A PIANO-PLAYING, JET-SETTING, CABIN-BUILDING OFFENSIVE LINE COACH IS BLOWING UP THE WAY BLOCKERS DO THEIR BUSINESS—AND HE'S BUILT A FRONT FIVE THAT'S THE KEY TO THE BENGALS' UNBEATEN START
"A man's mind, [when] stretched by a new idea ... never shrinks back to its former dimensions."
—Oliver Wendell Holmes
The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
WALK THROUGH the Bengals' locker room, past the double doors on the far side. Turn left before the auditorium and head up the stairs. Open the first door on the right.
You've arrived at the meeting room of the offensive line, and you can almost guess what it's like before you enter. The atmosphere will be antiseptic. The players will speak only when spoken to. The coach will engage in a stern dissection of past mistakes.
But not here, not under Paul Alexander, Cincinnati's O-line guru for the past 21 seasons. This space is more living room than meeting room. Photos adorn the walls: past players; a group outing; Alexander smiling over a meal; his wife and three daughters. There are bags and cans of the players' favorite snacks—sunflower seeds and every imaginable variety of peanut. And as the Tuesday meeting gets going, the 55-year-old Alexander asks questions and solicits input. He's more like a cool professor than a coach. Together, players and assistants construct scouting reports on the whiteboard. "Got to cover him and beat his ass," left tackle Andrew Whitworth says of one upcoming opponent. "I think he's soft."
How is Cincinnati 6--0? There's the obvious: MVP candidate Andy Dalton has the NFL's highest passer rating (116.1), while the offense ranks second in yards per play (6.4), first in passing yards per attempt (9.1) and third in points per game (30.3). And there's the less obvious: While other teams scramble to address the fallout from dysfunctional O-lines—franchise quarterbacks KO'd by sacks, running games stuck in neutral—Alexander's unit protects and pummels, opening holes as it opens minds.
Through six games the front five has been responsible for just one of Dalton's six sacks, according to Pro Football Focus. (The rest can be chalked up to plays that broke down and bad blocks elsewhere.) Beyond that, the linemen have given up just three additional hits, meaning that Dalton has been touched, as the result of their lapses, a grand total of four times. That works out to 1.9% of his 210 drop-backs. The league average is 7.4%.
And that isn't some early-season anomaly. Since 2007, when the stat was first kept, the Bengals rank first in PFF's pass-blocking-efficiency statistic ("a rating that reflects the most efficient pass blockers on a per-pass-blocking snap basis") at 84.1%. The league average is 79.5%. And Cincinnati has been remarkably consistent year to year, ranking outside the top six of that stat just once.
Those formidable figures all start with two people: Alexander, the brains of the operation, and the 10-year vet Whitworth, very much its heart. "Obviously, we do it a little differently in Cincy," says backup tackle Eric Winston, who has played for three other teams in 10 seasons. "And I think it works really well. It's hard to argue with the results."
LET'S BEGIN with Paul Alexander's hobbies. He builds log cabins, including one on Skaneateles Lake in central New York, near his hometown. He's a noted horticulturist. He has visited every major metropolitan art museum in the U.S. He's an avid traveler, favoring Europe. When he was 45 he started playing piano in order to help his fourth-grade daughter (who at the time was being trained by Austrian concert pianist Albert Mühlböck). Alexander is now himself a conservatory-level pianist. In 2011 he wrote a book, Perform, that examines elite performance in any arena. And he can sing.
Oh, and there was that time in May 2014 when he conducted the Hamilton (Ohio) Fairfield Symphony Orchestra in Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." Before one movement Alexander told the group to imagine they were biting into chocolate-covered cherries. Then he gave one to each of them. "He was very conscious of talking to [the performers], treating them like human beings," says Paul Stanbery, the group's music director. "They so much respect it when whoever is leading them knows they are people, not just musicians. A lot of conductors and coaches lose sight of that. For Paul, I think that's at the heart of his success."
Alexander's thirst for knowledge—and his ability to share it—may have started with his mother, Shirley, who was a teacher. But football is where he first fully applied it. After being named Academic All-America at Cortland (N.Y.) State, where he played along the line, Alexander's first three college jobs were under Joe Paterno (Penn State, 1983--84), Bo Schembechler (Michigan, '85--86) and Herb Deromedi (Central Michigan, '87--91). All three are in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Just as important: "All three were completely different," says Alexander. "I saw assistants leave those coaches and try to [imitate] them elsewhere. And they failed. The greatest thing I learned in those first 10 years was, Don't try to be someone else. Just be whoever you are."
