12-10-03, 9:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals have more candidates at left tackle than Democrats in the Iowa Caucus. To start the game. In the middle of the game. To finish the game.
There were signs Wednesday that the Bengals are going to stick with Scott Rehberg at left tackle. But not so fast. There were just as many signs that they have been mulling all the options as they prepare for Sunday's game against the 49ers at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium:
The Al Gore-Howard Dean Back to the Future Option: When the Bengals drafted Willie Anderson with the 10th overall pick in 1996, he was supposed to be the left tackle of the future. In becoming one of the league's top right tackles, he hasn't played the left side since a few snaps in the first two games of 1997. But the Bengals view him as a viable option because of his brains and feet, and he's clearly committed if a move is made.
On Wednesday, he again guaranteed playoffs for the Bengals: "If winning these last three games is going to put us in the playoffs, we'll be there."
The John Edwards Whiz Kid Option: At the end of last Sunday's game, rookie left guard Eric Steinbach, Iowa's favorite son, says he was asked by the coaches about his thoughts if they moved him to tackle.
"I told them I was up to the challenge," said Steinbach, three games away from becoming the Bengals' first offensive lineman since Anthony Munoz 23 years ago to start every game of his rookie season.
"But I think Scott can do the job. He just came into a very difficult situation," Steinbach said. "You couldn't hear a thing in that stadium, and it should be much better here. As a rookie, it's tough enough to play just one position, but I told them I would be up to it if they made that decision."
But his mates seem to think Rehberg is more than capable, and he appreciates it.
"It's always nice to have the support of the people around you," Rehberg said. "But it doesn't matter. You have to go out and do it.
"Everything is different this time," he said. "A, we're at home, and B, I've got a whole week of practice. To me, the main thing is getting the reps."
Anderson has no qualms about making the move to the left side. Not with his team needing every game to make it to his first postseason.
"It would be real hard. It wouldn't be pretty. In fact, it would be ugly," Anderson said. "The technique wouldn't be perfect. But I could do it by instinct and athletic ability and playing within the scheme, and just going out and do what I do."
Who ever is the guy, Anderson hopes the PBS crowd is going to treat the 49ers' tackles as badly as the Ravens' crowd treated him and Rehberg last Sunday in Baltimore when no one could hear the snap count. How loud was it? Center Rich Braham, right in front of quarterback Jon Kitna, heard him 25 percent of the time. Rehberg rarely, if ever, heard Steinbach right next to him.
"I'm jealous when guys like Will Shields or Willie Roaf can have a good game on the road because they can hear," Anderson said. "I hear good tackles say all the time, 'If I can hear, I can block anyone in the league.' If you can hear, it's a whole different game."
Anderson has been enjoying the PBS crowd noise of late, and saluted the return to "The Jungle," last month against the unbeaten Chiefs.
Rehberg says the noise is such a big factor because it can change his sets.
"Not only was it extremely loud, but Jon's voice was just about gone," said Rehberg, who had to move closer to the ball to see the snap. "So you're looking at the ball, and your sets are different. They can get around the corner easier and that's what they were doing.
"But I know I have to play better."
Anderson is another guy who thinks Rehberg was a victim of circumstance. Jones going down just isn't a thing that happens every few weeks or so. Anderson was shocked when he saw Jones out of the game.
"He's been a very durable guy. He's played through a bunch of stuff," Anderson said. "I think he's going to be OK."
Jones was upbeat after practice, but cautious. He doesn't want to blow out his knee for one game, and head coach Marvin Lewis doesn't want too, either. But Lewis said it's his impression the knee isn't in jeopardy if he plays, although they want to be certain the swelling of fluid is down. Lewis did say that process has begun.
"They aren't having me do much," Jones said after practice. "Just range of motion stuff. . .The ligaments have to get used to moving without the cartilage being in there.
"It's been getting better. I couldn't walk yesterday, but then when I left here I was walking lightly," Jones said. "Today I'm walking around without crutches. At that that pace, hopefully I'll be running by Saturday and playing by Sunday."
The 49ers have only three fewer sacks than the Ravens (34) and also have two talented pass rushers in defensive end Andre Carter, the seventh pick in the 2001 draft, and outside linebacker Julian Peterson, the 16th pick in the 2000 draft. Each have 5.5 sacks.