Cincinnati Bengals: Paul Alexander

CINCINNATI -- If the regular season were to begin this week, rookie Russell Bodine would be the Cincinnati Bengals' starting center.

According to offensive line coach Paul Alexander, there's no ifs, buts or maybes about that. Alexander believes Bodine is the guy at the position. From what I've been able to tell after three weeks of training camp practices and two preseason games, he probably should be.

[+] EnlargeRussell Bodine
Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesRookie Russell Bodine has impressed the Bengals and could be Cincinnati's starting center.
"Right now it's full speed ahead with Bodine," Alexander said Monday afternoon, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. "That kid has so much talent; he's loaded with talent. He has a tough, physical demeanor and he can block the big nose guards in our division. He's exactly the type of player we've been looking for."

At the moment when Alexander spoke with reporters from the Enquirer and Bengals.com, I was chatting with offensive coordinator Hue Jackson about Bodine and a few other unrelated topics. So I missed Alexander's firm pronouncement, and didn't hear about it until perusing Twitter moments later after the post-practice availability had ended.

Jackson didn't know about it at that moment, either.

I mention that because during our chat, Jackson didn't have the same unequivocal belief that Bodine's name was scribbled in red -- or in this case, orange -- ink on the Bengals' opening-day depth chart. While Jackson contended he likes much of what Bodine has done thus far as the team's starter at center, he still hasn't completely shut down the possibility that veteran Mike Pollak could earn starting time at the position.

"We're going to play it out and see how it goes," Jackson said. "[Pollak] is a returning player who has played here and played well for us. Like anybody, he deserves an opportunity to see what he can do with the guys. We'll see how it all unfolds. Pollak is very important to us and what we do."

Then, most importantly, Jackson added: "I'm sure [head coach] Marvin [Lewis] will figure that one out as we move forward."

As much as Bodine's position coach may say the position battle is over, it technically isn't.

But it should be.

Yes, Bodine has had his shown inexperience with his share of rookie miscues. Yes, his snaps have been problematic at times this preseason. And yes, the recently-injured Pollak gave the Bengals valuable minutes as an interior lineman at right guard last season when Kevin Zeitler injured his foot.

While those statements are true, so are these. Bodine has become more comfortable and stable at the position. He has cleaned up his snap issues in recent days, playing a completely clean game Saturday against the Jets in that regard. Bodine also has shown some of the physicality and strength that made him instant eye candy for the Bengals in May while they were looking for mid-round linemen in the draft.

As much as Bodine's snap issues may have caused headaches at times in training camp, his overall play has been the magic pill that's made them go away.

"He has the right characteristics," Jackson said. "Every now and then, there's a [botched] call or two here or there, but I've been happy with him. Don't get me wrong, I'm going to push him as far as I can push him because again, I want all these guys to achieve and be as good as they can be."

Few plays encapsulate Bodine's value like the Bengals' goal-line push on third-and-1 late in the first quarter of Saturday's game. As the play began and running back Giovani Bernard got stood up at the line of scrimmage, Bodine and the rest of the offensive line started pushing him and the Jets' defense into the end zone. As Jackson put it, a "glob of bodies" fell foward with Bernard in tow.

The push resulted in a 1-yard touchdown run.

"You get on the goal line, your offensive line has to take pride and get the ball in the end zone," Bodine said. "You can't get that close and not get in the end zone.

"That's kind of a statement situation for all of us."

The message that play clearly sent to Alexander? The rookie's ready.
CINCINNATI -- More times in the past two months than I care to admit, my email inbox and Twitter mentions were filled with questions about Cincinnati Bengals center Kyle Cook.

Most of them had to do with Cook's future with the Bengals.

None of them had to do with adding to that future.

Will Cook get cut? What will it take for the Bengals to cut him? Can't they find anyone better to play the position?

Cook
Every time I received one of those inquiries or included them in a mailbag, I always thought to myself "well yes, it's entirely possible he might be cut." But never did I feel convinced enough to believe that the six-year Bengals veteran who had been lauded both inside and outside Paul Brown Stadium for his ability to spot "Mike" linebacker checks and to shift his offensive line into the right sets really would be sliced off the roster. It just didn't seem right to me.

Looks like my gut was wrong.

In a move that didn't necessarily come out of left field but was somewhat stunning nonetheless, the Bengals announced Tuesday afternoon that they had indeed parted ways with the lineman.

"Thank you Cincinnati for the memories ... Looking forward to our next opportunity," Cook wrote to his Facebook page just before the announcement. "Thank you everyone for the support these past seven years, we have made many friends and tons of great memories..."

And so ends the Bengals career of a player who spent six seasons on their roster and one more on the practice squad. Now that he's gone, where do they turn?

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander isn't yet ready to name a replacement, but believes one currently exists on the roster.

"I couldn't tell you right now who our No. 1 center will be, but that's because we do have a few different options that we're confident will improve us in the end," Alexander said. "That's what the offseason programs and training camp are for: to evaluate those possibilities and come up with the best one."

Likely front-runners to replace Cook include Trevor Robinson and Mike Pollak. Robinson will be entering his third season this fall, and will be looking to build upon the experience he gained in the final weeks of last season. With Cook injured most of the finale against the Ravens, Robinson played 58 snaps in the 34-17 win. Pollak was re-signed Saturday. Though he mostly plays guard, he can be used at center, as well.

It will be in the locker room where the Bengals will miss Cook the most. He might not have been as vocal as Pro Bowl veteran Andrew Whitworth, but Cook was among those linemen who pleaded behind the scenes for more rushing opportunities for Cincinnati's offense. With Hue Jackson taking over as offensive coordinator this season, the Bengals are expected to start using their ground game more regularly.

"Kyle has been a great Bengal, a tough guy and an excellent leader," Alexander said. "In addition to being a good player, he showed great ability to coordinate things at the line of scrimmage. He has been a big help to Andy Dalton as Andy has developed into a veteran player."

Much to my relative surprise, Dalton will now need a new helper.
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.

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