Katherine Terrell, ESPN Staff Writer 18d

A tale of two tackles: The Bengals clearly miss Andrew Whitworth during 1-3 start

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals' coaching staff and front office put on their best face in the offseason regarding the offensive line, professing their high hopes for the unit despite losing Pro Bowlers Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler.

Through one quarter of the season, it's safe to say the new line hasn't exactly produced the results they wanted.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been sacked on 10.2 percent of his attempts this season, which would be a personal high for a season. He's been sacked 14 times through four games. The Bengals allowed 13 sacks at this point last season before eventually finishing with a total of 41.

The problem is that Whitworth and Zeitler aren't walking through the door anytime soon, and there are few options to fix the situation.

The Bengals have three tackles on the roster, and a trade seems unlikely. Any long-term fixes to the unit will probably come after the season, when the Bengals should either sign a priority free agent or pursue a tackle high in the draft.

At this point they haven't publicly admitted they possibly made a mistake in 2015 when they drafted Cedric Ogbuehi in the first round and Jake Fisher in the second. The idea at the time was for Ogubehi to become Whitworth's successor, but that hasn't happened. He's never seized the starting job despite being given every chance since the beginning of last season.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis refuted the notion that the line is struggling.

"I don't know that they necessarily (struggled)," Lewis said following the Browns game, when the Bengals gave up three sacks. "We had a 'struggle' play or two, but I thought they played a better football game, and they're going to have to continue to do that."

The Bengals shook some things up after starting 0-2, and began rotating at almost every defensive position. Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander said it's a similar philosophy on offense.

"I think the mix we've had the last couple of weeks has helped all their play," Alexander said. "We've got three players so why not? We rotate defensive linemen, we rotate every other position. We've done it here for years."

However, the offensive line must work together as a cohesive unit. Rotating offensive linemen is not the same as rotating defensive linemen, which has actually produced results for the Bengals this season.

Instead, the rotation points to the same mess as last season, when Ogbuehi rotated with Eric Winston at right tackle after failing to secure the starting job early in the season. Even Fisher, when given an opening after Ogbuehi's struggles, couldn't put his stamp on the job.

Still, the Bengals felt good enough to move forward with them, partially at the expense of the 35-year-old Whitworth. His age, combined with Ogbuehi's draft position, likely caused the Bengals to balk at the thought of giving Whitworth a long-term deal.

Whitworth signed with the Rams instead, inking a three-year, $36 million deal with $15 million guaranteed. The Rams have started 3-1 and Whitworth has allowed one sack, zero hits and zero hurries in his first four games, ranking as the top pass blocking tackle and seventh overall among tackles via Pro Football Focus.

Rams writer Alden Gonzalez called Whitworth one of the best offseason additions in the league.

The Bengals young tackles have allowed a combined 25 pressures in that same time frame, more than the Raiders' offensive line combined. Fisher has allowed three sacks, one hit and seven hurries and Ogbuehi has allowed two sacks, no hits and 12 hurries.

If the Bengals had retained Zeitler, who signed a record deal with the Browns, or Whitworth, things might be a little different. But they also didn't make moves to fix the situation after those players left, instead signing former tackle Andre Smith with the intention of having him play guard. Trey Hopkins ultimately won that job instead but was hurt in Week 1.

That meant the Bengals turned to T.J. Johnson, and then tried to see what Alex Redmond could do. After Redmond quickly gave up a sack, it was back to Johnson again. The Bengals really have few options at any position.

With both tackles struggling, the Bengals have essentially had no choice but to return to the rotation system, essentially trying to plug holes wherever they can. Smith, who didn't take a snap in the first two weeks, played 70 percent of the snaps against the Browns, rotating at both tackle spots and starting at left tackle for the first time.

He gave up three hurries and Ogbuehi did not give up a pressure in his reduced role.

After a rough start, Dalton might have figured out how to work around the protection problems, getting the ball out quickly and playing an almost perfect game against the Browns with four touchdowns.

"I expect every single one of them to get the job done," Dalton said. "You see new faces in there, or some new way of organizing the line, but it doesn't bother me."

That hasn't exactly helped the run game, however, which averages only 3.3 yards-per-rush.

It's no surprise that Dalton and the coaches have been so positive. At this point, they have to make the best of the situation. But in the offseason, the Bengals should certainly look to correct their mistakes and figure out a better way to protect Dalton. Otherwise, they'll be looking at a third straight season of shaky offensive line play.

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