After two years with the Jets, Alexander went to Cincinnati, where he led the tight ends under offensive line coach Jim McNally, considered by many to be the original mad scientist of line play. McNally invented an array of techniques that are now considered fundamentals: the drop step, in which a lineman gains position despite losing ground; the duck demeanor—feet turned out, knees in line with the hips; and the "double-under" zone run-blocking technique, in which a lineman turns his palms upside down in order to get under a defender's pads and then lifts while moving his feet.
When Alexander took over the line in 1995, the tinkering continued. "There are two types of pass-blocking techniques," one college line coach recently told a visiting Bengals scout. "The type everyone teaches. And the type the Bengals teach."
Consider how most tackles block an outside pass rusher, at every level from Pop Warner to the pros. After a couple of kick steps back, the blocker punches the D-end's upper body with both hands to blunt the coming attack, then moves like a basketball player trying to stay in front of his man. But you won't see a Cincinnati lineman punch. "I wasn't a basketball player," Alexander says. "I was a wrestler. We try to use the opponent's momentum against him, which just comes natural from my experience in wrestling."
Alexander's mantra is, Block your man like a top. Don't put your body in front of a force when you can just as easily deflect it. What he means: Instead of punching out against an outside rusher, as most coaches teach, a Bengals lineman will use what Alexander calls a "pommel technique." The blocker reaches his outside arm outside the defender to slow his rush and disrupt his balance. The lineman then moves his feet in order to close down the separation, smothering the rusher with his entire body. In essence he halts the momentum of the outside-spinning top.
The same no-punch rule goes for inside pass-rush moves, when the O-lineman's first act goes against just about every manual: He drops his inside hand. Then, when the defender commits to a move—say, a swim or a club—the lineman will lift that inside hand to the defender's chest and put his outside hand into the defender's hip, spinning him around, against his desired momentum.
Alexander applies similarly unconventional wisdom to zone blocking. Most linemen focus on getting from their initial double team to the linebacker at the next level. But Alexander prefers his linemen to double-team too long rather than leave too early. To practice this, the Bengals work in pairs, shuffling 10 yards downfield with a blocking bag sandwiched between them. Then there's Alexander's invention, the Rogers Lev Sled, a more complicated blocking sled with pads that can be lifted, which helps players develop the proper technique of driving with their hips. It's now the norm on practice fields.
This kind of creativity is not always immediately embraced. "We always used to butt heads," says Hue Jackson, Cincinnati's offensive coordinator and former running backs coach. "When I was made coordinator [in 2014], we spent some time going over all the ways he taught things. Sitting there with him, it made me realize how good he was. How he teaches, the different props and tools he uses—it's different. But the results are outstanding."
IF ALEXANDER is the Michelangelo of NFL assistants, the Bengals have provided him with more than enough Carrara marble. Right tackle Andre Smith was the sixth pick in the 2009 draft out of Alabama; right guard Kevin Zeitler from Wisconsin went 27th in '12. Whitworth, an LSU grad, was a second-rounder. Left guard Clint Boling (Georgia) and center Russell Bodine (North Carolina) were taken in the fourth. Even with those five players progressing, Cincinnati used its first two choices last spring to prepare for the future: tackles Cedric Ogbuehi of Texas A&M and Jake Fisher of Oregon. "I've stayed here so long because I truly believe that I have the best assistant coaching job in the league," Alexander says. "[The personnel people] value our opinions and we respect theirs. It's done in that way."
This season Boling is PFF's fifth-rated left guard; he has not allowed a sack in 360 snaps, a league high for his position. Which means he's come a long way. Boling's 2011 rookie year was "not very good," Alexander recalls. "I told him he'd never play for me unless he fixed some things—and he did. He has worked to increase his flexibility and improve his technique as much as any guy."
Powerfully strong, Zeitler is PFF's sixth-ranked right guard, and he's begun to play to his potential in part, Alexander says, because he's learned to not be such a perfectionist.
