AFC North: Andrew Whitworth

INDIANAPOLIS -- This should come as little surprise, but expect the Cincinnati Bengals to have their hands full as they bid for Clint Boling's services when free agency begins next month.

It's possible the versatile 25-year-old left guard draws significant interest when the market officially opens March 10. This tweet from ESPN senior writer Jeremy Fowler from Thursday morning provides a good indication why.


So what exactly makes Boling a potential "under-radar" favorite?

There's a number of reasons. Chief among them is Boling's aforementioned positional flexibility. Although he spent the bulk of his career at left guard, Boling also has spent some time at right tackle. In addition to playing a little there in college, he practiced at the position in preseason camps and ended up there for parts of two games this past season after starter Andre Smith was lost for the year with a torn triceps.

Boling also has to be attractive because of how well he played in 2014 considering he was less than nine months removed from ACL surgery. While his defensive teammate, tackle Geno Atkins, struggled to bounce back from his own ACL tear, Boling was strong on the line, particularly in opening holes for the running game. Pro Football Focus graded him as the Bengals' third-best run-blocker behind Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler.

For teams that want to make the ground game the priority, Boling has value.

Clearly, with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard such a focal point of their offense, the Bengals are one such team. As a result, they're going to make a play to keep Boling.

With a $1.6 million cap charge in 2014, Boling was one of the cheapest starting guards in the league. Forty-eight guards had higher cap values than him, including his backup, Mike Pollak.

The Bengals come into this year's free agency with an anticipated $33 million in cap space. The NFL has yet to announce what the final 2015 cap limit will be, but it's expected to hover just above $140 million per team.

Besides the potential affordability aspect of re-signing Boling, the Bengals also have a track record of pushing hard for re-signing players they trust. It's why Domata Peko earned an extension last offseason, and why Whitworth has been a stalwart of the offensive line. The Bengals this year will have to determine if the trust they have in Boling matches the dollar amount they're willing to spend on him.
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INDIANAPOLIS -- To play for the Cincinnati Bengals, an offensive lineman must possess one important quality: versatility.

Versatile linemen, in the eyes of Bengals coaches, are ones who aren't specialized. They're players who have no qualms about switching sides of the line if need be, or switching between interior and exterior blocking positions when asked.

LSU product and potential Bengals target La'el Collins considers himself to be precisely that type of player.

"I don't have any preference," Collins said Wednesday afternoon at the NFL combine, speaking specifically about playing left or right tackle. "I can go wherever."

Throughout his college career, Collins bounced back and forth between the two edge-blocking spots, and even did the same on the interior. His later years at LSU were spent playing left tackle. During the Senior Bowl, he took reps at four different line positions.

That's called versatility.

If you've followed the Bengals the last few seasons, you understand why the organization values such flexibility.

Two seasons ago, veteran Andrew Whitworth, the organization's stalwart left tackle moved to left guard the last six games when Clint Boling was lost due to an ACL tear. It wasn't the most ideal scenario for Whitworth, but he volunteered to make the switch anyway. While he preferred the comfort and familiarity of the left tackle position, he felt that moving inside would make the team even better. It arguably did, with the Bengals posting some of their best rushing performances in those end-of-season games.

This past season, the Bengals were forced to make similar switches when right tackle Andre Smith was lost in Week 11 due to a triceps tear. With him out of the rotation, Boling briefly moved from left guard to right tackle before the Cincinnati ultimately found a reliable replacement in veteran tackle Eric Winston.

Versatility; it's what can help a line during harrowing moments like those.

"It's a big advantage," Collins said about playing multiple positions. "It's about understanding the personnel you are blocking. When you're inside you are going against bigger guys. They are stronger, not faster, but on an island you are going against fast guys who are long with speed. You have to be able to understand where you're at on the field and understand the personnel you're going against."

Collins' versatility even extends to the other side of the ball. Before transitioning to the offensive line in high school, he spent the majority of his early playing years -- Collins started football in the third grade -- on the defensive line.

