AFC North: Andrew Whitworth

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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.
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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.


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:

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
CINCINNATI -- A few storylines to watch Monday night when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Denver Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium:

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.

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.


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.

"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.


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."
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 42-21 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers:

Hill shoulders blame: It might be easy to blame quarterback Andy Dalton for the early fourth-quarter fumble that effectively halted the Bengals' rhythm late Sunday, but his rookie running back cautioned against doing that. The blame doesn't go toward Dalton, Jeremy Hill said: "it's on me." As he answered the last of several questions about the hand-off problems that led to Dalton's botched read-option mesh with Hill, the rusher said, "[Dalton is] doing his best job to get the right read and making sure everything is proper, so I've got to make sure it's easy for him to get the ball in there and to keep it or do what he needs to do with the football. He has a ton on his plate. So we running backs, receivers and tight ends, we've got to do everything to make his job easier."

'Simple as that:' Like Hill, cornerback Leon Hall didn't duck questions about the 94-yard touchdown catch he gave up two Steelers drives after the fumble. It was the second-longest touchdown reception allowed in Bengals history. As he sat in front of his locker, putting on the final accessories to his postgame wardrobe, Hall was straightforward in explaining how Martavis Bryant scored on him. "I let him catch the ball and he ran into the end zone untouched," Hall said. "Simple as that." He knew it was a big play that contributed to the 22-point fourth quarter. "It definitely hurt us," Hall said, "that's for sure."

Standing up for Dalton? About midway through the fourth quarter, Dalton was down on the ground surrounded by trainers for several minutes after taking a hard shot to the midsection by Steelers rookie Stephon Tuitt. Dalton returned briefly and said after the game he was fine. His wind was knocked out. At the time of the hit, no Bengals retaliated either verbally or physically. Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth didn't feel they needed to. Whitworth called it a routine play "where a guy got a good shot on him late." He added, "it happens a lot."
CINCINNATI -- Andy Dalton may struggle in prime-time, posting a 2-9 career record in night and playoff games. But in December, he's apparently a sight to behold.

Since 2011, the year Dalton became their starter at quarterback, the Cincinnati Bengals are 10-4 in the month. That strong record has been one way to explain the Bengals' three straight postseason berths. Quite simply, they have demonstrated in recent years an ability to get hot at the right time.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesAndy Dalton has an impressive December winning percentage.
The big problem, though, is that play doesn't carry over. They don't capitalize upon it and use it once January rolls around and the playoffs arrive. As has been the case each of the last two years, they hope this one will be different.

At the start of a month that features three division games, beginning with Sunday's home showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals this week discussed what "December football" means to them:

Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator
"It's winning time. This is when you grow. This is when the real players show up, because this is an opportunity to really make something special happen. The great football players, this is when you get lathered up. People remember what you do in December. That's the old term. December, January football is where it's at and our guys understand that. You give yourself the opportunity to get to this month to really earn something and collectively, as a football team, we've kind of done our part. Not as well as I'd have liked for us to do it, but we've gotten to this point to where now it's time to push to make sure we get this thing done correctly."

A.J. Green, receiver
"Anything before this really doesn't matter. It's what you do in December. You try to make some big plays and see who can get on a hot streak."

Andrew Whitworth, offensive tackle
"Every game left is a huge one. This time of year, this is when teams create an opportunity to separate themselves and really have to come out and prove who they are. I said it last week that even the teams with really bad records this time of year are good football teams because they've found a way to right the ship or figured out 'Hey, this is what we're going to have to do to have a chance of winning.

"We understand the impact that games in December have, so we're able to handle them well. It's a unique thing, and the more and more success you have, the more used to it you are and it becomes natural to understanding what's at stake."

George Iloka, safety
"A lot of teams call it 'championship football.' You want to start separating yourself in December to put yourself in position to make the playoffs and make a run in the playoffs. It's very important. We don't want to slack off and have some bad games. We want to keep improving and putting ourselves in position to hopefully win the division and then from there make amends for last year's playoffs [when the Bengals lost in the first round]."
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Cincinnati Bengals may be dancing with danger Sunday afternoon after naming two backup offensive tackles among their inactives against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

With Tanner Hawkinson and Jamon Meredith among the seven not playing, the Bengals are only going with two true tackles. They have to hope starters Andrew Whitworth and Marshall Newhouse remain healthy.

Newhouse will be making his second start for the Bengals when he fills in for Andre Smith, the right tackle who was lost for the season last week at Houston after suffering a left triceps injury blocking Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. While Newhouse didn't allow Watt to record a sack or pass deflection on quarterback Andy Dalton, he had a lot of help. The Bengals probably will revert back to using additional blockers in the form of guards, tight ends and fullbacks to help Newhouse chip Tampa Bay's defensive ends and linebackers.

In the event Newhouse goes down, the Bengals likely will move left guard Clint Boling to the right tackle position, much like they did for two plays last week when Newhouse got poked in the eye. If Boling moves over, Mike Pollak will come off the bench and play his old left guard spot.

It wasn't too surprising that Meredith was declared inactive. The NFL journeyman was added to the roster last Tuesday help address the position's depth following Smith's injury. Hawkinson has been a regular scratch this season, appearing in only three games.

Along with the two linemen, the Bengals also made receiver Greg Little inactive for a third straight game.