Smith is almost unrecognizable from the flabby Alabama prospect who walked out of the 2009 scouting combine unannounced. Now regarded as one of the best right tackles in the league, he's also respected for his quiet leadership. Bodine, at 23 the youngest of the group, is seen by some as the weak link—PFF has him ranked 27th among centers who've played 50% of their teams' snaps—but Alexander is unwavering in his support: "I took Bodine because he was the toughest kid in the draft. He's inconsistent, but he's young."
And then there's Whitworth. At 6'7" and 330 pounds, with a bald head and salt-and-pepper beard, he radiates class, confidence. Inside his locker, engraved on his lock box, is a passage: I want to inspire people. I want someone to look at me and say, "Because of you, I didn't give up." Tacking up a motivational message like this is one thing. Living up to it is another.
This off-season, as he approached the final year of his contract, Whitworth watched his team draft two potential replacements—even though he was a 2012 Pro Bowler and always the first one to switch positions when injuries struck. How did he react? By reaching out to both rookies, inviting them to his house and offering any help they needed. "At the end of the day, who you are as a man is more important than who you are as a football player," says Whitworth, who in September signed a one-year extension. "For [those guys] to one day be as good as they can possibly be is more important than whether or not they beat me out. If you're a true warrior, competition doesn't scare you. It makes you better."
And for those two rookies, the competition is fierce. Whitworth trails only the Browns' Joe Thomas, the Cowboys' Tyron Smith and the Saints' Terron Armstead in PFF's left tackle rankings, and he hasn't given up a sack since the Bengals' wild-card loss to the Chargers in the 2013 playoffs. His subsequent 819 snaps without allowing a QB takedown mark the longest such streak in the NFL and the third longest for a left tackle since '07. Furthermore, he believes that, at 33, he could outperform his 24-year-old rookie self. Whitworth has used everything from yoga and running to MMA and Crossfit to redefine his body, while his technical skills have progressed to the point that Alexander often outsources his toughest jobs to him.
"I'll tell [Whitworth], 'Fisher's driving me crazy; will you go fix him for me?' And he'll do it," says the coach. "There are a handful of guys in the league like him. He's a 24-karat person."
INSIDE THE meeting room, Alexander is going over assignments before an on-field individual period. Players will pair off by position and drill to improve one another's weakest technique. This is a key part of the system. Alexander has his rookie linemen attend the Coaches of Offensive Linemen Clinic in Cincinnati each May in order to learn to think like coaches. Then those newbies assist Alexander at his own line camp, at Illinois Wesleyan University in June, because, he says, if they can't teach his techniques, then they don't properly understand them.
Today, Fisher is to help Whitworth stay on his block a little longer. The veteran, in turn, will assist Fisher in perfecting his hand placement by throwing an array of hand moves at the rookie.
"Your timing of putting your hands on the guy still isn't quite right, but it's getting closer," Alexander says before they head out onto the practice field. "We need to get that right."
Whitworth looks patiently at Fisher, who just nods. The look says, You and I are going to get this right. And they will, the Bengals' way.
"HOW HE TEACHES, THE PROPS AND TOOLS HE USES—IT'S DIFFERENT," SAYS JACKSON. "BUT THE RESULTS ARE OUTSTANDING."
ANDRE SMITH RT
The No. 6 pick in 2009 has gone from flabby to fabulous.
KEVIN ZEITLER RG
In his coach's words: "determined beyond description."
RUSSELL BODINE C
Alexander saw him as the toughest kid in the '14 draft.
CLINT BOLING LG
Hasn't surrendered a sack in 360 snaps, tops for left guards.
ANDREW WHITWORTH LT
Leader of the line—and one of the NFL's best blindside protectors.
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Photograph by AJ Mast for Sports Illustrated
HOG HEAVEN Since arriving four years ago, Cincy's QB has gotten Secret Service--like protection: Among full-time starters in 2015, only the Jets' Ryan Fitzpatrick has been sacked fewer times than Dalton's six.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI PREMEDIA
Photograph by AJ Mast for Sports Illustrated
WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY? That'd be Alexander's. He has spent 21 years teaching Bengals blockers how to think outside the box.
JASON MYERS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
COMPLEMENTARY BENGALS Dalton and his staunch protectors, from left to right: Smith, Zeitler, Bodine, Boling and Whitworth.