"I always had the mentality of a defensive lineman since I was a defensive guy," he said. "I was able to bring that over on the offensive side, but also bring that intelligence over as well to be able to play the offensive line position. To me, being able to go out with a mentality to just get after it is something I can bring to the table."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard at the NFL combine on Wednesday:

1.Key offensive tackle target speaks. Among the several offensive line prospects who came into the interview room, LSU product La'el Collins was one of the few who figures to be a Cincinnati Bengals target in this year's draft. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound lineman told reporters he has meetings set up with 22 teams while attending the combine. A team with a very real need at offensive tackle, the Bengals are likely one of those teams. Specifically, the Bengals are on the hunt for another backup swing tackle, while also looking for a player who could eventually take over at left tackle for Pro Bowler Andrew Whitworth, who will turn 34 late next season.

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey"Could I come in right now and play left [tackle]?" La'el Collins asked. "I feel very confident in what I do so for me it wouldn't be a problem."
2. Could Collins be a Bengals fit? Some of the feedback Collins has received so from teams suggests he would be a good fit for Cincinnati. "A lot of teams have told me I am their favorite offensive lineman," Collins said. "A lot of teams asked me if I could slide to the right side and then in two years maybe come over to the left. Could I come in right now and play left? I feel very confident in what I do so for me it wouldn't be a problem."

3. Interviews have impact. With all the pro days and the Senior Bowl and the myriad other ways teams can evaluate players these days, what is the main reason teams still flock to the combine? The interviews. While in Indianapolis, coaching and scouting staffs that don't attend the Senior Bowl can talk to players for the first time. Staffs that may have started conversations at the college all-star game can continue them at the combine. Here's what Washington head coach and former Bengals assistant Jay Gruden said about the benefit of interviews: "Your needs can change. I may be thinking about [one player at] a position but somebody else will stand out in the interview room or out on the field out there, and then you go back and watch the tape on them."

4. Looking for character. One of the benefits of the interview process is that it gives teams a chance to better vet players who may bring "red flags" or off-field issues to the draft process. Browns coach Mike Pettine was asked if he missed anything in evaluating quarterback Johnny Manziel last year. "There's a danger in that if you just say listen, we're only going to add players to our roster that are National Honor Society and in the school choir, there's a danger in that. You look across the league, it's not just the league, it's society in general. It's rare that you're going to have somebody that has impeccable, clean character. ... You can't just knee-jerk react to it and just look in the other direction with anybody that has some type of red flag and you shy away from them."

5. Bengals up Thursday. Cincinnati's coaches didn't address media Wednesday, but will Thursday. In addition to head coach Marvin Lewis' time at the podium, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is expected to meet with local media.
CINCINNATI -- Last spring, the Cincinnati Bengals used strong ties to LSU's coaching staff to land two of their eight draft picks.

Running back Jeremy Hill and receiver James Wright were selected in the second and seventh round, respectively. Bengals coaches said that conversations with friends and trustworthy allies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had them convinced about adding both despite varying concerns other teams had.

Hill brought to the draft process his share of off-field baggage, the result of two arrests in three years. The first came when he was in high school and delayed his arrival to LSU by a year. The second forced him to miss the first game of his sophomore year; a year that proved to be his final college season.

Ahead of last year's combine, Hill sent a letter to all 32 teams explaining in deep detail what led to his arrests. He wanted them to know they were part of his past, but didn't define his character. Since coming to Cincinnati, he's avoided legal troubles and is a well-liked teammate and media favorite.

Teams were concerned about Wright because the receiver didn't catch a pass his senior year. The Bengals' own evaluations of the special-teamer/wideout and their conversations with LSU coaches led them to believe he was worth the gamble.

The decisions paid off extremely well in 2014.

But what about in 2015? Are there any Tigers gems the Bengals might mine from Les Miles this year? Here are four LSU prospects who could draw some attention from the Bengals the next few weeks:

OT La'el Collins
Size: 6-foot-4, 324 pounds
Projection: Possible first-round pick
Analysis: Collins is one of six LSU products who will be at the combine and one of seven who are hoping to be drafted (there are two running backs and a corner not listed below; those are position groups not pegged as needs for the Bengals this year). He's certainly one player worth keeping an eye on for the Bengals as they start focusing on shoring up depth behind veteran tackles Andrew Whitworth (another LSU product) and Andre Smith. Whitworth hasn't shown signs of slowing down, but he will turn 34 next season. His career likely will come to a close soon. He and Smith also will hit free agency next year, and it will be good for the Bengals to have a talented player to groom there in case they don't get re-signed. ESPN draft insider Todd McShay said Collins is a strong run-blocker with good character.

