The Bengals raced out to an 8-0 start this season thanks in large part to the large men blocking up front.
But that changed during Cincinnati's two-game losing streak that saw the line struggle mightily. They allowed Andy Dalton to be sacked eight times along with 12 quarterback hits. They weren't getting much push on the ground either as the Bengals averaged 3.46 yards per rush during the team's losses to the Texans and Cardinals (their season average is 4.0).
The NFL's worst rushing offense (Cleveland, of course) is averaging just 3.4 yards per rush, a good sign that getting so little on the ground makes it hard to win, even in today's pass-happy NFL. Another sign the Bengals' line was struggling is they allowed 12 combined tackles for loss to the Cardinals and Texans.
That's a good indicator of quick penetration as a result of missed assignments. Any lineman worth his weight should be able to do enough to block guys one-on-one enough to at least allow his running back to get back to the line of scrimmage. Tackles for loss often happen when a defender gets a free release into the backfield, often the result of a missed block. The Bengals have too good of an offensive line to be allowing that much penetration to any team, and they made it a point to get it fixed this past week against the Rams.
Though star defensive end Robert Quinn was out, St. Louis still sported a formidable front that included All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He came into Week 12 with Pro Football Focus' highest grade by an interior defensive lineman to go with 16 sacks and 92 tackles over his first 27 games. He's a force in the middle, wrecking many offensive game plans, but not this time.
The Bengals' line held Donald in check the entire game and limited him to just three tackles with no sacks. In fact, Cincinnati didn't allow Dalton to be sacked or even hit on Sunday.
"Our guys played well. We knew the challenge we were going to face," Dalton said Sunday of the Rams. "They’ve got a good front. Our guys responded. They were stout up front. That’s what you have to do when you face a team like that."
The line also helped pave the way for the ground game to rush for 4.5 yards per carry, one of their best games this season. After two weeks where their ability started to come into question, the line gave up a grand total of 0 combined sacks, QB hits and tackles for loss Sunday after giving up 32 against Arizona and Houston. It's safe to say that theory of winning in the trenches directly relating to winning games is pretty accurate.
Andrew Whitworth obviously buys into that, as well as winning on first and second down. That helps prevents the 3rd-and-long plays Cincinnati frequently faced during the two-game losing streak.
"We really just said we had to run the ball efficiently and not put ourselves in similar situations we got ourselves in the last couple weeks with 3rd-and-forever," Whitworth said Sunday.
Running the ball effectively helps that effort, and the Bengals ground game looked as good or better on Sunday than it has all season.
"We’re getting better and better at it, and today we able to operate," Whitworth said. " At this time of year, it’s going to be important to win — to be able to rush the ball."
As for shutting down Donald, Whitworth said the Bengals didn't do anything special, they simply relied on their solid guard duo of Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler to slow the All-Pro down.
"We really just looked at our protections and not necessarily made an adjustment, but we made sure we knew where he (Donald) was," Whitworth said. "I think the guards did a great job against him. It was a great job of executing today."
Head coach Marvin Lewis always wants to see his team win in the trenches, something he knew they did against St. Louis.
"I think an important part of the game is to walk away feeling good about the line of scrimmage on both sides, which I think we did," Lewis said at his Tuesday press conference." There are always areas to clean up and do better, but all in all, it was a good job yesterday."
As good as the line was Sunday, they need to look even better this coming Sunday against a Browns defense that has been dominated in the trenches frequently this season. The Browns have just 16 sacks (tied for third-fewest), are rushing for just 3.4 yards per carry (dead last), and have just two rushing scores (tied for second-fewest). They've also allowed a combined 19 QB hits in their two most recent losses to the Ravens and Steelers.
Needless to say, if the Bengals bring their A-game again on Sunday, they'll finish the day being 10-2 and still alive for the top seed in the AFC for the playoffs.