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Whitworth watching rivals

Andrew Whitworth

The Steelers and Ravens are staging an AFC playoff game Saturday in Pittsburgh and every Bengals fan knows the ending.

Late in a low-scoring, taut emotional blender and physical demolition, the winner takes it by a field goal or touchdown while helped along by a killer turnover. Usually it is supplied by the opposing safeties headed on a crash course to Canton, the Steelers' Troy Polamalu and the Ravens' Ed Reed.

But the Bengals' Andrew Whitworth, admittedly biased, thinks their outside linebackers - Polamalu's James Harrison (10.5 sacks) and Reed's Terrell Suggs (11) - make it all go.

"Those are the two guys you have to block," says Whitworth, who has never allowed a sack to either in seven starts against Baltimore and four against Pittsburgh as a left tackle. "Polamalu and Reed make great plays, but a lot of it is the pressure by Harrison and Suggs that set up those plays. You can see the quarterback back there getting nervous, moving his feet and throwing it in a hurry. It's generated by the pressure up front."

A year after sweeping the Steelers and the Ravens, the Bengals are on the outside looking in through a funhouse mirror bloating the turnovers. In '09, they made three total in their four wins over Baltimore and Pittsburgh. In '10, they made 10. Some would say the turnovers were a product of more passes with 94 runs this year as opposed to 121 in the '09 sweeps.

But Whitworth chalks it up to a mentality.

"I'm not talking about the number of times rushing the ball. I'm talking about being physical; a mindset," he says. "We had such high expectations this year. It's like we waited for the good things to happen to us because we expected them to happen instead of going out and creating the good things. We sat back. The year before we went after it and made the good things happen."

Whitworth thinks the Bengals are not that far off, given that it was just last year they imposed their will on both teams. He likes the mindset in which they attacked the last month of the season and the way kids like wide receiver Jerome Simpson handled the rivalry in the last game of the year two weeks ago even though they lost to the Ravens by 13-7 and two yards with 10 seconds left.

After one play Whitworth had drilled Suggs, sending him to the ground and his helmet bouncing off the turf, Simpson handed Suggs his helmet with the observation, "He put you on the ground." This was after Suggs had been giving it to Simpson all game with stuff like, "I've caught more passes than you," and "You'll be out of the league next year."

For standing up to Suggs, Simpson was rewarded with a right hand in the facemask. Even though it was on the big screen, Suggs got $15,000 instead of 15 yards and Simpson got Whitworth's respect.

"Suggs has that bully mentality. If he can get away with picking on you, he will," Whitworth says. "Jerome is a young guy and he doesn't have Suggs' respect yet. But that showed me a lot about Jerome. He wasn't going to take it. And there wasn't much Suggs could say. He was on the ground and he was mad."

Whitworth thinks that's what Suggs is doing this week to Steelers tackle Jonathan Scott, a four-year journeyman who got chewed up by Suggs last month when he racked up 1.5 sacks and five hits on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  

But the voluble Suggs doesn't say anything to Whitworth while they're playing even though he's pretty much going at everybody else. Harrison doesn't, either, although he'll approach Whitworth after a game and wish him well. Suggs won't do that.

"Different guys, different type of players, but it's the same kind of approach," Whitworth says. "You know you're in for it all day long and it's going to be physically punishing."

Whitworth's scouting report, without any advice in order not to yield any trade secrets:

The 6-3, 260-pound Suggs: "Tremendous athlete who can do anything. He's strong, he's quick, and he lines up pretty much anywhere on both sides. He's so gifted physically, and the thing is, he's so big with all that athletic ability."

The 6-0, 242-pound Harrison: "Relentless. He's coming at you every play 100 miles per hour. He's got great leverage and great quickness. Because he's not that tall, his leverage gives you problems and it makes him difficult to keep him in front of you."

Now here is one NFL scout's view on how Whitworth has countered all that as a 6-7, 335-pounder who, on paper, is supposed to be an NFL guard but in reality is a Pro Bowl-type tackle. He may not have been named to the Pro Bowl, but the Bengals think enough of him they leave him one-on-one with Harrison and Suggs:

"Whitworth is so smart," the NFL scout says. "Since he doesn't have the typical quick feet of a left tackle, he has to see it and plan it. He does a great job taking the outer half of a man and not giving up the inside. He's such a big guy, and he uses his bulk and reach to run guys past the pocket without getting beat back inside. He plays with such composure. A lot of guys going up against speed rushers get nervous and try to compensate and don't stay focused, but he's very calm out there."

Whitworth expects the Ravens to give their tackles help against Harrison, much like they did against the Bengals ends in the finales. According to the stories coming out of Pittsburgh this week, the Steelers won't help on Suggs because he moves around so much.

"Whoever draws his number, which he flips both sides, you've got a job," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians told the Tribune-Review of Pittsburgh. "Whoever is assigned to him has to cinch it up and play hard." 

Whitworth thinks the Ravens go into Heinz and come up with the win. He doesn't see the Steelers having much success with Suggs.

"If Baltimore plays well in the secondary and they don't let (wide receiver) Mike Wallace beat them for a big play, I think they'll be OK," he says. "The way Pittsburgh is beat up up front and the way the Ravens can run it with Ray Rice, I think the Baltimore defense holds up."

But there are no surprises. Everyone knows exactly what to expect.

"Both teams play winning football," Whitworth says. "Good defense. Good, physical running games and heavy play-action that opens up the vertical passing game for big plays. That's what wins games."

The Bengals had the formula down as late as the second game of this season, a quintessential AFC North slugfest they won against the Ravens without scoring a touchdown.

What happened?

There's a raging debate that the Bengals turned their back on the AFC North formula in an effort to be more balanced, not to mention keeping wide receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco happy. Whitworth says the identity is not tied up in the number of rushes.

"We lost our identity a little bit, but that's all 53 guys being on the same page," Whitworth says. "It's that mentality that we're not going to worry about the other team. That we're going to worry only about what we do."

While one high-profile teammate such as running back Cedric Benson has made no bones about his beliefs that the offense needs to undergo a philosophical change back to the '09 template, Whitworth won't get into a debate about coaching and/or scheme changes.

"This is the NFL; I don't think players get into all that," he says. "I think guys are just trying to get healed up and get ready to come back and find that winning mentality again."

He'll watch it Saturday. And he won't root.

"Never root," he says. "Just watch. Any time you're watching the playoffs, it hurts."

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