DE Danielle Hunter
Size: 6-foot-6, 235 pounds
Projection: Rounds 2-3
Analysis: Cincinnati needs pass-rushers, and Hunter fits the prototypical build the Bengals like. He's got the right height, although he's a little lighter than they might want as an edge-rusher. He had trouble getting to quarterbacks in 2014, though, finishing with just 1.5 sacks. He had 4.5 across his three seasons. It's not likely the Bengals will draft him, but he could be worth exploring.

LB Kwon Alexander
Size: 6-foot-2, 230 pounds
Projection: Rounds 2-4
Analysis: Depending upon what happens in free agency with Rey Maualuga, the Bengals could have a draft need for interior linebackers. Even if Maualuga is re-signed, they still have depth concerns at the position from a talent standpoint. Alexander is primarily noted for his speed, toughness and blitzing ability. He's ESPN's third-rated inside linebacker.

DE Jermauria Rasco
Size: 6-foot-4, 260 pounds
Projection: Rounds 5-7
Analysis: Any and all pass-rush options are on the table for the Bengals at this point. It seems most likely they'll use one of their earlier picks on taking a pass-rusher, but it's also possible they could have a few late-round options.

Bengals sign OT Matthew O'Donnell

February, 2, 2015
Feb 2
3:45
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- One day after the conclusion of the 2014 season, the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday signed a free-agent offensive tackle as they start assembling their offseason roster.

Former Bengals practice squad player Matthew O'Donnell was the addition, joining the Bengals after spending the last two seasons playing for the Canadian Football League's Edmonton Eskimos. O'Donnell was last in the NFL in 2012, when the Bengals waived him off their preseason roster.

A 6-foot-9, 340-pound lineman, the 25-year-old brings a measure of size to a position for the Bengals that is in need of bodies. Cincinnati got so depleted at offensive tackle during the season that starting left guard Clint Boling was forced to move over to play the right tackle spot. The starter there, Andre Smith, tore his left triceps Week 12 at Houston. After surgery to repair the injury, Smith is expected to be healthy by training camp.

O'Donnell can give the Bengals another edge protector as they gear up for minicamp season in May. He also could be necessary if the Bengals don't re-sign veteran Eric Winston, who arrived in Cincinnati the week after Smith's injury. The free agent ultimately started at right tackle and played well in the final five games. It's possible the 31-year-old returns next month when teams are able to negotiate with players eligible for free agency.

It has been expected the Bengals also may add an offensive tackle in the draft this spring. Given the depth issues at the position and the advanced age of 33-year-old Pro Bowl tackle Andrew Whitworth, it seems time the Bengals think of the long-term future of the position. Whitworth, who is coming off arguably the best season of his career, will be a free agent next offseason. He has shown little signs of slowing down, but the Bengals still may want to begin preparing for life without him.

O'Donnell originally was signed by the Bengals as a college free agent in 2011. He played in college at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada.

Nine other Bengals also officially were placed under reserve/future contracts Monday. Each had already been signed, but their contracts just went into effect now that the season officially ended with Sunday's Super Bowl.
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Injuries and changes at their top two assistant-coaching positions had many convinced at the start of the season the Cincinnati Bengals would struggle to repeat as AFC North champion.

Despite all of that, they almost did it. For six of the last seven weeks of the regular season, they led the division, helped in large part by a tie that should have really been a win. Had they made a 36-yard overtime field goal against Carolina, they would have finished with a somewhat unexpected 11-win season.

It was in the regular-season finale that they lost the division following a 27-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. On Sunday, they lost something bigger: a fourth straight playoff game. The defeat calls into question what the future ought to look like for a talented team whose Super Bowl window might be closing.

Team MVP: Three players deserved true consideration for this. Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth didn't allow a sack all season and led all qualifying offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking efficiency metric that accounts for how few times the linemen allow pressures on their quarterbacks. Cornerback and return specialist Adam Jones keeps playing better the older he gets. On Friday, he earned first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors as a kick returner. As well as those two played, though, rookie running back Jeremy Hill was the real difference-maker. His 929 rushing yards in the final nine weeks of the season led all backs and provided a much-needed spark to the Bengals' offense. He's a legitimate rookie of the year candidate.

