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Prime mover

Posted Oct 19, 2012


Andrew Whitworth

Since he gives up a sack about as often as a celestial event, they are greeted in the Andrew Whitworth household with bit of dread. But after last Sunday's mishap to someone named Emmanuel Stephens in the last minutes, Melissa Whitworth got a different kind of text message from her husband.

"I don't want a pep talk. I just want to see the babies," so she waited until he got home from Cleveland to put to bed the 20-month-old lockout twins Sarah and Drew and six-month-old Michael.

"I think he finds comfort in our family," says Melissa, the former Miss Louisiana who ran away to join the circus. "I mean, that's the way our lives are now with the babies. When people come over I say, 'Welcome to the circus,' and it's fun. And I think Andrew lets go of things a little bit easier now."

It turns out that's not the only place he's parenting these days. Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green says, "He's like a dad to the team," and since Whitworth is the only offensive player who has played for the Bengals against both Steelers Super Bowl coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, it just seems like he could be that old.

"I feel like if I had to," Green says, "I could go talk to him about anything."

As he always does when the players gather in the tunnel before running out for the kickoff, the big calm, and reassuring Whitworth plans to say a few words Sunday (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) when the latest chapter in Bengals-Steelers unfolds. Since the Bengals have lost eight straight prime-time games, it might go something like this:

"I just think you've got to go into it like it's another game no matter when it is," Whitworth says. "I think that may be a little bit of a reason. Making more of it than it is. In the end, it's a game and we've got to win it."

As he prepares for his semi-annual steel cage match with Steelers sack ace James Harrison to whom he has allowed as many sacks as Emmanuel Stephens during four seasons of pitched battles, Whitworth isn't looking at America's most popular primetime program as an opportunity to show the world what his teammates and video vicars already know:

That he's one of the game's premier left tackles even though he's never been to a Pro Bowl.

"The Pro Bowl has become such a mess. It's a popularity contest and it's almost entirely defined by reputations," says Sam Monson of the web site profootballfocus.com that grades every NFL play. "If you get a guy who immediately comes out and plays well, and he was a high draft pick, it's incredibly hard to unseat those guys from a Pro Bowl spot. No one notices the decline. It's difficult for most people to get a handle on the offensive linemen that are playing without watching them solely during the game.

"Whitworth has deserved a Pro Bowl spot for a couple of years. He's one of the best left tackles out there. And certainly better than some of those guys that have already been to one."

Now Whitworth takes pride in more low-profile events rather than the acclaim that may or may not come in one national TV matchup.

Maybe a handshake and a compliment after three hours of mayhem, like his duels with Ravens Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs, a sack expert he has blanked down through the years.

Or maybe it's a stray quote from Suggs's head coach John Harbaugh talking about how Whitworth never gets beat.

Or like Wednesday after practice when the head of the NFL Players Association, DeMaurice Smith, oversaw the Bengals player rep elections and told the team that Whitworth is one of the best reps in the league. Or shortly after another landslide, they took his advice and cornerback Leon Hall and right end Michael Johnson were named alternates.

"That's the stuff that means a lot," Whitworth says. "In the end, those are the people you want to have admired you. The people who know you and the people you admire. The other stuff, the Pro Bowls, that's nice. But recognition from your peers means so much."

Whitworth knows winning is the ultimate recognition. It's the reason he plays the game. It's why in this third makeover in which he's participated he's excited that the Bengals have a shot to make a lot of noise with everyone stuck at 3-3.

"When I first got here, the exit interviews with Marvin (Lewis) at the end of the seasons were nice," Whitworth says. "All he would really tell me is that he wished he had more guys like me in the locker room. So I took that and ran with it.

"Now I hear from guys around the league that hear how good our locker room is."

That will happen when there are days like the one back in April when former Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman signed. Whitworth called one of his friends playing with Dallas and got Newman's number. He phoned him to tell him that he had a house in Cincinnati and Newman was welcome to use it any time while he got settled during the spring.

