The Cincinnati Bengals are back in the playoffs for a fifth-straight year and the seventh time under head coach Marvin Lewis.
All of Lewis' teams have been special for different reasons, whether it was Carson Palmer and that high-powered 2005 offense, or a strong rushing attack that carried Cincinnati to the postseason last year. While the players and coaches have changed, one thing has been consistent in all of those playoff berths, and that's the offensive line.
Going back to the '05 club, Cincinnati featured one of, if not the best offensive lines in football that season. Though no one is left from that unit, Lewis and the Bengals have re-built the line to where it's helped carry this team to six of the past seven postseasons.
The man who's played the biggest role in that is left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who once again just finished among the NFL's best pass-blocking lineman by Pro Football Focus. And, is an All Pro selection.
Top 5 OTs in Pass Block Efficiency this season: pic.twitter.com/QN0g1xx18C— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 8, 2016
Since the start of the 2009 season, the first year Whitworth started every game at left tackle, the Bengals have gone 66-45-1 with six playoff berths and five 10+ win seasons. Most sacks a quarterback takes come from the blindside, and having a great blindside protector makes any offense significantly better. Whitworth will be counted on this week to help stop a Pittsburgh Steelers defense among the NFL's best when it comes to rushing the passer.
After sacking quarterbacks just 33 times in 2014 (seventh-fewest), Pittsburgh racked up 48 sacks this season (third-most). What makes them so good is the number of players getting sacks on the Pittsburgh defense and that there's no one player who consistently gets the bulk of the sacks, thus making it hard to stop any one guy.
New Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler has done a masterful job this season in designing complex blitz schemes to keep seemingly every quarterback he's faced confused and often planted into the ground. Eight different Steelers have at least 3.5 sacks this season, and the most any one player had was defensive lineman Cameron Heyward with seven.
He's quietly become one of the best 3-4 pass-rushing lineman you'll find in the NFL, and what makes him dangerous is his ability to line up all over the line. In fact, he picked up a critical sack in the Steelers' Week 14 win over the Bengals. It actually came against Whitworth in the fourth quarter at the goal line to force a field goal and prevent a touchdown.
That helped the Steelers hang on for a 33-20 win that may have been very different had Heyward not had that sack. This only reinforces the importance of the Bengals' offensive line protecting quarterback AJ McCarron.
Adding to that, Pro Football Focus points out how effective McCarron is when his line is protecting him, something they've done very well this season.
Specifically in the most recent Steelers game, when McCarron was under pressure he completed five of ten passes for 34 yards, had one interception and was sacked three times. However when McCarron was not under pressure, McCarron completed 77.3 percent of his passes, had 11.2 yards per attempt, and an NFL passer rating of 124.4. On the season when there has been no pressure, McCarron has been better with a passer rating of 117.1 compared to 110.3 from Dalton.
The question becomes can the Steelers get pressure on McCarron. The Bengals have been one of the best pass protecting teams on the year. They have allowed 142 total pressures which was third-best for a team.
If the Bengals are going to beat the Steelers and advance to the next round of the playoffs, the offensive line will have to be at their best in order to keep Pittsburgh's pass-rushers at bay. That's the key for Cincinnati to end a drought of playoff wins that's lasted since 1991.
That's an ugly mark, and it's time for the big uglies to squash it.
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