Best moment: Amid a steady rainfall on a chilly December night in Cincinnati, the Bengals defeated future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning for the first time when cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick picked off two of Manning's passes in the final three minutes. The first one, with 2:41 left, was the product of Kirkpatrick making a smart, outside-shoulder read on his receiver's route. It looked like Manning practically threw the short pass directly to him. Kirkpatrick's subsequent return for touchdown put the game out of reach, helping give the Bengals a playoff berth and allowing them to prove they can win in prime time.

Worst moment: The low moment of the season came in Week 6 when kicker Mike Nugent was brought on at the end of an overtime period to kick a game-winning, 36-yard field goal. The ball sailed wide right as time expired. The game ended in a 37-37 tie that was one of the difference-makers in getting the sub-.500 Carolina Panthers into the postseason. It was the last miss Nugent would have before pushing another wide at Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale. He went 15 straight before the 50-yarder didn't go through the uprights at Heinz Field. The 10-year vet further redeemed himself with a franchise-long 57-yarder at Indianapolis on Sunday.

2015 outlook: Just as the 2014 season seemed promising last January, so does the 2015 campaign at this point. Though it remains to be seen what changes might come to the coaching staff and personnel ranks following a fourth-straight playoff loss, little else should be lost in positions of value. If anything, the Bengals will have gains -- and big ones -- entering next season. Receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones will begin the year healthy, with a more experienced Mohamed Sanu. Tight end Tyler Eifert will presumably be at full strength, as will linebacker Vontaze Burfict. As four of their biggest-name free agents, decisions on Jermaine Gresham, Rey Maualuga, Terence Newman and Devon Still could create intrigue during the offseason.
PITTSBURGH -- Here is a by-the-numbers look at the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, who meet Sunday night at 8:30 p.m. ET at Heinz Field.

0: Sacks allowed this season by Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who has played in every game.

1: Touchdown receptions Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown needs against the Bengals to set the team’s single-season record for scoring catches.

2: Scores allowed by the Steelers on opponents’ opening drive, both field goals, in their last seven games.

3: Steelers tight end Heath Miller's NFL rank in career catches (529) and receiving yards (5,993) among active NFL tight ends.

7: Wins for the Bengals, against no losses, when they have held the opposition to less than 100 yards rushing this season.

7: Scores allowed by the Steelers on opponents’ opening drive in their first eight games.

19: Rushing touchdowns by the Bengals, their most in a season under 12th-year coach Marvin Lewis.

20: Percentage of Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant's 25 catches that have covered at least 44 yards.

23.2: Average yards allowed by the Steelers on kickoff returns.

30: Receiving yards Brown needs against the Bengals to become the first player in Steelers history to average at least 100 yards receiving per game in a season.

33.2: Average yards by Bengals kickoff returner Adam Jones, which leads the NFL.

34: Runs of at least 10 yards by Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell.

44.3: Jones’ average yards on three kickoff returns last Monday night in a 37-28 win over the Denver Broncos.

53: Total points by which the Steelers have outscored their opponents in the second quarter.

67: Total points by which the Bengals have outscored their opponents in the first half.

73.7: Bengals’ winning percentage in games they have led at halftime under Lewis (95 total games).

79.3: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s career winning percentage at home against AFC North teams.

85.9: Bengals' winning percentage in 85 games under Lewis in which they have at least 30 rushing attempts.

99.3: Rushing yards per game allowed by the Steelers, sixth best in the NFL.

135.4: Rushing yards per game by the Bengals, fifth best in the NFL.
» Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster

SELECTIONS

A.J. Green, fourth Pro Bowl selection: Injuries have made it a difficult year for Green, who missed parts of five games because of them. For that reason, his selection is a little puzzling. It seems likely that his name alone carried him through this season's picks. He has now been a Pro Bowl selection each year of his career. It's possible a four-game stretch across November and early December may have helped his cause, too. He caught 33 passes for 529 yards in those contests. While he leads the Bengals in receptions (61), receiving yards (959) and receiving touchdowns (six) despite the injuries, he also ranks far down his position's statistical lists. Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown has double the catches Green does, and 23 players have more receiving yards.

Who he beat out: Green beat out Emmanuel Sanders, Jeremy Maclin and Randall Cobb for the roster spot.

