CINCINNATI -- The start of the regular season was still several months away, but Cincinnati Bengals right guard Kevin Zeitler began preparing anyway for one of the biggest challenges of his football-playing life.
When he sat down early in the offseason and looked at the Bengals' schedule for the first time, he was instantly struck by one thing: he and his offensive linemates had better get ready because they were about to experience a true five-month gauntlet. In nearly all of their 16 games, they would be going up against a set of defensive lines that featured existing All-Pro defensive tackles, future All-Pro defensive tackles, or confusing, multi-look schemes with perpetually stunting linemen and blitzing linebackers. Buffalo's blitz-first defense and its set of burly defensive tackles were a mixture of all of the above.
So how then does one describe the New York Jets' similarly confounding defense that comes to Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday?
"Everyone's been using the term 'Buffalo on steroids,'" Zeitler said.
Much like the Bills, the Jets like to throw blitz packages from all over their unit at opposing offenses. Their trio of defensive linemen -- Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison and Sheldon Richardson -- are considered among the league's top run-stoppers, and they possess quick, athletic first steps that often put them in opposing backfields. The Jets rank seventh in the league in sacks per dropback.
"Taking nothing away from Buffalo's defense, they're playing very well and they are very good. But [Jets coach] Rex Ryan's got this system in place for a lot of years," Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "His interior people. Those big guys, they stop the run like nobody I've ever seen. It'll be a great challenge for us to get guys in the right spots as far as protection's concerned and finding guys to throw it to."
If Bengals center Kyle Cook thought he was playing a chess match two weeks ago when he was calling out line protections and making sure the rest of his unit was in sync on the road against the smoke-and-mirrors Bills, just wait until he puts his hand on the football Sunday. Along with Cook, the entire Bengals line will be barking orders to make sure the group knows exactly where the pressure is coming from.
"They do a lot of crazy personnel groups, a lot of different things that are going to put you in tough situations," Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "It's kind of a call-and-run defense. You just never know what personnel might be in the field, what kind of things they might be lined up in. So it's a lot of recognition and being able to know where they are.
"These are good players and they try to confuse you and get you off base."
So what will it take to stop them?
"A lot of studying," Whitworth said.
While Whitworth and fellow offensive tackle Andre Smith will have their hands full studying for Wilkerson and outside linebacker Quinton Coples, the players on the Bengals' interior, Zeitler, Cook and left guard Clint Boling, must prepare for a tough rookie in Richardson and the second-year nose tackle Harrison.
As difficult as the inside tandem can be to go against, it will be another notch on the Bengals offensive line's proverbial belt if the unit is successful keeping the Jets out of the backfield. Richardson and Harrison would be added to the list of impressive defensive tackles the Bengals have faced and held their own against.
In Week 1, it was Chicago's Henry Melton. He only had one tackle in a game the Bengals nearly won. Three weeks ago, Tommy Kelly did an admirable but not good enough job filling in for Vince Wilfork in New England's loss to Cincinnati. A week later, the tag team of Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams combined for 1.5 sacks, but were torched along with the rest of the Bills' defense by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns. Last week, Detroit's Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh combined for a sack, but Dalton still passed for 372 yards and three scores.
By holding those respective tackle groups in check, Cincinnati's line has seen its confidence grow.
"We've faced different guys different weeks," Whitworth said. "When you can kind of have the game look the same no matter who has the hard guy lined up against him, that's when you know you have a good group. That's what we have been able to do. It really doesn't matter where their player is, things look the same. That's what your goal is every time you play a game."
For Zeitler, a second-year player who coaches say has allowed only three pressures while drawing some of the more difficult man-to-man matchups of the season, such growth is evident.
"It's fun when you see the building," he said. "It's like, 'OK, we're getting there and we know we can do better.' We see our mistakes every week and we all know we can do better and can take that play to the next level and keep going."