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Bengals see up-and-down day from offensive line in win over Ravens

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The Cincinnati Bengals were hoping to impose their will with the big guys on the offensive line, and in some respects, they were successful. Still, there were mind-boggling plays by the line, which has sparked concern with the playoffs up next.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

One of the strengths of the Marvin Lewis era for the Cincinnati Bengals in his 13-year tenure as head coach has been the offensive line. Whether it was the bookend tackles of Willie Anderson and Levi Jones in Lewis' first roster incarnation, or the all-around solid unit that has taken the field in 2015, it's been a linchpin to Lewis' seven postseason appearances.

This year's offensive line started off as a dominant unit, but an inconsistent run game performance and big pressure allowed against some of the better teams on their schedule has some a bit wary about calling the offensive line "elite". While there are stats and metrics to show the line play was pretty solid against an active Baltimore defense on Sunday, not everything can be told by stats and the offensive line does have some nervous as the Bengals head into the postseason.

The stats show the Bengals ran the ball pretty well against the Ravens. A big part of the success in running the football came with "jumbo packages", or the utilization of an extra tackle on the line, and the Bengals took advantage. The result was 145 team rushing yards and 5.4 yards per rush average. That's the definition of pounding the ball with a backup quarterback.

After a more than questionable play call by Hue Jackson on a third-and-one in the third quarter, the then-aggravated offensive coordinator pushed his unit back on the field to go for it on fourth down. He lined up in a jumbo package and let Jack Fisher, freshly-placed in the H-Back role, pave the way for a Jeremy Hill 38-yard touchdown run. It ended up being the nail in the coffin for the Baltimore Ravens as they never recovered.

The team's top two 2015 draft picks were a big part of this effort, giving reasons for optimism in the games and years ahead. Cedric Ogbuehi was effective on the outside as an extra blocker, while Fisher filled in admirably for the injured Ryan Hewitt as a lead blocker.

As CJ's good friend, Jake Liscow, pointed out on Twitter on Sunday afternoon, not all of the issues in the passing game were on the five starters. Backup quarterback AJ McCarron ran into pressure for sacks on at least one of the three occasions he was brought down on Sunday, but pressure was given up yet again against a 3-4 defensive alignment from the big boys up front. Whether it's Andy Dalton or McCarron under center in the playoffs, a clean pocket is needed for either to succeed. Have a look at one of McCarron's two touchdown passes on the afternoon and the halo of protection in front of him.

The penalties though--I mean, geez. At one point, six of the Bengals' offensive lineman were flagged for penalties (one against Kevin Zeitler was overlooked by a coinciding penalty by A.J. Green), and the range of infractions ran the gamut. Andrew Whitworth, Russell Bodine and Clint Boling had holds, while Ogbuehi, Fisher and Zeitler had illegal procedure calls. These were part of the 11 penalties on the day by the team and it continuously put the offense in precarious positions.

If you thought the penalties were bad, have a look at Cincinnati's 0-for-9 conversion rate (or lack thereof) on third down. This had much to do with inconsistent pass protection, penalties by the line and even some ups and downs in the running game. Simply put, this is an unacceptable facet of the game that can't haunt the Bengals in the playoffs.

The offensive line is generally a dominant unit, they just have the special ability to frustrate fans because of their inconsistency against good defensive fronts. The Bengals have struggles against many of the more creative 3-4 fronts in the NFL, and the team's four losses this year against teams that employ that type of system (Houston, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Denver) are indicative of that. In the AFC bracket, the Bengals are the only team employing a traditional 4-3 defense, making quick improvements imperative.