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Weekly Lineman: Bengals shuffle left side of offense line against Lions

The Bengals fifth-round pick from 2016 makes his career debut as the starting left guard in a win over the Lions.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Something that will always stick with me when I think back on the Marvin Lewis era is how his teams never failed to wait until there was no choice to either cut aging and ineffective veterans, or play younger and promising reserves.

Such decisions that if they were made much sooner, would’ve been better suited the team’s current state and made decisions regarding the future of the roster much more clear. The reluctancy, or fear, to change isn’t anything new.

So while it was a pleasant surprise to see 2016 fifth-round pick Christian Westerman finally active after 30 games of waiting, we can’t ignore that it if it wasn’t for struggling tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Andre Smith suffering injuries last week, Westerman would’ve been in on the sideline watching in street clothes once again.

Out of the playoff race, the Bengals have had issues on the offensive line all season long. Experimentation in the final games of the year should be the expectation in a position group that has been a liability and one of the main factors in the league’s last-ranked offense.

But, while I’m not satisfied of how they came to the conclusion they made this week, I am glad that Westerman at last got onto the field in the regular season. And not only that, we got to see starting left guard Clint Boling play left tackle for the first time in his career as well.

Boling has started 89 of the Bengals last 95 games at left guard, but his most played position in college was a tie between left tackle and right guard. With six years in the league playing exclusively next to the center’s left shoulder (he started three games at right guard in 2011), his footwork in pass protection was my biggest question with him playing on the boundary against Detroit’s edge rushers on the left side.

But his first snaps on the offense’s first drive looked very smooth.

The first passing play of the game, Boling goes into his vertical set. His feet stay wide and his kickslide is controlled. He’s able to strike quickly to counter defensive end Ezekiel Ansah’s combo move. Ansah first launches his inside arm into Boling’s sternum to create more space for his chop move on Boling’s left arm. Boling gets his outside arm up quick and gets a hold of Ansah’s outside shoulder and minimizes the second half of Ansah’s move, neutralizing his rush all together.

Here we see Boling use a jump set out of his stance. I really like how his controlled footwork and balance makes Ansah choose late of how to engage Boling. He attempts to bull rush through Boling and the veteran guard ain’t having it.

The low man is always in a position to win. Boling drops at the hips, and strikes in an upward and forward motion to out-leverage Ansah, and transfer that power in his core to negate Ansah’s force all-together.

Westerman next to him doesn’t have the luxury of space, as Boling should know. The things to note here are how fast and effectively he gets his left arm back inside after the defensive tackle swipes it away right at the snap. He’s not too upright and not too bent over, his entire body lean is ideal to nullify the defensive tackle.

In his first attempt against a wide 9-technique edge rusher, Boling’s biggest struggle of the game was exposed. The advantage the pass rusher has in this situation is that the further he is away from the tackle, the further the tackle has to climb in his set to meet him at the apex of the rush if the pass rusher decides to go outside.

The defensive end, Anthony Zettel, wastes no time to build his speed rush targeting Boling’s outside shoulder. Boling, not having to deal with pass rushers targeting him at this angle, is too slow in his kickslide and gives Zettel just enough of an angle to swim past Boling.

After getting beat on the outside, Boling overcompensates towards his left and exposes his inside to a counter, like a spin move. The defensive end, none other than Dwight Freeney, gets Boling leaning and gets Boling turned around.

Freeney has done this to dozens of left tackles over the course of his 16 year career, so I’m willing to let this one slide. If a defensive tackle tries this, when he has less time to build it up and in a much more condensed space, he’s going to end up on his behind.

Freeney pulled his signature move out of his pocket later in the game.

We may not get to see this move pulled off much longer, so we need to appreciate it while we still can. The reason it works so well is that Freeney turns his shoulders inside like he’s trying to bend around the corner.

This gets Boling on alert and thinks he’s going to ride him around the edge. The seamless and almost instant transition to the spin move is what makes it so deadly, and no tackle is capable of reacting quick enough to get out in front of it.

Freeney has eaten up Boling twice with his spin move. Knowing he can’t allow to overstep and allow Freeney a lane inside, he stays disciplined. But Freeney knows this and uses it against him. He attacks with speed on the outside and just sprints by Boling.

The rotation of his shoulders eliminates the surface area of which Boling can get his hands on, and his desperate attempt of riding him out barely works in preventing the sack. But Freeney’s pressure forces Andy Dalton to escape the pocket.

As the game went on, Ansah, Zettel and Freeney kept going after Boling with the speed rush. He just couldn’t match them at the top of the rush and they kept winning the edge. Here, Zettel’s speed and quick hands just toss Boling’s punch to the side and straight up beat him.

The main problem here is Boling entered protection in a jump set, as seen by his catch foot (his outside foot). He loses depth in his kickslide because he didn’t set himself up to go into a vertical set and work his way up, which gives Zettel the space he needs at the top of the rush to work around him. This is footwork of a guard trying to play tackle, which is exactly what it was.

All things considered, Boling played fairly well. His losses were pretty bad, but it goes to show how you not every lineman is capable of playing multiple positions effectively whenever they’re needed too.

It’s fair to believe that if he were to practice at tackle all offseason and preseason, Boling could put together a decent season at left tackle. But not everyone can be like Andrew Whitworth.

Westerman and Alex Redmond ended up splitting reps at left guard on a strict quarterly basis. For the entire first and third quarter, Westerman was in. Once the periods changed to the second and fourth, Redmond came on. Even when the offense was in mid drive at the start of the second quarter, Redmond came in on a third and long in pass protection.

As you can see in the previous three clips, Redmond was very stout in pass protection as he plays with a heavy base and heavy hands. He gets too upright at times and his hand placement is too wild, but he’s a tough man to move when he gets his hands on you.

Looking over Westerman’s snaps, his movement is just as coordinated and concise in pulling and run blocking in the second level as it was at Arizona State.

Westerman has the quickness in his feet, and the power in his core to be a consistent pass protector and effective run blocker. It’ll take more in-game reps to get his hands in back in order, but he’s still the same player that he was in Arizona State.

With one more game remaining, I want to see Westerman and Redmond continue to get snaps. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to put out as much tangible evidence to support their claims as backups moving forward or even potential starters going forward on an offensive line that is for sure to be shaken up next year.