Kevin Huber, first Pro Bowl selection: It made sense that Huber was selected. It would have been a travesty if he hadn't been. That's because all season, he's hovered in the top 5 in gross and net punting averages. If his current averages hold through Sunday's regular-season finale at Pittsburgh, Huber would break single-season franchise records he already holds. He's also the club record-holder in career gross average (44.6) and net average (39.7).

Who he beat out: Huber beat St. Louis' Johnny Hekker, New Orleans' Thomas Morstead and Baltimore's Sam Koch.

SNUBS

Andrew Whitworth, OT. A good case could be made that this was the biggest snub of this year's Pro Bowl voting process. But, as was written last weekend, it was expected. Whitworth has been an almost annual snub. Only once has been voted to the all-star game. Arguably, though, he's played even better since his 2012 selection. This season could go down as the best of his career. Fully healthy all year, Whitworth hasn't allowed quarterback Andy Dalton to be sacked, one of five tackles to have accomplished that feat. He's also only permitted nine quarterback pressures all season, according to Pro Football Focus. Consider this, too: in eight of his 15 games, he has allowed zero pressures. In Week 16 alone, 55 tackles allowed at least one pressure. Whitworth's 98.6 PFF pass-block efficiency rating also is the highest among tackles.

Who he should have beaten: The entire offensive-tackle field. The metrics and PFF grades back it up. There was no better offensive tackle in the league this season than Whitworth.

Kevin Zeitler, OG. Like Whitworth, Zeitler suffered from the media black hole that exists around Cincinnati. Few people outside the city know who they are. Injuries also could have factored in this case, as calf issues kept Zeitler out of four games. Still, he had one of the best seasons of any guard when he played. His 98.4 PFF pass-block efficiency grade ranked fourth among them. It was just 0.4 points behind leader Josh Sitton from Green Bay.

Who he should have beaten: New Orleans' Jahri Evans and San Francisco's Mike Iupati.

Adam Jones, PR. There were a couple potential Bengals special teams snubs, including Dre Kirkpatrick, who might have been a good option for the general specialist position. He had a knack of helping Huber down punts inside the 10 as the team's lead gunner. Jones' snub was more noticeable because of how well he performed as a punt returner all year. At one point, he led the league in punt return average. Among players with 15 or more punt returns at the end of Week 16, he ranks fifth with 11.9 yards per return. Although he doesn't have a punt return touchdown, he did have returns of 45, 21 and 19 yards this season. He also had a streak that spanned nine seasons halted when he fair caught a punt for the first time in 96 tries. It is hard to argue against the selections of Darren Sproles (two punt-return touchdowns) and Devin Hester, though.

Who he should have beaten: Hester.
CINCINNATI -- When the Cincinnati Bengals arrived at Paul Brown Stadium for interviews last Tuesday, they knew they would be getting the questions.

Losers of two night games earlier in the season, they had a 2-6 record in prime time since 2011, the year Andy Dalton was made the starting quarterback. With an 8:30 p.m. kickoff on the horizon, reporters and fans wanted to know: why were they so bad in such big, nationally televised games?

The Bengals had few answers, but they did know that they were tired of having to answer the questions.

"It is annoying, and it's our job to make it unannoying," safety George Iloka said.

Though the questions probably won't completely fade after the Bengals' 37-28 win against the Denver Broncos on ESPN's "Monday Night Football," they ought to be silenced slightly entering next Sunday's night kickoff in Pittsburgh. Win again on the big stage, and now all of a sudden, the concerns about Dalton and the bright lights start to fade.

A playoff berth was the byproduct of Monday's victory, making it all the more sweet for the Bengals that they got in by winning the type of game so few believed they could. If they beat Pittsburgh, they will have clinched a second straight AFC North title, and -- coupled with a Denver loss to the Oakland Raiders next Sunday -- could finish with the AFC's No. 2 seed.

"Until we had a win like this, people kept saying we couldn't win in prime time," Dalton said. "So yes, it was big for us to get this win. Regardless of what people were saying, this win meant more because it got us in the playoffs. We know what we are going up against next week, but this was a big win for us."

Dalton is now the fifth quarterback in league history to lead his team to the playoffs in his first four seasons.

