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Was Bengals’ offensive line better than we thought in 2016?

PFF believes only 12 NFL teams had a better offensive line in 2016 than the Bengals. If that’s true, I feel bad for a lot of NFL quarterbacks.

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Cincinnati Bengals v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Bengals’ offensive line was one of the team’s biggest weaknesses this season. If you watched any of the team’s 16 games, that was pretty evident. The line wasn’t able to pave way for running backs to break free. The line allowed Andy Dalton to be sacked 41 times (seventh most sacks allowed by any team). And along the line, the right tackle position specifically was a huge problem, and saw three players start at least one game at the position this year. That’s not to mention Russell Bodine who continues to be a below-average starter at center and a liability for the team. And, we’d be remiss not to mention the issues Clint Boling faced this year; he typically is a great player and among the best at his position, but he played through a separated shoulder after Week 4 and waited until Week 17 to get surgery. It was a team-first attitude that Boling possessed to play through the injury, but playing in the NFL with only one good shoulder isn’t easy and that was clear.

The two things the Bengals’ offensive line did have going for it this season were Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. They are among the best and most talented players at their positions across the NFL and that didn’t change in 2016. Pro Football Focus was so impressed by the duo that they ranked the Bengals’ offensive line 13th in the NFL this season, despite from a fan perspective, the line seeming well below average and far from the 13th best in the league.

13. Cincinnati Bengals (4)

Top overall grade: LT Andrew Whitworth, 91.3 (No. 2)

Top pass-blocking grade: LT Andrew Whitworth, 92.5 (No. 2)

Top run-blocking grade: RG Kevin Zeitler, 83.1 (No. 9)

This team looked to have a couple of major holes on paper heading into the season, and while Russell Bodine improved notably at center—at least as a run blocker—RT remained a problem all year, and ultimately resulted in the Bengals sitting Cedric Ogbuehi after he was at fault for nine sacks and 40 total QB pressures in 11 games. Andrew Whitworth remains one of the most consistently-excellent linemen in the game, and allowed only 15 total pressures across 637 snaps of pass protection, even if four of those 15 were sacks. Meanwhile, RG Kevin Zeitler made the PFF All-Pro second team after another fine season. LG Clint Boling has had better years for the Bengals when it comes to run blocking, and will be disappointed in that area, but his pass protection was better than a season ago, surrendering 14 fewer pressures than in 2015.

Cedric Ogbuehi started 11 games at right tackle and was responsible for nine sacks and 40 total QB pressures in his time as a starter. That’s staggering and simply unacceptable. Ogbuehi gave up a 10th sack in his one start at left tackle, too. Simply put, he was a huge issue for the team and his future is very unclear in Cincinnati, even despite being a 2015 first round draft pick.

Compare Ogbuehi’s 40 pressures allowed in 11 games to Whitworth’s 15 total pressures allowed in 16 games. Ogbuehi’s output was simply unacceptable and with Whitworth set to become a free agent in March, the Bengals must do whatever it takes to get him back. Ogbuehi simply can’t be handed a starting job in 2017. And, Whitworth very obviously deserves to continue starting for the Bengals at left tackle for at least one more year, if not more.

Likewise, Zeitler is set to become a free agent — so yes, the Bengals’ best two offensive lineman could be lost this offseason — and is going to demand a big contract on the open market. Losing him would downgrade the line without question and he’s in height of his career. The Bengals drafted Christian Westerman last year in the hopes that he could eventually become a starter at guard, but, he didn’t play one snap this year, so we don’t really know how his talent will translate to the NFL level. When Ogbuehi was drafted in 2015 and handed a starting job in 2016, it simply didn’t work out. Hopefully the Bengals learned from that and don’t plan to just hand Westerman a job if they let Zeitler walk this offseason.

Do you actually believe the Bengals’ offensive line was the 13th best in the league this year? For the sake of quarterbacks around the league, I hope there are more than 12 offensive lines that played better than the Bengals’ line in 2016. And if there really were only 12 lines that played better than the Bengals’, have we been too harsh on the Bengals’ offensive line performance in 2016?