CINCINNATI -- The last time the Bengals played the Ravens, the offensive line surrendered a season-high five sacks for the second consecutive game, resulting in a second-consecutive loss.
Since that game the line has mixed, matched and morphed its way into a productive, protective unit that has, despite numerous injuries, paved the way to four victories in five games.
Andrew Whitworth has played left tackle and left guard, Mike Pollak has played left guard and right guard and Anthony Collins has played left tackle and right tackle.
And despite the constant flux, opposing teams only have gotten to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton for three sacks in those five games.
"Our guys have done a really good job," Dalton said. "We've got an experienced line, guys who have played different positions before throughout their career, so for them to be able to make the switch has been big for us. I don't lose any confidence in those guys when something does happen and there's a little shuffling going on. We've got a bunch of talented guys, big physical guys. So the moving around hasn't really affected us."
The key piece in the rotation has been Collins, a sixth-year player who came into the season as a backup with plenty of experience, appearing in 44 games with 18 starts. If he starts Sunday, it will be his career high-tying seventh of the season.
Collins got the call for an injured Andrew Whitworth in the season opener against Chicago and blanked future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers. Since then he has pitched a shutout against Indianapolis' Robert Mathis, who at the time led the NFL in sacks, and Sunday against the Vikings he took care of both Jared Allen and Brian Robison after being forced to switch sides when Smith went down with an ankle injury in the second half.
"I've always thought he's put great film out there," Whitworth said when asked how much money he thinks Collins, who is in the final season of a two-year contract. "Hopefully people will notice that this time around."
Baltimore's Elvis Dumervil, who sacked Dalton three times in the November game in Baltimore, certainly has.
"I always knew he was a good player, man," Dumervil said. "When you have depth, you can do some of those type of things that the Bengals have got going. You've got a bunch of guys that can shift around and be versatile That's good to have."
Pass protection has been one of the keys to the team's recent success, but so, too, has the run game. The Bengals have rushed the ball at least 35 times in three of their last four games (all three were wins) since Whitworth slid over to guard to replace the injured Clint Bolings.
The Bengals only ran it 35 times or more three times in the first 11 games.
And while the run game still ranks a pedestrian 21st in the league at 109.6 yards per game, Whitworth said those numbers are misleading.
"Really the running game is more about a physical attitude and (being) dominant and making people respect it," he said. "You're going to have games where they're just not going to let you run the ball. You can stop the running game because the running game comes down to numbers. They're always going to have an extra guy. Last week they ran the safety through there every other play. He almost got there as fast as the linebackers did half the time. When teams do that, that's why this offense is really good. We have a lot of skill guys and you can't continue to do that or we're going to beat you."
In the first Baltimore game and the Miami game, the Bengals fell behind 17-0. Not only did the opposing defenses know the Bengals had to throw, the sheer number of dropbacks (53 at Miami, 51 at Baltimore) alone increased the chances for Dalton to get sacked.
Whitworth said even he could line on defense and get the quarterback with those odds.
"I don't care what offense it is, if you give me 55 rushes I will beat somebody," he said. "If you run the ball effectively, it dictates everything. It makes teams play both. That's why it's helped. You've got so many downs where guys are just teeing off because they know it's a pass play. The quarterback is under center (more), so you're not telling the whole world what you're doing."
Top tens: The Bengals enter Sunday's season finale ranked 10th in the NFL in total offense and fifth in total defense.
The offense is averaging 366.8 yards per game, which would be the most in franchise history since the 1989 team finished with 381.3. The No. 10 ranking would be the highest since the 2006 team ended the year eighth (341.4).
Defensively, the Bengals are allowing 311.1 yards per game, which would be the lowest since coordinator Mike Zimmer's second season with the team in 2008 (301.4). That also was the last time the Bengals finished in the top five in total defense, ranking fourth that year.
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