CINCINNATI -- Chalk up a win for Hue Jackson and his plans of establishing a more physical Cincinnati Bengals offense.
From the time the new offensive coordinator was introduced in mid-January until now, the talk surrounding his unit has centered around his desire to make the Bengals more intimidating offensively by running powerfully and efficiently, while using a punch-first mentality to open up play action and other passing options downfield. The news Saturday that the Bengals have re-signed guard Mike Pollak was a clear sign that Jackson's plans are beginning to take shape.
Rule No. 1 in structuring a physical offense: take care of your offensive line.
Pollak's re-signing begins what will be a tedious, rumor-filled next few weeks. With a three-day window this weekend in which teams are permitted to talk to certified agents of free agents, the NFL's signing season has unofficially started.
While defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins will dominate the Bengals' free agency news cycle, there are other meaningful signings that deserve attention, too. Namely, those like Pollak's, that have to do with building depth on Cincinnati's front lines. One of three free agent offensive linemen, Pollak had been considered one of the Bengals' more important unsigned players. Offensive tackle Dennis Roland also is up for a new contract, and could get one as the Bengals continue strengthening their line.
Pollak, a six-year veteran, missed nearly half the 2013 season because of a knee injury, but returned just in time to contribute to some of the Bengals' better offensive performances of the year. He either started or received significant action in each of the final six games of the regular season, originally coming in off the bench to relieve starting right guard Kevin Zeitler who hurt a foot at Baltimore in Week 10.
Even when Zeitler was healthy enough to return, Pollak remained in the starting rotation. He averaged 49 snaps per game across the final six games, and gave the Bengals a relatively fresh extra blocker as the season came to an end.
"Very simply, we are just glad to have Mike back," Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander said in a news release. "He's a veteran you can count on. When some injuries provided him an opportunity last year, he came through with flying colors for us."
The insertion of Pollak into the primary rotation coincided with some of the Bengals' best rushing performances and most prolific scores of the season. In the six games when Pollak saw significant action, they rushed for more than 100 yards four times, including the 164-yard effort in a win at San Diego, and the 155-yard showing in a win the next week against Indianapolis. That win over the Colts was one of three in the end-of-year stretch that saw Cincinnati scoring 40 or more points. The Bengals also scored 49 in a 40-point win over the Jets in Week 8. Pollak played just six snaps in a backup capacity during that game.
The point here is that Pollak's bump in playing time overlapped with the contests in which the Bengals' offense played some of its most physical and complete games last season. Other offensive line changes came around that time, too, including Pro Bowl tackle Andrew Whitworth's move to left guard to replace an injured Clint Boling, and Collins' addition from the bench as the starter at Whitworth's old left tackle spot. Each of those changes came early in Week 13's 17-10 win over the Chargers.
If the Bengals are to institute the type of aggressive offense that Jackson envisions, they'll need to mimic much of what went right in the last six weeks of the regular season. Few games provide the type of blueprint Cincinnati is seeking than that late-season Bengals-Chargers game. The Bengals had their most balanced offensive attack of the year in that game, and prominently featured a heavy dose of their rushing offense.
When asked earlier this offseason about Jackson's plans on offense, Whitworth praised his new coordinator's wishes. Yes, he knows that putting a greater emphasis on the run is important to Jackson, but the veteran lineman also believes that attitude and willpower are at the heart of what Jackson will soon be asking his players to do.
"It's more about an attitude and a confidence and about imposing your will on another team," Whitworth said. "That could be done in the air or on the ground. That's more of what [Jackson] is talking about. He knows to be able to do that, you're going to have to run the ball successfully."
He also knows that a team will need a strong and deep offensive line to get that done.
With Pollak back on board, the framework of Jackson's looming physical system has started taking shape.