It’s Offensive Line Week here at Pro Football Focus and in addition to all of the goodness already up on the site today we’re bringing you our chat with one of the league’s best tackles: Bengals LT Andrew Whitworth.
Since moving out to left tackle for the Bengals, Whitworth has been consistently one of the better performers at the position, and but for a nagging knee injury this season may have been right up at the sharp end again by the end of the year. His pass-protection grade was second only to Joe Thomas (after trailing only Jake Long last season), and only two offensive tackles allowed fewer total pressures than the 20 Whitworth allowed this season.
Here’s what the big man had to say when we caught up with him.
Pro Football Focus: How is the offseason treating you so far?
Andrew Whitworth: Oh man it’s going great so far. My wife and I had twins last offseason so getting to hang out with them a lot and I have another little boy on the way in April so I’ve got my hands full of babies at the moment.
PFF: Wow, congratulations!
AW: Thank you.
PFF: This is the first time we’ve spoken to you, [Explains PFF and PFF grading system] and we’ve graded you as one of the better left tackles in the league since you moved out there. Is that an accurate reflection of your performance?
AW: I think it’s accurate. I mean every week you go out with the idea of trying to secure the quarterback and being able to do things to help your offense to be successful and I think I’ve continued do that. I think it’s also reflected in the fact that I’ve had three contracts in five years since I’ve been in Cincinnati. From signing my rookie deal to getting an extension in my second year and getting an extension again this last year. So yea, I think basically the same thing and I don’t disagree with it, but I think there’s a lot of guys in the AFC especially who have played really well.
PFF: The AFC is loaded with some good tackles alright. Do you have your sights set on the Pro Bowl? It’s about time you got a spot there, isn’t it?
AW: You know I really don’t look at it too much. Every year of course you’d like to see, hey, are you going to get votes, what people think about you. It’s a process that I know a lot of guys complain about, and some guys are happy about. I think it is what it is; I don’t think it’s real accurate sometimes with who plays well and who doesn’t. This year for example, for nobody on Houston’s O-line to make it with the year they had that was definitely kinda ridiculous.
I think you see it more so when really good players that have been good don’t play very well and then they still go. That’s the issue that most people have. You’ve got guys that have gone every year that are perennial and they really didn’t have good years, but they keep going because they were Top 5 picks and they’re popular guys, that kind of deal. I think that’s what really holds those guys out that are on successful teams and have very good years.
PFF: What was it like making the transition out from LG to LT early in Cincinnati?
AW: You know, for me it was easy only because I’ve played left tackle for my whole entire life, all through High School and College, everything, until I got to the pros. Even in my rookie year I played left tackle for Levi when he was hurt, then they moved me back in to guard when he came back because he had just signed a brand new contract. So I played guard for a couple of years, basically just waiting for the opportunity to move back out.
I had always anticipated it and wanted it, so it was an easy transition. I was just excited to get the opportunity, I had always wanted to play left tackle in the NFL and hold it down and be a team’s left tackle. To have it and be able to do it as well as I have the last couple of years means a lot, but the team goals are still out there. I’m really looking to get my first playoff win in the NFL and possibly more.
PFF: What do you think when you hear draftniks call guys a ‘right tackle only’ or a ‘guard at the next level’ when they’ve played LT like you all of their lives?
AW: You know, (laughs) sometimes they might be correct, but a lot of the times I think they’re just trying to say something that gives them some stability in the job they have. When I came out, every draft person like those guys was saying it: “Solid right tackle” or “possibly a backup guy for a long time”, “really can’t play left tackle, isn’t fast enough for that”. And you can argue everything else but I’d say over the last few years you’d be hard to pressed to find someone that’s pass protected at left tackle better than me–one-on-one without any help or chips–and I know that just from watching the tape.
But that stuff happens, you know, those guys will say what they say, and there’s always wrong guys when it comes to the draft. People always use Tom Brady as the example, but there’s lots of guys every year that just slip through and have the ability, but for whatever reason don’t get the attention.
PFF: What do you think they missed when it comes to you when you were going through that process?
AW: I think you can never really value a guy’s football knowledge and football work ethic. I mean, how much does it mean for some guys to play in the NFL and be successful and to have that kind of pressure on them? Can guys handle that, and can they handle being on their own, working hard and having the desire to be successful without just being in college and being the cool kid in school? You see it, a lot of these guys have had a bit too much success in college or been rated too highly and they struggle their first few years in the NFL because they have to realize how to become a man, and take care of their own business and actually have a desire to be good at what they do, not just being good at it naturally.
