For the first time in his career, and for the first time since we, as Bengals fans, have payed attention to him, right tackle Andre Smith isn't drawing attention for the wrong reasons. In fact, he's not really drawing much attention at all and that's a good thing. When an offensive lineman does his job, nobody really pays that much attention. It's only when they don't do their job that they make people take notice.
Smith has quietly been having the best season of his young career in 2011. According to Pro Football Weekly, the Bengals are averaging 5.8 yards per carry when they run behind Smith and he's only allowed one sack all season (Week 2 against rookie linebacker Von Miller). He also helped Andrew Whitworth hold the duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to no tackles in the Bengals win over the Colts.
So what can we attribute Smith's 2011 season to? Obviously, it's his conditioning.
For the first time in his career, Smith made it through training camp without injury. As you remember, he held out on signing his rookie contract for so long that when he finally made it to camp he was very overweight and out of shape. He broke his foot almost immediately after he stepped on the practice field. He had a surgery performed on his foot after his rookie season and was supposed to be back by time for training camp but he missed it again and ended up playing in only seven games of his second season.
In August, after two seasons of next-to-nothing from Smith, the Bengals decided not to pick up the two extra years on Smith's rookie contract, making him a free agent after the 2012 season. Who can really blame them? It wasn't like Smith had done anything to prove at that point that he deserved two extra years of pay from the team.
Maybe that is what lit a fire under his ass, motivating him to play as well as he has through the first six games of the 2011 season.
Or, could it have been the lockout?
Heading into the 2011 season, the league was in the middle of its longest work stoppage in history and the players weren't able to work out in team facilities. They also missed quite a few offseason workouts and team activities. This extra time may be what Smith needed to get in good shape, get his head right and allow his foot to fully heal. When the teams were finally able to come together, Smith didn't miss the remaining offseason practices and he played throughout the entire preseason.
Either way, if Smith continues to perform the way he has throughout the beginning of the 2011 season, and if he improves, he could be a pillar of the Bengals offensive line for years to come.