When the folks over at ProFootballFocus speak, we listen. We don't want to outright say that we take their data as absolute NFL scripture, but let's just say that it holds a lot of weight. Now that Super Bowl week is officially upon us, PFF has begun to give out 2012 season grades on individual players and team units around the league.
On Monday, PFF released their scores and rankings of the offensive lines around the NFL. Needless to say, it piqued our interest--mostly because there seems to be a variety of differing opinions on the Bengals' offensive line unit. In what may surprise some, PFF had the Bengals unit graded inside of the top-ten at No.8 overall. Khaled Elsayed (the author of the PFF post) noted that the Bengals finished tenth in penalties, 22nd in run blocking and an astounding No.2 overall ranking in pass blocking. Writes Elsayed:
8. Cincinnati Bengals (13)
PB – 2nd, RB – 22nd, PEN – 10th
Stud: What a year from Andre Smith (+26.9). Our top-graded right tackle was the only player on this unit to consistently generate movement in the run game, while (Brandon Graham beating aside) holding his own in pass protection.
Dud: Whoever played center. That’s a little unfair to Trevor Robinson (-1.8) who looked the best of a bad bunch, with Jeff Faine (-13.0) completely done, and Kyle Cook (-5.0) far from his best.
Summary: If not for how bad things were at center then you’re realistically looking at a Top 5 line. The big problem is they’re far better on their heels than they are going forward, and outside of Smith don’t do a good enough job of creating space for their running backs.
Let's go over some of this a bit closer, shall we? First of all, the number in the parentheses next to the Bengals' No.8 ranking was their 2011 ranking. So, some good news is that the Bengals' offensive line seemed to improve from last year's overall performance. Also, for those who might be wavering on the idea of re-signing Andre Smith this offseason because of his recent legal run-in, the fact that PFF has him as their top-ranked right tackle tells us a lot. In fact, if the Pro Bowl actually sent right tackles to Hawaii instead of all guys who play on the left, Smith might have found his way there.
There's two worrisome aspects to PFF's grades here, though. The first has to be the center position, out of three players that the team trotted out there, none received a positive grade. Trevor Robinson receiving the highest grade definitely correlates with what we saw on tape and it will be interesting to see what the team does at the position this year. Also troublesome is the lack of production in the run game. This is something that head coach Marvin Lewis has harped on the past few seasons and it still hasn't gained much traction.
Speaking of traction, Elsayed makes an interesting observation about the team being "better on their heels than they are going forward". Simply a conjecture here, but that could be something that gets into quarterback Andy Dalton's head where he feels pressure that may not totally be coming. We have alluded to the stats (via PFF) that Dalton has accounted for some of the sacks allowed by the unit and perhaps this trait of the Bengals line has something to do with it.
Of all of the AFC North squads, only the Cleveland Browns finished higher than the Bengals at No.5 overall. The Pittsburgh Steelers stayed at their same ranking from 2011 at No.25 and the Baltimore Ravens fell nine spots from 2011 to No.17 overall.
While you have to be pleased with the No.8 ranking, the offensive line exuded a lot of inconsistency--as did the entire Bengals offense. Finding a solution at the center position will have to be top priority for this unit. It's possible that Cook struggled because he wasn't 100 percent upon his return, but it's just as possible that Robinson is better. Paul Alexander and crew will have to make that determination. The left side of the line needs to create more push in the running game, but that could also be aided by the addition of a quality speed back this offseason as well.