Analysis Notebook: Week 13
Despite playing left tackle in college at LSU he was seen by many as having marginal athleticism for the position in the NFL and he was drafted by the Bengals to play guard. Cincinnati had a pair of top tackles at the time in the shape of Levi Jones and Willie Anderson, and Whitworth saw his first action at LG when an injury to Jones saw a re-shuffle on the line that kicked LG Eric Steinbach out to LT. Injuries kept Whitworth in the lineup for the remainder of that season and it wasn’t until the start of the 2009 season that he was moved out to left tackle where as it turned out, the draftniks had blown their evaluation of him.
While nobody would ever confuse Whitworth with the best athlete in the league at his position, he is clearly a good enough athlete, and makes up for any shortfall in that area with excellent technique and a devotion to studying the nuances of his position more than most. Since ’09 he has been one of the league’s better left tackles, finally earning an overdue Pro Bowl spot in 2012. This year he has again been in fine form, but injuries to both starting guards this weekend against the Chargers forced a re-shuffle on the O-line and called for Whitworth to move back inside to his old position, left guard.
Five snaps into the game he found himself back inside and from that point onwards went on to have arguably his finest game of the year.
Whitworth was dominant as a run blocker all game long, plowing lanes inside but also blocking extremely well in space when asked to pull block on power running plays. It’s probably worth making the point that this was against the Chargers who have some of the most lightweight run defenders around, but that shouldn’t detract from both the dominance, and most importantly the technique, with which Whitworth executed his assignments.
Here Whitworth and LT Anthony Collins double team Chargers DE Corey Liuget and drive him off the line to open up a huge hole off the left side of the line. Again, it is worth pointing out the opposition, because I have seen tackles on their own drive Liuget 5 yards off the line this season, never mind a double team, but the interesting part is how the play finishes.
The pair got instant and rapid movement, putting Liuget on skates before Collins splits off the double team to pick up LB Donald Butler at the second level – a block he actually whiffed on which might be the only thing that prevented this play from being a touchdown. From this point, Whitworth took sole control of the block and continued driving, burying Liuget into the turf for a pancake to the inside as the run came past him.
This is a perfect example of finishing a play that many blockers would have been content just to try and control on the feet. Whitworth has the ability to dominate physically at his size and when he gets to work inside on players that can’t cope with that, he is very fast to set the tone for the offense and make a point while he is at it. He got up after this block and celebrated like he scored a touchdown, and I honestly can’t blame him. On the very next play he pulled from LG and sealed a linebacker at the goal line to allow the running back to get in for the score.
That leads me nicely to his performance in space. Part of why Whitworth was so good at guard was his raw strength and power, and the ability to harness that in confined spaces, but that ignores the fact that he is an excellent blocker in space. Guards, especially in schemes like Cincinanti’s, are asked to do this far more than people often think – pulling and leading the run through the line of scrimmage or trying to locate linebackers at the second level, most of whom are doing their level best to avoid the block rather than take it on.
Take this play a little earlier in the first quarter. The Bengals pull Whitworth and he leads the run off right tackle.
The double team from Smith and Pollack has created a pretty huge hole for the run, and Whitworth finds himself against Manti Te’o in a lot of space. He does well to get initial contact on the linebacker, but again, it is how he finishes the block that is impressive. Instead of simply getting contact on Te’o and trying to shove him wide enough that he can’t influence the play, Whitworth locks on, and even though Te’o has good leverage and position for a moment and looks as though he will be able to force his way around the block, Whitworth just keeps driving, using his strength to force the linebacker wider and eventually to his knees, completely out of the play.
This wasn’t the only time this happened in the game either, in the fourth quarter he found himself with a similar task against Chargers safety, Eric Weddle. While the run collapsed behind him, Whitworth locked on to his man and took the smaller defender for a ride downfield.
The news coming out of Cincinnati on Clint Boling doesn’t sound too encouraging, and the Bengals are likely to have to find a medium-term replacement at left guard. Given his form at LT this season there is still plenty of life in Whitworth at LT yet, but at 31 years old he may have shown the Bengals that he has something of a second career down the line back at the position they originally drafted him. For the short term, the Bengals may well be better served moving him inside to guard and letting Collins man the left tackle spot than they would be returning Whitworth outside and looking to patch up guard with somebody else (possibly Pollack moving across from RG/backup duties).
Though he has shown for some time now that those who initially short changed him as a guard prospect in the NFL were off base, Whitworth did at least confirm that they weren’t entirely crazy. While he may have been more than capable all along of being a fine left tackle, he also has the skills to be a dominant guard, and that might be something that extends his career once his athleticism finally does start to diminish at tackle.
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