So for me, I think you can’t take account of the work ethic I have and the knowledge I have of the game. I try and help guys that play this game all over the place, work with them on techniques, and there’s guys that play in the NFL now and start that I work with and help and teach things. I’ve always been that way, always been perceptive and doing that kind of thing, and that doesn’t always show up in a measurable.
PFF: You’re the perfect man to tell us exactly what the Bengals are trying to do with all of their unbalanced line stuff over the past few seasons in that case?
AW: I think the unbalanced line stuff is there to create confusion on the defense but also to create gaps. When you play some of the physical defenses that we have to play twice a year–like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and even Cleveland played pretty well defensively this year–when you play those kind of teams, they’re big, they’re monstrous, and you don’t see too many teams run the ball effectively on them year-in, year-out, so we’ve just been trying to do some different things to try and create some confusion and also get an advantage. You know, if we can put a tackle on a guy at the point of attack compared to a tight end, you can create a little bit of an advantage there, and sometimes you’ll end up with a tight end on a safety or different people also. It’s just trying to create some confusion defensively because if they don’t line up correctly they’re in trouble, because you out-man them.
AW: I think both of those guys are similar in that they’re good in both phases, but I think Terrell Suggs is the more pure player. The fact that he’s a great pass rusher and really has the ability to take over a game. I think James is a guy who just plays hard, he makes it physical, he’s tough to move, and he’s a really good instinctive football player–makes a lot of great, instinctive plays–but I think Suggs is the more … every single down he gives you fits because he’s a big, strong, athletic human. I think I saw one guy on ESPN say if I could create a guy on Madden to play, I’d create Terrell Suggs for my defense. He meets the eye test, the fitness test, everything. He’s a great football player.
PFF: Is there anybody else you’ve faced that is at that kind of level?
AW: I think there’s a lot of good players out there but I think every tackle in the league will tell you his matchup with Dwight Freeney is always an important one. You want your offense to play well, and your defense to play even better, because the last thing you want is to be trailing those guys and have to block him in the two-minute offense all day long. I think he’s a guy that definitely, one-on-one, he’s one of the best in the league.
This year, I think I was surprised; you’ve got two young guys who are going to be special, special, players in Von Miller and Aldon Smith. I got to play both those guys and I think they’re going to be really special football players because of how they played throughout the year. I played them early in the year, but I really liked their talent, just some natural body control and athleticism that doesn’t come around often.
PFF: Is there anything you struggle with more in an opposing player? Size, speed, strength, shorter guys etc?
AW: It’s funny, you actually hear that a lot from media or whatever–this guy struggles with smaller, faster defenders, or this guy blocks bigger defenders better–but I really don’t think that plays into anything. I think you’re really just talking about different styles of players, and I don’t think there’s any style that I don’t like, or worry about, or a guy that I necessarily fear playing. To me playing LT you’ve got to be prepared for all different versions, there’s not really one I prefer over the others. I think they’re all equally hard for different things, but to be a really good LT in the league you’ve got to be able to handle both.
PFF: You talk about your pass protecting with a lot of pride. Is that what you enjoy doing more?
AW: No I don’t really enjoy one aspect over the other, but pass protection is one of those things that it has to be, for me, has to be a very prideful thing for an offensive lineman. If you want your offense to be successful, you’ve got to keep guys off your quarterback and you’ve got to give him the ability to be able to throw the football. Especially if you’re the left tackle and you’re protecting the QB’s blind side, that’s the ultimate challenge and the ultimate sacrifice, because you want to do everything possible to never let your guy go down. Anything you can do to stop guys getting in his way to let him throw the football freely. Especially this past year, with a rookie quarterback and knowing: ‘hey, I’ve got to do everything I can to never allow this guy to get touched and give him all the freedom in the world to never be rattled’, because with a young QB that’s the worst thing you can have happen.
AW: I don’t know if I’ve really paid attention to differences between the two, but we’ve all been really excited by Andy. He’s a guy that I’ve said a couple of times, I compare him to Drew Brees because I’ve met Drew a couple of times, personality wise, not necessarily as players yet, but personality wise he’s very much like that. He’s a quiet, quiet, guy, and the cool part about him is that as quiet as he is, he’s very observant, very perceptive … he kind of knows things he needs to fix before you get a chance to tell him to fix it, and to me that’s a very special quality in a football player.