This victory was the kind that put veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth in a reflective mood. The Bengals have now reached the postseason a franchise-record four straight years, and have been to the playoffs five of the past six.

"I don't take that for granted," the nine-year veteran said. "I know a lot of good football players that never made it. And to be a captain for all of those. That's something I won't take for granted, and it's something I'm super proud of."

So was Marvin Lewis, who claimed Monday his 100th win as a head coach. In five playoff trips since 2005, his teams have yet to win.

"It's expected, but there's more out there," Lewis said. "Obviously, you've got to climb the mountain to get to this point, and [the players] have done that thus far. They just keep doing it and doing it and doing it, and we've got to just keep going. We've got another big week that's coming up."

After a day off Tuesday, the Bengals will treat the rest of the week like normal. They will practice Wednesday through Friday. That includes a Christmas Day practice that will be closed to media.
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 37-28 win over the Denver Broncos:

Kirkpatrick
A handful of footballs: Nearly an hour after he picked off Peyton Manning for the last time in a steady rain shower, Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick walked through locker room with his hands full of clothes and footballs. He had just answered the last question of an unexpected whirlwind postgame interview session. He apparently was in such a good mood he didn't finish putting the shirt on he was going to wear. As he smiled and said goodbye to a few passersby, he walked out into the chilly night in a tank top and shorts ... and with the two footballs. They weren't official game balls, but they were offerings to recognize his two-interception game. Both pickoffs came in the final three minutes.

Bernard offers respect: It could be easy for a once-rising star who lately has gotten outshined by a rookie to sulk and be bitter toward the player who has taken his limelight. But Giovani Bernard has decided not to be that way. He didn't have to do it, but Bernard gave respect to Jeremy Hill. As he got ready to leave late Monday night, Bernard navigated behind the slew of reporters that were standing at the locker next to him, turned toward his locker neighbor and tapped on him on the arm. When he got Hill's attention, he gave him a fist bump and congratulated him on his night. Hill rushed for 147 yards, becoming the third rookie in league history to have four 140-yard rushing performances in a season. Bernard, whose role has been diminished the last two weeks, had 81 total yards (36 rushing and 45 receiving).

Glad Green was hurt? Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth wasn't pleased Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green had to go through a painful injury, but he was happy to see how his young teammates responded to it. With their superstar wideout sidelined with an arm injury suffered during an early Broncos pick-six, the Bengals responded. "I loved it," Whitworth said. "Sure, it's a negative feeling at the time it happened, but the way guys just kind of buckled their chinstraps and just said, 'All right, we're going to win this thing one way or another,' that's something that I had not seen these young guys do in the past. I loved the resiliency. I love the attitude of that."

W2W4: Broncos vs. Bengals

December, 22, 2014
12/22/14
3:30
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- A few storylines to watch Monday night when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Denver Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium:

Ayodele
Knighton
Line anchors: Keep your eyes trained on the Bengals' offensive line. Not only will the unit have a massive challenge to contend with in the running game -- both literally and figuratively -- in the form of Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, but it will have a pair of tough-to-block edge rushers in the passing game, too. An athletic 330 pounds, Knighton is adept at plugging holes on interior rushing plays. The presence of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller on the outside doesn't make it easy for rushers to cut back outside if the inside run is a no-go. Ware and Miller also are among the game's most effective rushers in passing situations. If the Bengals have any hope at moving the football Monday, it will be to play physically with Knighton in the run, and to provide solid pockets when quarterback Andy Dalton is passing. One way the Bengals are doing that on the right side of their line, in particular, is by anchoring the unit with veteran Eric Winston. Expect him to get his first Bengals start there, lining up opposite Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

Red zone a factor: Cincinnati's defense will try hard to keep the Broncos out of the red zone, but recent trends show that might not be a bad thing if it happens. According to ESPN Stats & Information, after leading the league in red-zone completion percentage, touchdown passes and total QBR through his first 11 games, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning ranks outside the top 20 in each category over the past three weeks. The absence of tight end Julius Thomas for two of those three contests correlated with the declining production inside the 20. Although Thomas returned last week, he wasn't that effective on his hurt ankle. He is considered healthier this week, which means you should look for him to play a bigger role in the red zone Monday for the Broncos. He entered the week leading the league in red-zone touchdown catches with nine.