Here's the complete rundown of inactives for both teams on Sunday:

Bengals inactives
RB Rex Burkhead
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
LB Vontaze Burfict
OT Tanner Hawkinson
OT Jamon Meredith
WR Greg Little
DE Margus Hunt

Buccaneers inactives
CB Crezdon Butler
LB Lavonte David
C Evan Dietrich-Smith
TE Brandon Myers
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
TE Luke Stocker
DT Clinton McDonald
CINCINNATI -- There will be a slice of Cincinnati Bengals history on the line Sunday when they take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.

With a victory, the Bengals would win three consecutive, uninterrupted road games for the first time in franchise history.

The franchise record for consecutive road games won is five, set across the 2008 and 2009 seasons. But never before has the franchise, in three straight weeks, had three straight games outside the Queen City that it has won.

"History? I didn't know that," Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said when asked about the possible feat earlier this week. "I guess that's an opportunity for us to capitalize on that. But our main focus is on winning our next game and beating Mike Johnson and Anthony Collins down there with the Tampa Bay Bucs."

Johnson and Collins are former Bengals who rejected bids by the Bengals and signed instead with Tampa Bay in free agency. The pair have endured a difficult season, going 2-9 after being part of three straight playoff runs with the Bengals.

"Yeah, it's difficult," Johnson admitted. "Any time you come into a new situation you want to believe everything's going to be a fair deal and go smooth and go in and dominate. But there's been a learning curve and we know we've taken some bumps and bruises, but nobody has let up. We're still grinding down here and still working and trying to get better. That's all you can do."

Despite their 2-9 mark, the Buccaneers are still in the NFC South race, and thus well within the playoff chase. So they still have something to play for, adding to the difficulty of winning this third straight road game for the Bengals.

That fact, combined with the strain three straight weeks of travel can put on a player, makes this the Bengals' "greatest challenge to this point," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.

"I really think this is going to have to be our best week of football the whole season so far," Whitworth said. "You put on the tape and you really wouldn't understand their record. They look good and they play good. They dominate teams."

Just last week the Bucs were up 10 on the Bears at halftime before Chicago scored 21 unanswered in the third quarter to win the game 21-13. They've had even closer losses, too. Five of the nine defeats have come by six points or less.

If the Bengals are able to follow up road wins at New Orleans and Houston with a third straight, count Whitworth among those who will be most appreciative of the team record. After having to endure the physical and mental demands the last three weeks have put him through, he knows how rare it is for teams to win so many games away from home in quick succession.

"We've been almost a two-hour flight away three weeks in a row now, going back and forth. It's hard on you," Whitworth said. "After a game, you sit on a plane for two hours and it messes up your recovery time. And Saturdays when you're leaving, that's another time to recover. When you play at home, you've a little more time to recover, do more cold tubs, more things in therapy.

"It's definitely different. It's a challenge, and we knew that a long time ago."
CINCINNATI -- When Andrew Whitworth saw fellow Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse hunched over in pain on the field last week in Houston, he felt like he had been punched in the gut with a bowling ball.

"I was nervous," Whitworth said.

He wasn't the only one.

Several other faces on the Bengals' sideline looked aghast for the few brief moments trainers jogged out to examine Newhouse's right eye. The eye had just been poked while Newhouse was blocking the Texans' J.J. Watt in the second quarter. Already down one tackle following Andre Smith's left arm injury that proved to be season-ending, the Bengals couldn't afford to lose Newhouse.

But if they had to, they were ready.

For the two offensive plays Newhouse missed, starting left guard Clint Boling was moved to the newly vacated right tackle position and backup Mike Pollak came off the bench to play left guard. It wasn't the most ideal setup, but it worked nonetheless. It's also a lineup that could be used Sunday at Tampa Bay if the Bengals find themselves in another emergency situation.

Boling has spent all four seasons of his NFL career playing guard, but he played tackle on occasion in college at Georgia. He also has practiced at tackle in the preseason and at other random times of the year, so the skill set remains, if it's needed.

"It's something I would feel comfortable doing," Boling said this week, when asked about playing right tackle in a pinch.

In addition to Boling, the Bengals also have Tanner Hawkinson, who likely will be part of the 46-man game day active roster the rest of the season. He's only been active for six games this year.

Newhouse wouldn't say if the vision had fully returned to his right eye, but he did say it was well enough that he "could play a football game."

Regardless how the Bengals ultimately replace Smith, a veteran who, despite his struggles this season, gave the line stability, they have to make sure his understudies keep the unit afloat.

"We're obviously not going to replace Andre, but we've got to replace the productivity," coach Marvin Lewis said, "and Marshall's got to continue to grow and fit into us and our system, and it do it our way, the way he's coached to do it time in and time out, and everybody around him has to really bolster things and pick up the pace."

Newhouse was a free-agency addition in the offseason, coming to Cincinnati after four seasons with the Green Bay Packers. Signed after former Bengals tackle Anthony Collins rejected their offer in favor of Tampa Bay, Newhouse was the best regarded swing tackle on the market when he signed with Cincinnati.

Pro Football Focus hasn't been kind in grading Newhouse this season. He has an overall minus-11.8 grade. That's PFF's 17th-worst grade among offensive tackles.

Still, there's no denying that even with help, once Newhouse entered last Sunday in place of Smith, he kept Watt in check and didn't allow him to sack quarterback Andy Dalton or deflect one of his passes at the line.

"I would hope that Marshall really would be able to build off of that," Whitworth said. "He's had limited snaps in a game, but every time he goes out and plays for us, he's going to play a little better. ... Playing against a guy like J.J. Watt, I'm sure it will slow down for him a little bit."