And he carries a chip on his shoulder about him. One day at practice I was just joking with him, he dropped a snap and I kinda made a joke about it, how it was his fault, just trying to rile him up a little, and he got livid with me. We’ve spent a lot of time together and we’re very good friends, but he got mad at me, and that to me just reiterated what I thought about him, that he’s such a competitor, you know, that he was mad. He was more mad that it had happened and that he might have done something wrong, so later in the practice he saw me pointing to a guy I wasn’t going to in the protection, and even though I knew who I was blocking, he kinda rattled back at me ‘Hey, make sure you point to the right guy’, and I laughed at him and said “oh ok, that’s how it’s going to be”. That’s how he is; he’s very perceptive and very feisty.
Even though he’s a quiet guy he’s got an extreme feistiness to him and I think that’s what’s going to make him really good. He’s got all the knowledge and attitude you want, when he gets more comfortable and confident he’s got it all.
PFF: Looking at your grades this season, after a really hot start you hit a bit of a rocky patch where we gave you some negative grades. Did you pick up an injury that didn’t get talked about or was there another reason?
AW: Yea, I had a knee injury there, but I think really it’s just one of those deals … you’ve got a new offense, we’re doing some new things and some of it didn’t have success. Sometimes plays get called wrong or things done wrong or said wrong and the play breaks down or it looks like someone made a mistake when they really haven’t, and being a young team, that’s part of it. I don’t think I really had lulls in pass protection, but at times I wasn’t run blocking as well as I wanted to with my knee. I didn’t feel like it was a dramatic difference as much as just not as good as I was playing before.
PFF: We agree, you actually maintained a really good level of pass protection all year; we only gave you a single negative game there against Baltimore. The run blocking was where we saw some inconsistent performances.
In the AFC North you’ve also got another great LT in the shape of Joe Thomas, do you watch much film of him, especially with him also facing Suggs and Harrison twice a year, do you look for how he deals with them?
AW: Yea, I’m kind of a student of it all. There isn’t one left tackle in the NFL that I haven’t watched a ton of film on. That’s actually what I love to do; I don’t study teams as much as I study guys that play my position. There’s not many tackles that I haven’t seen every snap they play, so yea I’ve watched him plenty. Joe’s a guy I’m close with and I was happy he said I should be in the Pro Bowl when he was out there. Me and him are close and I have a lot of respect for him, I think he’s a great player and a guy that continues to be extremely consistent. I’m just proud of the way he plays, and I love watching guys that I think are successful.
PFF: When you watch that tape, are you looking to pick up specific techniques or are you just watching to see how they perform?
AW: Yea I look at all different things. I look at how they kick, I look at the body position they keep, where they keep their hands, the balance they have when they actually block with guys. It helps me to study rushers to study tackles. If I study tackles and I know what their weaknesses are and what they’re good at or what they’re not real good at, then when I see a rusher I know why that rusher did those things, or why he easily beat a guy on this move or that move, because I know that’s kinda this guy’s weakness.
Sometimes rushers have a tendency to blow up and you think ‘hey, wow, he ran that guy right over’, but if I know that he doesn’t anchor very well then it’s not necessarily something I need to worry about because I know that’s just something this guy struggles with.
PFF: How has Andre Smith progressed on the right side in your eyes?
AW: I think he’s really progressed well. I think this year he took some huge strides. I think if you asked him he’d say he’s still got a lot more to progress and I’ll continue to work with him and Coach Alexander, who’s done an amazing job of teaching him and pushing him. I think he just had the light turn on this year and realized that it’s time to step up and he continued to do it. There’s things I’m sure he wants to get better at but he’s making the right strides in the right direction and I really think he can be a great player if he continues on this path to next year.
PFF: You said you’re a keen golfer, what’s your handicap?
AW: I’m at a 7 right now, but I’ve gotta get that down this year. Kyle Williams from Buffalo is my aiming point. We grew up together and played at LSU together. He’s really close to being scratch, and I’m going after him. He’s been taking money off me for a long time, so I gotta get there.
PFF: Well good luck with the golf Andrew, thanks for taking the time to talk to us, hopefully next season brings the overdue Pro-Bowl.
AW: Thanks guys, I really appreciate it.