The Bengals are one of the youngest teams in the NFL, especially on offense. At the skill positions, the players that have been with the team the longest are Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson, who were both drafted in 2008 and are no just entering the last years of their rookie contracts. Running back Cedric Benson has also been with the team since 2008 but he wasn't brought in until a few games of the 2008 season had already passed.
The most tenured player on offense is left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who was selected in the second round of the 2006 draft. Two seasons isn't a very long time, but those two seasons could prove to be invaluable to Whitworth on Sunday because it gave him a chance to get familiar with the guy he'll be going head-to-head -- defensive end Justin Smith.
Smith, who played for the Bengals from 2001 to 2007 before he left for San Francisco, will be playing right defensive end against Whitworth at left tackle on Sunday. This will likely be Whitworth's biggest test as a left tackle so far in the 2011 season. He faced a rookie in Jabaal Sheard when the Bengals beat the Browns and instead of facing Elvis Dumervil last Sunday in Denver, he went up against Broncos back up defensive end Derrick Harvey.
So far this season, Smith has six tackles and, more importantly, two sacks. The 49ers will be coming into Paul Brown Stadium boasting the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL. Of course they haven't played anybody who has been good at running the ball. They shut down the Seattle Seahawks, who are just terrible, first and then they faced a Dallas Cowboys team that attempted 43 passes and only ran the ball 22 times. So, the Bengals could run against the 49ers, as long as the offensive line blocks like they did against Cleveland and not like they did against Denver.
However, if they can't run the offense's production will sit squarely on Andy Dalton's shoulders and that means that right below his shoulders there will be a big bullseye for Justin Smith.
The Bengals have not played the 49ers since Whitworth took over the duty of protecting the quarterback's blind side. This will be his first game against Smith. However, whatever practice the two had during the 2007 season could prove to be invaluable on Sunday. I completely expect Whitworth to make Justin Smith a non-factor in a game that I fully expect the Bengals to win.