Green
Toss it to Green: As much as we have hammered home all week the importance of the Bengals running the football in this game, you simply can't ignore the fact that this is a team with A.J. Green on its roster. Cincinnati has to be smart with the way it runs the ball, but it also has to be savvy about the way it utilizes Green, the Pro Bowl wide out who went on a four-game tear in November and early December, catching 33 passes for 529 yards and three touchdown. He was at his best in that stretch in the deep passing game. Of his 33 catches, 12 came on throws that traveled 10 yards or more in the air. All three of his touchdowns came on such throws, including an 81-yard reception against Pittsburgh. What helped him get open downfield for those catches? The running game. Specifically, the play-action pass that resulted from it. With linebackers and safeties flowing up to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Green has been single-covered by the end of recent games. Be on the lookout for similar opportunities Monday if Cincinnati's running game gets going early.
CINCINNATI -- It's late December, meaning it must be time for the yearly tradition Andrew Whitworth has grown far too accustomed to.

When the Pro Bowl teams are announced Tuesday night, the Cincinnati Bengals left tackle may not hear his name called. If that indeed happens, it will be just the latest in a series of times when the deserving Whitworth has been snubbed.

And that's a shame.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Whitworth
Darron Cummings/Associated PressAndrew Whitworth has basically been inpenetrable for the Cincinnati Bengals this season.
At 33, Whitworth has arguably had his best season and has done so by accomplishing feats the majority of other tackles could only dream of doing.

But the days when rejection from the all-star game might bug him are long past.

"I'm used to that," Whitworth said earlier this week. "I don't know how many tackles haven't given up a sack all season, but I doubt it's many. But hey, I don't worry about that. I know all the guys who will be on it."

He wasn't in the top 10 of the Pro Bowl fan vote that closed Wednesday. The Browns' Joe Thomas led all offensive tackle vote-getters with nearly 343,000 votes. San Francisco's Joe Staley was the 10th tackle on the ballot with 118,050.

Still, there's a chance Whitworth could earn his second Pro Bowl selection through coach and player voting.

Whitworth wasn't Cincinnati's only top-10 snub. Punter Kevin Huber, who has been first or second in net punting average all season, wasn't in the fans' top 10. The only Bengal who was a top-10 fan selection was punt returner Adam Jones. He finished sixth in the fan balloting.

According to Pro Football Focus, Whitworth is one of four offensive tackles who haven't allowed a sack all season. Thomas and Staley have permitted one and four sacks, respectively. The other eight top-10 vote-getters have allowed a combined 26, an average of 3.3 per player.

Per PFF, Whitworth hasn't allowed a single pressure in eight games this season. On 463 pass-block snaps, he's given up just nine pressures, giving him a 98.7 pass-blocking efficiency rating, the highest in the NFL. Thomas isn't far behind with a 98.1 efficiency rating.

"I can't say enough about him and what he means," Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said of Whitworth. "He's having fun and he's really taking the mentality of leadership with that group."

According to Whitworth, health has been the key this season. After experiencing knee pain parts of the last two seasons and struggling with figuring how to address it, he began this season feeling better than he recently had.

"It's just a night and day world from playing on one leg like I did for two seasons," he said. "I get to explode, I can do what I want to do, and I can really pull anything out of the bag every week. I'm a lot more confident, and not really cocky -- I respect everybody I'm playing -- but I don't have a fear of anybody that's lining up across from me."

Even the player who will be paired against Whitworth on Monday night, Denver Broncos LB DeMarcus Ware, can see that.

"When you think about tackles, they'll say another name [first]," said Ware, who played against Whitworth often in college. "Usually they don't say him, but he's one of those guys that needs to be put in that echelon with the top tackles in the league."
CINCINNATI -- It would be unwise for the Cincinnati Bengals to out-think themselves this week and give up on the run.

It must be said that there is no reason to believe they will do such a thing Monday night when they host the Denver Broncos on ESPN, but you never can be so sure.

If coaches ever do entertain the thought this week of going away from what worked so well in Cincinnati's 30-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, here's some sage advice.

Don't.

This is coming from the Bengals themselves, who believe the best way to keep winning challenging games this month is by keeping the ball on the ground.

"We've been a team that, honestly, the running game has put us in the situation we've been in this year, and we need to continue to believe in it and let it be a part of who we are," veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.

