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Bengals' offensive line needs to establish run vs Rams' pass-rushers

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Part of the Bengals' recent struggles have been the lack of a consistent ground game. That's allowed defenses to pin their ears back and sack Andy Dalton eight times in the past two games.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals offensive line is in a bit of a slump over the last month, and it's a big reason why the team is in the middle of a two-game losing streak after an 8-0 start.

What used to be one of the league's best units at protecting the quarterback has been anything but the past few games this season. Between Week 1 of 2013 and Week 4 of 2015, the Bengals line allowed just 26 sacks over 24 games, an average of just over one sack per contest. In the last six games, however, the line has given up 17 sacks, including eight over the past two games.

At this pace, Cincinnati will allow 30 sacks this season, the second most they've allowed since Andy Dalton became the starting quarterback in 2011. Life isn't about to get any easier for Dalton and his line against a Rams team whose biggest strength is the pass rush. St. Louis has accounted for 30 sacks this season after notching 40 in 2014, 53 in 2013, and 52 in 2012. They thrive off of terrorizing opposing quarterbacks and destroying passing games.

"They're really good," Dalton said Wednesday of the Rams' defensive line. "They're able to get pressure with just four guys. They do a good job. They're really talented up front, so another good task for us."

Though the Bengals o-line gave up four sacks last week, the offense was able to score 31 points at Arizona against one of the league's best defenses. In Arizona, Cincinnati ran the ball very well with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard to keep the Cardinals off balance when they tried to blitz early and often. Any time a strong group of pass-rushers try to pin their ears back and rush the passer, running the ball right by them is a good way to not only pick up yards, but also make the rushers a little more hesitant to just try and shoot up the field.

That's why the ground game will be very important this week in helping keep the Rams' pass-rushers at bay.

"Different stuff happens each week, but I thought, for the most part, Jeremy ran really physical last week," Dalton said. "Gio has made some big plays, especially this past week, so it's going to come. I think it's sticking with it. There's going to be holes out there. Guys are going to do a good job of getting these guys open, and we're going to break tackles and we're going to make some big runs."

Hill churned out 45 yards on 13 carries and probably would have gotten more had the offense not went into a cold spell in the third quarter that allowed Arizona to build a two-touchdown lead and force Cincinnati to abandon the run. Sticking with the run this week is something the Bengals must do if they are to penetrate the Rams' defensive line.

But then again, it's become clear this Bengals rushing offense isn't the same unit it was in 2014 when they finished as the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing attack. They've dropped to 13th this season, and offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson isn't afraid to admit "It's not 2014" when he talked with ESPN's Coley Harvey about his ground game.

"Every year is different," Jackson said. "It's not 2014, OK? Sometimes you have the same success, sometimes you don't have the same success. But it's not about that. It's about winning."

While Jackson is right about the ultimate goal being winning and not having great stats, not being able to effectively run the ball for four quarters is a big reason why they've lost their last two games. It also could end up being a big hindrance in Sunday's game vs the Rams if the ground game isn't on point.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth knows the importance of the ground game, and he thinks the Bengals simply need to find the right kind of runs that work best and stick with them consistently.

"We've just got to find our niche," Whitworth said. "Every year we've kind of found what we're good at running and you stick with it. You see the great running teams throughout the league, they have the run that when you face them, that's the run you know you're going to get. So that's our thing. We've got to find the runs that we're really confident in and just go with them. We've been a little bit all over the board, and that's part of it. Part of the beauty of this offense is that we do so many different things."

The good news is this Rams defense is practically daring the Bengals to run at them. They rank 15th in rushing defense compared to their seventh-ranked passing defense that's also allowed just nine passing scores, the second-fewest of any team.

St. Louis comes into this week on a three-game losing streak in large part due to allowing an average of 131.3 rushing yards per game. That's also led to the Rams' defense to just three sacks in those games (1 sack per game) after notching 27 in their first seven games 3.9 per game).

Running the ball effectively is one of the best ways to slow down any good pass rush. If the Bengals can get Bernard and Hill going for four quarters on Sunday, this should be a fairly easy win. If they can't, this may be another game that comes down to the wire.