"Terence texted me after that and told me how excited he was to play here. He had never been through anything like that," Whitworth says. "That's what guys like Domata (Peko) and (Robert Geathers) and I are trying to do. Welcome everybody with open arms. It's a team."

Whitworth, along with 2006 draft mate Peko and the dean of the Bengals, Geathers, were the rocks on which head coach Marvin Lewis rebuilt on the ashes of the Carson-Chad era during the 2011 lockout.

"Whit was really good during the lockout. He made sure everybody got the information; he spearheaded it," Geathers says. "He's a good dude. Laid back. Down to earth. Great teammate. The guy has worked since Day One. He still goes out early before practice and goes through his steps."
 
Johnson has been watching since he arrived in 2009. Last year during training camp, he went into the weight room and there was Whitworth not only doing extra work, but also moving into the pools and training room to make sure he was taking care of his body.

Now when Johnson showed up this year and went through his extra regimens, he noticed Whitworth is still doing it.

"He'll help me during practice and tell me what might work against certain guys," Johnson says. "He'll even do it during a game. That's exactly how you want your leaders to be ... he shows you how to be a pro."

Geathers and Johnson have worked against Whitworth enough in practice to believe he's a Pro Bowler.

"I'm not going to call out anybody," Geathers says. "But I know he had better years than some of these guys. He deserves to get a shot to go to the Pro Bowl."

Johnson says people don't realize Whitworth's athleticism.

"They don't know it, but Whit's fast," Johnson says. "He's so big, long arms, and he's fast. I'd say he's right up there with those guys."

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander is always blown away when he sees Whitworth throw a football. He says other than the quarterbacks, he may have the best arm on the team.

"He golfs, he plays tennis. He's just a fluid, well-coordinated athlete," Alexander says. "If you had all the left tackles in the league lined up, I'd take Whit. No question. He's an A-plus leader and he's almost like the brains of our operation. He knows our offense so well that he's got all the little adjustments down."

Monson sees all of it verified on tape. Remember, here's a guy that when the Bengals took him in the second round out of LSU people thought he was too big to ever play left tackle. At best, they said, he was a backup right tackle and an excellent guard.

"I think they underestimated his athleticism. I think he's a better athlete than that," Monson says. "He's a student of the game and his technique is so sound. He's a pretty good run blocker and he's a very good pass protector. Occasionally now and then he struggles against the ridiculously speedy pass rushers that you can get. But even then he gives up penalties rather than sacks. He'll protect the quarterback. He'll keep him upright."

Monson is particularly impressed with Whitworth's work against the 6-0, 243-pound Harrison, a man he calls a matchup nightmare.

"Because he's got such a strange body type," Monson says. "(Harrison) is kind of a 6-foot-wide guy and low to the ground. It's a feat for a 6-7, 300-pound guy to be able to get that low and handle him. Suggs's thing is his strength. He's probably the best run player at end in the league. Whitworth being able to succeed against both those guys is impressive."

Whitworth enjoyed the kids. But he's still steaming about Stephens's sack, which turned into a sack and fumble, the first one Whitworth has allowed since he was a rookie, and it was to future Hall of Famer Dwight Freeney. Never mind it came at the same point in the game when Harrison got his lone sack off Whitworth last year. On the road late in a game the Bengals were losing and throwing every snap.

"Doesn't matter," Alexander says. "It's Whitworth. Whitworth doesn't get beat. He only gives up a sack or two every year. So there's one this year."

Whitworth may be known for not giving up sacks (2.5 last year, two in '10, 1.5 in '09), but he was just as upset about the first play of last Sunday's game, when former teammate Frostee Rucker penetrated past him and blew up a run. Whitworth tried to tee him up and went right after him, but Rucker patiently undercut him and was able to out-leverage him.

Now it's Harrison on Sunday night and he's got a long memory.

"Harrison is a great player and Whit's a great player," Alexander says. "It's worth the price of a ticket just to see those two guys."

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