There's evidence of the run game's success as well.

"As we've grown throughout the year, the running game has continued to evolve," Whitworth said. "We are getting better and better at it and more efficient at it."

Indeed, they are. The link above shows just how much more efficient the Bengals have been since Week 9, when rookie Jeremy Hill first earned starting duties at running back when Giovani Bernard missed three straight games because of injuries. Even in the recent weeks, when Bernard has been healthy, the Bengals have continued to feed the ball to Hill. This past Sunday, receiving his first start with Bernard also in the rotation, Hill gained 148 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in the Bengals' victory over the Browns.

It was the third time in six games he had gained more than 140 yards.

As the Bengals welcome the league's No. 2 rushing defense to Paul Brown Stadium on Monday, another veteran offensive tackle, Eric Winston thinks the rushing emphasis ought to carry over into this week.

"More so than anything, it has to be a mindset. It has to be a thought and the way you carry yourself," Winston said. "Knowing what we did Sunday has to be who we are and not just a week-to-week thing. It has to be the badge you wear every week. That's when we're at our best. Even when I wasn't here, you noticed that this offense is at its best when it's running the ball effectively.

Hill
"If that's who we're going to be, then that's who we need to be every week."

Part of the reason teams don't fare well on the ground against the Broncos is because Denver often is so far ahead that opposing offenses reject the run to pass their way back into games.

After three quarters, the Broncos' points margin is plus-117, third-highest in the league behind the Packers and Patriots. It's no surprise they are among the four teams that have allowed the fewest fourth-quarter rushes this season, averaging less than 5.4.

Overall, Denver has allowed 21 carries per game. The Bengals are averaging 30.4. In the Broncos' three losses, each opposing team rushed more than 25 times.

If the Bengals can run the ball early and get a lead, or at least keep it tight by halftime, they had better stay on the ground.
CINCINNATI -- Visit practice on a football field at any level during the preseason and you'll hear the same word shouted multiple times.

Finish!

It's the call sounded by coaches hellbent on getting players to run through routes and drills, and to make it through plays until long after the whistle sounds.

The repeated pleas have a deeper meaning, though. Sunday afternoon inside Paul Brown Stadium, the Cincinnati Bengals didn't live up to it.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsThe Bengals couldn't stop Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers in the fourth quarter.
"That's what coaches all the way from high school talk about -- finish the drill, finish the drill," safety George Iloka said. "That's the metaphor. Finish the drill means finish the game."

For three quarters against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals were great. With a 21-20 lead at the start of the final period, they had momentum and the ball and looked like they were going to emerge with a fourth-straight win.

But a fumble on a faked read-option hand off turned into a turnover, which turned into a Steelers score. And another. And another.

After the fumble and three touchdowns later, the Bengals lost, 42-21. It was the first time they had lost a second consecutive game at Paul Brown Stadium by 21 or more points since 2002, when current Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was Cincinnati's head coach.

Following the fumble Sunday, it seemed like the fourth quarter simply got by the Bengals and everything snowballed in the wrong direction.

First, it was Le'Veon Bell who capitalized on the fumble by scoring on a 13-yard touchdown run on Pittsburgh's possession that immediately followed the turnover. Three minutes later, Martavis Bryant blew past Bengals corner Leon Hall on a play-action go route that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made sure to throw long.

"They showed a coverage and I didn't believe them," Roethlisberger said of the Bengals' defense. "We did a little play-action and just let it fly. I've underthrown him in practice because when he gets running, he's fast. I just put it out there, let him run under it, and he did the rest."

After Bryant's score, Bell added a 22-yard touchdown run that proved to be the final backbreaking score. Of Pittsburgh's 543 yards of total offense, 229 came in the fourth quarter.

"I can't tell the psyche of everybody individually, but I just know on a collective whole we just didn't finish," Iloka said.

With three games still left on the regular season schedule and the Bengals still enjoying a lead -- albeit a slim one at a half game -- in the AFC North, some weren't too broken up about the lack of finishing.

"One quarter of football doesn't define our season," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We don't worry about the ending score of games. We worry about whether we won. That's the only thing they keep track of. That'll be important: to bounce back and win the next three games by a half a point or by 30. I don't care. To win and go 3-0 [the next three weeks], we can put ourselves in position of where we want to be."

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