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Tour de France on line


Dan France is getting plenty of work this preseason.

Dan France sat in front of his locker this week and it was rather fitting he had a small, but bright cut on the bridge of his nose.

Against the Giants in the pre-season opener he had led the Bengals offense with 69 snaps after playing 78 in all of last year's preseason as an undrafted rookie out of Michigan State. And, the cut seems to fit the persona he is building as offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and offensive line coach Paul Alexander craft some depth up front.

"He's a tough guy. He's got a lot of tough nastiness," says left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "He's a true old school lineman. He just likes to get after guys. Finisher. He definitely fits the mentality of something Hue really likes."

Offensive line depth has surfaced as a quiet concern in Camp Tranquility and France has taken the vacuum to go from bubble guy to a workable option. While the top-line weapons in wide receiver Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert have returned for Monday's second pre-season game in Tampa (8 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and ESPN) and  the starting line is relatively intact, the backup line is trying to find its footing.

After France took his place at backup left tackle when he was a late scratch against the Giants, second-round pick Jake Fisher (shoulder) is destined to miss another game and another chunk of valuable time at guard for a guy that had been penciled in as the first lineman off the bench. Backup guard Trey Hopkins, who had such a promising rookie year last preseason before he broke his leg, is also going to miss his second game as he tries to come back from the injury. T.J. Johnson is trying to secure the backup center spot and the Bengals are hoping he'll show more consistency.

Plus, starting right tackle Andre Smith may not go again with an unknown ailment that took him out of the last couple of practices this week. It's not believed to be a major problem, but it showcases the importance of the Eric Winston re-signing since he has replaced Fisher as the sixth man.  Winston, a 10-year veteran, played both right tackle and right guard during the entire first half last week and he may get a lot of work again with the Bengals trying to give backup quarterback AJ McCarron time to throw in his NFL debut.

But the 6-5, 305-pound France has answered with a strong training camp after spending all last season on the practice squad. Alexander says he's ahead of the usual timetable for a young lineman.

"He's really come on this year. He's such a good technician and he's a smart guy and competitive," Alexander says. "He was solid. He was good. I thought he did a solid job last week."

Like they say, he got good work. Even if the Giants were without their feared pass rusher, Jason Pierre-Paul.

"We stuck with the plan the whole time. We wanted to get Whitworth out quickly. And they kept their defense out longer than I thought they would," Alexander says. "I think they weren't real happy. Whatever their plan was, I don't know. He did a good job against them. Now, it wasn't Pierre-Paul out there. So that's part of the equation, too."

France's tour in the NFL is a familiar one. He didn't find the offensive line, it found him. Playing in Browns country in North Royalton, Ohio, he was a 280-pound high school tight end and outside linebacker. Then he began his career at East Lansing on the defensive line before switching after two years.

But the experience shows up.

"It always (helps)," says Alexander of a defensive stint. "It helps your temperament and understanding of the other side of the ball. And knowing the basic things, like contain."

This summer France has been content to stay on his side of the ball and watch Whitworth. He played a mix of guard and tackle on the practice squad and has played more tackle than guard this camp, just like he did last camp. But he was supposed to play guard against the Giants before Fisher got scratched.  

"I'm watching Whitworth every play," France says. "I've been taking pointers from him. He knows so many tricks of the trade."

France says, "It's crazy," because Whitworth's technique is so good that he make it looks so easy that it doesn't seem like he's trying. France started 24 games at left tackle for the Spartans before moving to right guard as a senior and he started for three seasons on the high school basketball team. Good athlete. But the NFL is the NFL.

"It's about technique," Whitworth says. "Playing offensive line, unlike many other positions, you can't get away with just athleticism and strength. Take your strongest guys. If they have bad footwork, they're not going to play real well.

"Dan's a guy always working on his game," Whitworth says. "He may ask, 'What is your focus on this play?' 'What are you thinking about when you block certain plays?' I think for him and every other lineman it's about consistency over time. What he's done is put practices together over a large span of time. He's got the physicality to play both tackle and on the inside and that's helped him."

Plus, it just takes time and this looks to be his time.

"He needed to just to get it all," Alexander says. "Usually the third year is when a player starts to get it, an NFL lineman. He may be ahead of the curve that way."

The good news is the Bengals think they may have found a guy worthy of the roster because he can play both guard and tackle. The downer is they found him because France is getting Fisher's snaps and they're running out of time to get Fisher versatile. And it's doubly tough on Fisher because he was beginning to come on after struggling early in camp.

"He's falling behind. Every day he doesn't practice he falls behind," Alexander says. "The goal this week was to teach him how to play guard, and so that's not happening. Early in camp he had some rough spots but by the end of last week he was playing pretty good left tackle. So OK, now let's learn some guard. But he's not out there. He's got to get himself healthy and get out there."

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