There’s no point in sugarcoating it. With a rookie at right guard, a second year pro with minimal experience at left guard, and a just-signed newcomer at center, the Bengals face a huge challenge on Monday night in Baltimore.
“The NFL is full of challenges and if you like challenges you’ll like the NFL,” said offensive line coach Paul Alexander. “If you like REALLY big challenges, you’ll like the one that we have this week.”
Nobody faces a bigger challenge than center Jeff Faine. The 10-year veteran was the highest-paid center in NFL history when he signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent in 2008, and the Bucs let him go in March largely for salary cap relief. The Bengals were fortunate that Faine turned down overtures from other teams and was still available when Kyle Cook injured his ankle.
“We have a list of all of the guys that are available on the street and aren’t with a team and he was right at the top of the list,” said Alexander. “He’s been such a good, solid player for so long and we moved quickly to sign him.”
Faine has 113 starts under his belt and has been a Pro Bowl alternate. But can he join the team at the end of training camp and pick up the Bengals offense in less than two weeks?
“The only problem that I see is language,” said my radio partner Dave Lapham. “He understands the concepts and ran this exact offense when he was at Tampa Bay and Jon and Jay Gruden were down there. The blocking scheme is the same, the protections are the same. The only thing is, he’s speaking French and everybody else is speaking German in terms of what things are named. He has to unlearn one language and learn another. He told me that he’s been in here six to eight hours every single day, trying to get up to speed.”
“He’s really worked hard,” said Alexander. “He’s a very conscientious guy and he’s put in the time. We’ve tried to teach him one game at a time and give him the specific game plan for this week’s game against Baltimore rather than teach him the entire playbook because he wouldn’t be able to digest that in a week.”
Of course, it’s not just Faine. The entire offensive line has to gel quickly for the Bengals to have a chance in Baltimore.
“They have to just about live together here,” said head coach Marvin Lewis. “I think it will be 12 days from the time that we signed Jeff until we play a game and those guys have just about been living together along with Coach Paul Alexander. That offensive line is such a chemistry thing and it’s the hand-in-glove theory – all five have to work in conjunction all the time and they have to see it through the same eyes.”
“It’s exciting, it really is,” said Alexander. “The biggest thing is making a call at the last second. It’s easy if they just line up in a basic defense and you have time to think about it and make your calls. But the center is the guy that directs the whole thing. He sets it all in motion to begin with and then he makes the last-second adjustment right before the ball is snapped, and your mind has to think very quickly and you have to communicate it properly so that everyone can pull it off.”
While the Bengals had Kevin Zeitler penciled in as the starting right guard immediately after drafting him, veteran Travelle Wharton was expected to be the starter at left guard. His knee injury in the first preseason game moved Clint Boling into the lineup.
“I told Clint honestly last year that I didn’t have a lot of hope for him,” said Alexander. “But he worked hard in the off-season and improved his flexibility tremendously. He’s able to play lower, he’s playing with much better technique, and he’s really a different guy. He’s made as much progress in one year as any player I can remember.”
The line will be tested by the NFL’s third-ranked defense last year under new defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
“It’s the exact same defense,” said Alexander. “Same techniques, same structure, same everything. I think he’s going to let those players do the things that they’ve been so successful at.”
“I think that they’ll do their share of blitzing,” said Lapham. “They’ll try to do some crosses and hit the A-gap between the center and guard and use Ray Lewis in stunts and twists with the lineman. They’ll test the Bengals and see how they handle it mentally and physically.”
Calling it a really big challenge might be an understatement.
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