One of the longest-tenured and most respected members of the Bengals organization, left tackle Andrew Whitworth is a fan favorite and cornerstone of the Bengals’ offense. He received the second spot on Pro Football Focus’ 2011 pass blocking rankings behind Cleveland’s Joe Thomas, despite suffering a foot injury during Week 1 matchup against Thomas’s Browns.
Although he excelled in pass protection, he suffered a steep decline as a run blocker. In an article, Buried in an article written in April by Geoff Hobson on the team’s website about the relationship between quarterback Andy Dalton and Whitworth was in interesting passage that I have been thinking about while watching Whitworth this preseason.
Whitworth said that he had a case of tendinitis flare up in his right knee during the season, causing his struggles in the running game. He said to Hobson:
"Basically my quad shut down. There was a lot of muscle loss in the muscle of my left leg and I’ve built it back up. I’m back to working out, doing what I normally do. Yoga. Stretching. I never had to stop. It’s about tolerating the pain. You’re still able to play and perform. You don’t get as much push as you normally would in the running game. The real issue is once you get out over your knee, it’s pretty weak. That’s pretty hard not to be able to do in the run game."
With this in mind, I have reviewed the first three 2012 preseason bouts, focusing solely on Whitworth. Very often, he has struggled in situations that would require him to push off of his left leg and use his lateral agility. Tendinitis can degenerate into tendinosis, a longer-term condition, so it is worth analyzing his play with this in mind.
First and foremost, Whitworth is a savvy pro who always is spot-on in his assignments. Even in Thursday’s match-up against the Packers, it would appear that Whitworth missed a block in a third-down goal-line situation. But that one fell on Dalton for not sliding the protection to accommodate an overloaded blitz.
He has correctly identified the correct blocker in twist stunts and helped cover for the inexperience of replacement left guard Clint Boling. Where he has struggled is in situations requiring a quick change of direction ability.
Also against the Packers, however, Whitworth was routinely beat on pass rushes where the rusher would begin an outside rush, causing Whit to begin his momentum to the left to run the rusher past Dalton. If a rusher cut back to Whitworth’s inside, he was unable to push off of his left leg sufficiently to match up with the defender. This was especially apparent against stronger defenders like the Packers’ Jerrell Worthy and the Jets’ Quinton Coples.
His play might be partly from overcompensating for decreased lateral agility, as Whitworth is quick to open his hips on a pass rush in order to run the defender past the pocket. If he does open up his hips too much, it is an open invitation for the rusher to cut back to the inside.
When Whitworth has blocked in space at the second level or on the outside screen, he has often whiffed on blocks against agile defenders, like Atlanta’s Sean Weatherspoon or Green Bay’s D.J. Smith. A few times this has led to the defender stuffing a run.
His lateral agility was also exposed against the Falcons’ Jon Abraham, a veteran pass rusher who is enjoying the newfound benefits of rushing from a two point stance. By not firing off the line directly in front of Whitworth, he had to wait in a more stationary position for Abraham to approach.
When Abraham chose his path, Whitworth had trouble reacting quickly enough to engage him, although he did save a few plays by chipping Abraham just enough to alter his path. After Abraham ran around him four times, Whitworth ended up picking up a false start while trying to anticipate the pass rush.
The good news is, however, that Whitworth’s football IQ continues to serve him well in the three-step passing game that offensive coordinator Jon Gruden and Dalton often employ, in which he does not have to sustain blocks as long.
Another positive factor is that the Bengals, like many teams, prefer to run it to the beefier right side of the line, so Whit’s main responsibility is taking a bucket step to seal off the back side defender. He has continued to struggle driving defenders off the ball, however, much like last season.
The same reasons that the mammoth man has endeared himself to fans – his toughness, blue-collar attitude and innate understanding of blocking schemes – are the same reasons that this is not too much of a cause for concern. Perhaps his health is the reason the Bengals wanted to re-sign super-backup Anthony Collins, but nobody should be counting out Whit just yet.