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Diagnosing and fixing the Bengals’ offensive line problems

How can the offensive line get back on track in 2017?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

One of, if not the biggest strengths of the Bengals’ 12-4 squad from 2015, was the offensive line. Fast forward one year, and the offensive line was one of the team’s biggest weaknesses. With only one change among the starting group, many have questioned how this drastic change in such a short period of time could transpire. The answers aren’t that complex.

The revolving door at right tackle

There is an undeniable fact in today’s NFL. As the number of quality pass rushers has increased around the league, the quality of tackle play has decreased as a result. And while the Bengals have had one of the better left tackles in the game for quite some time, they deployed some of the worst right tackle play in the entire league this season.

After a pretty successful seven year career in Cincinnati, former starting right tackle Andre Smith was not retained last offseason, as the team had to see if either Cedric Ogbuehi or Jake Fisher was ready to start in their sophomore seasons. Smith signed with Mike Zimmer’s Minnesota Vikings, and only started four games before being placed on Injured Reserve. Knowing that now, it’d be wrong to blame the Bengals for moving on from him, especially when they needed to give one of their two high draft picks from the year before a chance.

The major turning point was when the Bengals named Ogbuehi the unquestioned starter at right tackle, without giving Fisher a real chance to compete for the same spot. We all know how that played out once the big boy pads came on.

Ogbuehi lasted five weeks before the coaching staff had enough of his atrociousness and began a rotation at the position with veteran backup Eric Winston. When Winston was in, the offense performed a little better, but, despite being a better player than Ogbuehi, he still wasn’t very good.

Finally in the last five weeks if the year, Fisher got snaps at right tackle and started the final three games of the year, officially putting Ogbuehi on the bench. Fisher at times looked promising, but very inconsistent due to rust.

You’d be hard pressed to find an offense that operates consistently well over the course of a year when three right tackles end up getting a significant number of snaps. An offensive line needs continuity more than anything. When the line was considered one of the best in the league in 2015, all five of their starters started every game (other than Smith missing two due to injury) and barely missed any time. That wasn’t the case this year, and it really hit hard at the right tackle spot.

Russell Bodine’s continued limitations

Before fans made Ogbuehi their go-to scapegoat on offense, Russell Bodine was typically the one underlying weakness of the group. When things at right tackle went south, Bodine’s play wasn’t as scrutinized as much, which is understandable. What’s not to be mistaken is that Bodine still didn’t play very well in his third year as the unquestioned starter.

A player like Bodine will never become one of the top centers in the league, just because of how limited he is as a player. The only hope this year was that Bodine’s technique as a gap blocker and a pass protector would improve, which didn’t happen. He still lunged, he still looked lost in space, and he still couldn’t anchor properly. Put it all together, and the Bengals have been set on playing a backup-caliber player at one of the most important offensive positions on the field for three years straight. And while his ineffectiveness didn’t headline the Bengals’ problems this year, it was still existent.

Clint Boling’s nagging shoulder injury

Something that I noticed more and more as the year went on was the underwhelming play of Clint Boling. Back in Week 4 against the Miami Dolphins, Boling went down with a shoulder injury, but by playing the next week, I put it off as a minor injury that he could play through. Well, he did play through it, but it ended up being a separated shoulder, which he needed surgery for late in the season. Knowing that now, it’s clear why we didn’t see the best of Boling in 2016. He was essentially playing a position that very obviously requires two shoulders, with only one usable shoulder.

Boling still put out some decent outings despite playing with one shoulder, but we can expect a much better year in 2017 after he makes a full recovery this spring.

So, the problems they had were relatively clear. What’s even more clear is how they can get better this offseason:

Re-signing Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler

The group starts and ends with these two. Consider them priorities 1a and 1b respectively as we enter free agency head on. Whitworth and Zeitler were the only constant bright spots on the offensive line this year, and have more than established themselves as two of the top players at their respective positions. There’s simply no way the Bengals can let both of these players leave and expect better results without paying more than they’d be willing to pay to replace them, and paying them shouldn’t be an issue unless they make it an issue. The first step to improving is making sure you aren’t taking a step back, which is exactly what would happen if one of these guys leave for a new team next season.

The only risk present here is whether Whitworth’s decline will occur next year. And while it’s possible considering his age, the alternative of putting Ogbuehi in the starting spot outweighs the risk.

Bringing in a new center

The Bengals true answer at center is not on the roster, you could make a case for backup guard Christian Westerman, but it’d be a pretty weak one considering he’s never taken a snap at the position. The team knows they can’t look at external options at tackle with the aforementioned investment they have at those spots, but at center, they have a little more freedom. Bodine has only one more year on his contract and T.J. Johnson is a restricted free agent. Whether it be a starting caliber free agent, or, more likely, a draft pick in the first few rounds, it won’t take much to bump Bodine to the backup spot. The team just has to be willing to do it.

Trusting Jake Fisher’s development at right tackle

With Ogbuehi at left tackle now, there’s no one in Fisher’s way of starting at right tackle next season, and the Bengals need to let him get every last rep now that he has the opportunity. While he’s still a pretty big unknown in terms of potentially starting for 16 games, he is the Bengals’ best option right now to make that spot an asset instead of a liability. Barring any injuries, Fisher can build off his playing time in 2016 and make a decent starting campaign in his third season.

If the Bengals accomplish these goals in 2017, their offensive line play shouldn’t be a persistent burden like it was 2016.