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Bengals Mailbag: Questions at center, Dennard’s possible contributions loom in Week 2 vs Steelers

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We take a crack at some of the burning questions on the minds of our readers in our weekly mailbag feature. Get in touch with us to have your questions answered!

NFL: Houston Texans at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Steelers week and both optimism and tensions are running at high levels for those associated with the Cincinnati Bengals. As they are in the middle of a pretty brutal three-game stretch to start the 2016 season, the focal point of the early portion of the schedule is in Week 2 this Sunday in Pittsburgh.

We’ve been shot a number of questions from our loyal readers and wanted to answer some of the best. You can send us your questions via Twitter @CincyJungle, @CJAnthonyCUI or @BengalsOBI, or you can ask them on our Facebook page to be answered in our mailbags or on The Orange and Black Insider!

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander has long been known as one of the better men at his NFL craft, but there are maddening aspects to be found from his 21-year Bengals resume. Ranging from a preference of Nate Livings over Evan Mathis, to his penchant to the up-and-down play of Russell Bodine, these areas seem to overshadow his development of other young quality linemen.

As a former coach myself, there are times when I understand Alexander’s obstinance in preferring Bodine over other options. There are times when his brute strength plays well into the Bengals’ offense, but his often-sloppy technique sees his crown as the 2014 NFL Combine bench press champ totally tarnished.

Not all of the seven sacks allowed by the Bengals’ offensive line against the Jets were Bodine’s fault, though. The guard play was spotty, as was Cedric Ogbuehi in his starting debut at right tackle. All in all, it was one of the poorest performances from this stout unit in quite some time.

The thing that Alexander inexplicably overlooks with Bodine is the responsibilities the center has that other linemen don’t. Having great upper body strength is great, but the center is also responsible for calling out coverages based on the defense’s look and making sure the offense knows what to do on the play.

If you look at some of the best centers in NFL history, they aren’t mammoths in the weight room, but seem to be more of the heady, technically-sound ilk. Going into his third year as the Bengals’ starting center, Bodine has exhibited the former and not the latter.

As for the question of T.J. Johnson being a better fit, I’ll reluctantly trust Alexander’s stance and believe that Bodine is currently the best option. There is one other player on the roster I’m very curious about though.

In the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Bengals drafted offensive guard, Christian Westerman. Many pundits had him pegged as a day two pick, but he slid back to Cincinnati on the final day of the weekend. He’s currently slated as a backup guard to Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling, but there was offseason talk of him getting some work at center.

Like Bodine, Westerman has immense upper body strength, but seems to play with better technique. If Cincinnati were to explore another option at center who is on the roster, I’d take a look at Westerman over Johnson.

Because of this coaching staff’s reluctance to admit a potential mistake and the fact that the third year is critical for many pro football players, Bodine is the guy for the immediate future.

While it was known that Darqueze Dennard would be taking a supplemental role with the Bengals in his early years, nobody foresaw the amount of injury issues he’s experienced in his first three seasons as a pro. While the team has made a number of wise decisions in recent drafts, the injury bug has hit guys like Tyler Eifert and Dennard particularly hard.

Cincinnati was in a fortunate position to not need Dennard to jump into a starting role right away, but one interception and playing in just 24 of 34 career games (including the postseason) gives pause to his long-term success. However, Dennard seems to have the skill set similar to that of Leon Hall, which undoubtedly drew Marvin Lewis to Dennard in his collection of first round corners.

There is good and bad news with Dennard’s career going forward. If you’re an optimist, Dennard has had a myriad of injuries and it’s possible the bad luck is behind him. But, for those who have followed the NFL for a decent amount of time, some players just can’t stay healthy enough to realize their full pro potential.

If we’re talking what to expect this Sunday against the Steelers, I still think Dennard will have a limited role. Josh Shaw stepped up admirably last week in his versatile swing role on the defense, proving he can go up against potent offenses who have quality receivers like Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. Even so, I think Dennard will be out there guarding Ben Roethlisberger’s ancillary weapons.

The Steelers looked pretty darn good on Monday night against the Redskins. Without Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryan, (not to mention the suspended Le’veon Bell) the Steelers still made plays with receivers on the back-end of their depth chart. Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates combined for 115 receiving yards and a touchdown, coupled with Antonio Brown’s 126-yard, two touchdown performance. There’s also a possibility that Wheaton will be back on Sunday, he’s currently questionable to play.

So, even if Dennard is back healthy and playing this week, he’ll have his hands full.

It’s a great question and a short answer we can give is that this Sunday helps to supply a response as to who is the better team. There are few ways to to decipher who is a better team than a head-to-head matchup; but is a 1 p.m. Sunday game in Week 2 truly the best litmus test for the Bengals against the Steelers?

I don’t want to downplay a potential Bengals win, should they come out victorious on Sunday. However, an early-season win on a Sunday afternoon, even if on the road, still doesn’t measure up to the one the Steelers stole in Cincinnati this past January. The rematch at the end of the season on Sunday Night Football will tell me more about this year’s Bengals squad than this Sunday.

In this week’s game preview, I noted Lewis’ 8-20 all-time record against the Steelers, with six of those wins coming on Pittsburgh’s home turf. The record in itself shows Black and Yellow dominance, but primetime wins and maybe taking one in the postseason might even the scales.

Dan, if you’re talking about 2016 rosters, I’d say the teams are pretty even. Both teams employ a potent offense, a physical defense and should be in the playoff picture once again this year.

In a weird way, the Steelers are the older brother the Bengals have looked up to for years. The Ravens were the precocious younger sibling who tried to vie for their parents’ attention, but now Cincinnati is adding more trophies to the mantle and it isn’t sitting well with the Steelers. It’s why the players keep fueling the fire with questionable play and slanderous public comments.

The Steelers and their fans may rightfully boast “six rings”, as well as Lewis’ 29 percent winning percentage in the head-to-head matchups, but make no mistake, they are feeling the competitive heat from the Bengals.