- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- Dare we say it?
Why not? Somebody has to.
There. It's been said. The universe may not want to accept it, but it's now out there. Take it or leave it. Agree with it or laugh at it. Whatever you do, just consider the following: the Bengals sure looked pretty good Sunday afternoon with the Pro Bowl tackle playing on the interior of their line.
For all but five of the 61 plays they ran against the Chargers in their Week 13 contest at Qualcomm Stadium, the Bengals were forced into the unenviable task of replacing their two starting offensive guards. Right guard Kevin Zeitler already was missing in action, declared inactive before the game due to a foot injury that has slowed him the last three weeks. He made the trip, but didn't participate.
He ended up getting joined on the sidelines by left guard Clint Boling, a third-year lineman from Georgia who succumbed to a knee injury on the Bengals' second drive. Coach Marvin Lewis after the game called it "significant." During his news conference back in Cincinnati on Monday, he outlined just how bad it was.
"I don't know if a doctor has read it yet, but I can see it and it looks like a torn ACL," Lewis said.
The coach added that Boling will soon have surgery and be moved to injured reserve. When he officially gets placed on IR, Boling will become the ninth Bengals player to be added to the season-ending list this year. He also will be the first offensive player to receive that designation. Receiver Andrew Hawkins was lost for all of the preseason and half of the regular season when he was added to the IR/designated to return list. He was the only other non-PUP (physically unable to perform list) offensive player to miss significant time this season. Hawkins came back at Miami four games ago.
Boling's injury means the Bengals are down at least one starting interior lineman. Zeitler is expected to return from his foot injury this weekend when Indianapolis comes to Cincinnati for a key AFC battle. If Zeitler does play, he probably goes back to his right guard position, sparking a series of important decisions for the Bengals' coaching staff.
Either Zeitler's replacement, Mike Pollak, will shift over to left guard and handle Boling's responsibilities, or the Bengals will put him back on the bench and retain the rest of the line setup that plowed the way for a 164-yard team rushing performance, and kept quarterback Andy Dalton from taking a single sack Sunday.
All due respect to Pollak, who has played well in relief of Zeitler, but the Bengals need to stick with what made their offense roll so well this weekend. That means sticking with the setup that included moving Whitworth from left tackle to left guard, and bringing reserve tackle Anthony Collins over to Whitworth's former left tackle spot. Andre Smith, who was bizarrely benched in favor of Collins at right tackle ended up playing exclusively at his usual position following Boling's injury, should stay at right tackle.
"Adjusting to Clint Boling's injury, and Andrew sliding in at guard, we just really did it kind of seamlessly," Lewis said. "That was very good. Our front group, including our tight end Jermaine Gresham, did a great job up front blocking."
Cincinnati's linemen felt like they carried the team to the victory.
"We got that swagger," Collins said right after the game. "In the huddle, we were talking to each other like, 'Let's do it. We can't be stopped. Let's do it. Let's drive this ball, put it on our back and go home.'"
On the final drive, they did. Buoyed by running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis' pile-moving running ability, the Bengals' offensive front pushed the Chargers back just enough to pick up three first downs that resulted from runs. The harder it seemed Green-Ellis ran, the more joy the linemen seemed to take in continuing to push the line forward.
"As good as throwing the ball is, running the ball, you can't take the emotion out of being able to run it effectively," Whitworth said. "It lifts the whole team. It gives a sense of empowerment."
Asked after the game whether he felt Boling's injury might lead to a reworked Bengals line that had him playing guard, Whitworth was every bit as vague as his coaches were Monday, and likely will be throughout the week.
"We'll see how it plays out," Whitworth said. "I love to be a tone-setter inside."
He has to be that tone-setter.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden knows Whitworth can be. Not only does Whitworth's size and agility help shield linebackers from the smaller running backs behind him, but he plays differently when he's inside as opposed to the outside edge, Gruden said.
"As a guard, he has a little bit different demeanor than he would as a tackle," Gruden said. "He can come off a little bit more ferociously, so to speak, where that's what he likes. He likes to grind people and drive people and play physical. Sometimes at tackle, he doesn't get that luxury."
That's all you need to know.
Just leave Whitworth at guard, Bengals. You're better off with him there.
Still, having said that, don't place Whitworth's name in ink at the position. With Pollak playing well and Zeitler coming back, the Bengals are in the envious position of still having depth on the line. They have other options. That's why Lewis won't yet consider the Whitworth-to-guard move a done deal.
Asked what would go into making that decision, Lewis laughed and responded: "Me not talking about it. I guess that line of questioning is over."
Actually, coach, it should have been over as soon as your team walked off the field Sunday.
Here's the answer: leave Whitworth at guard.