush.

No doubt missing Suggs is huge. And it's tough for Whitworth to get nostalgic for their battles.

"It's a love-hate thing.  You hate the guy because he's so good and he's such a good football player and he makes so many plays when you play against their team, but you love the guy because he's what football's all about," Whitworth said. "He plays every snap, he plays it physically. You see some of these guys that lead in sacks every year and they only play on third down or only play in certain situations; he's one of those guys that every snap he's in the game making a difference. He's just a difference-maker. You love him for that fact."

T. Sizzle won't be around when the hottest offensive line in the game comes to town, but Whitworth is still expecting plenty of heat.

"It doesn't really matter, the scenarios or the records, whenever we line up against these guys," Whitworth said. "It's going to be a game where for 60 minutes we're going to flat-out get after each other. It's been that way in the 10 years I've been here, and I have no doubt it'll be that way this week."

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