10-23-02, 5 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
This is how it is for a NFL rookie left tackle.
Two weeks after giving up a big play to one of the AFC sack leaders in Steelers outside linebacker Joey Porter, Levi Jones figures to line up a few times Sunday against another AFC sack leader in Tennessee defensive end Kevin Carter.
This is how it is. Injured Pro Bowl end Jevon Kearse doesn't play for two more weeks, but Carter has responded with the game that put him on the NFL Pro Bowl team while with the Rams a few years ago and has six sacks.
Right tackle Willie Anderson, whose size 19-EEEs were in Jones' shoes six years ago, has seen players in lonely, high-profile positions like tackle and cornerback begin to "freeze," if they can't find success early. But he thinks Jones is too stable and bright for that.
"That's why they drafted me here," said Jones recently as he reflected on his first two NFL starts. "To live and learn and come back. "I'll never get down. I'll never go in the tank no matter what happens. I've faced 10 times more adversity than this."
This is why the Bengals drafted Jones No. 1 and not cornerback Philllip Buchanon or tight end Jeremy Shockey.
Jones, the best left tackle on the board at a premium position where they had a 35-year-old starter, passed the eyeball test. A 310-pounder athletic enough to be a factor in the running game and strong enough to fend off those long-armed pass rushers.
But they also felt Jones possessed the intelligence and thick skin that would get him through the early tough times if they needed him to play right away. And they did when Richmond Webb was lost for the year in Week 4.
Jones already has it figured. The lot of a pro tackle is hard, thankless and exacting.
"The guys playing against you can make one play a game, get 16 sacks, and go to the Pro Bowl," Jones said. "If I give up a sack a game, I'm going to get cut."
Jones has given up that in his first two starts, but he's not going anywhere. He played solid for three
quarters against the power of the Colts' Chad Bratzke until they changed up on him and he allowed a speed sack to rookie Dwight Freeney.
Then the next week against the Steelers as Jones faced five different defenders from Pittsburgh's dizzying fronts, Porter sped around him and poked the ball from quarterback Jon Kitna in a fumble that eventually led to a Steelers' touchdown.
"That was in the first half, but I came back and played pretty well n the second half," Jones said. "I'm a worker. I don't like to remember the things that I messed up. I'm using it to get better. I'm focusing on what I have to do to get it right and keep the other stuff out of my mind and try to perfect it."
Jones didn't freeze on Porter. This was no deer in the headlights. This was simply a bull in a china closet and Jones didn't adjust. Instead of "punching," Jones says now he should have grabbed him.
"It's amazing how on one play you can completely stop a guy," Jones said, "and on the same move it can be the end of the world.
"I misplayed Joey Porter," Jones said. "I know he's going to try and get around my outside shoulder and I let him. I knew what I had to do and I did the wrong thing."
Since training camp, Anderson and Webb have preached to him not to change his sets. They have told him to keep his technique and not to adjust it to each pass rusher. That's what Jones thinks he did with Porter.
Plus, Anderson thinks the 310-pound Jones has to find a different style than the 340-pound Anderson.
"He'll find something that fits him, but it has to be his own," Anderson said. "If you look at his technique, people will say he's a lot more fluid than me. But I'm just as quick. I found my own style that worked for me. I'm big. I have confidence in my strength and confidence in my feet. He has to find what's good for him."
Anderson saw left tackle Rod Jones lose his confidence and his job in 2000 with a season full of plays like the Porter fumble. But Anderson doesn't see Levi Jones saddled with the same problems as Rod Jones.
"I think Rod was hurt that year," Anderson said. "He already had two bad knees and he was coming off (arthroscopic surgery) on one. There was bone on bone and he lost confidence as it became tougher to play well. Plus, he had a rookie quarterback (Akili Smith) and it just didn't work out."
Anderson can relate to rocky rookie moments. In his second start, he gave up two sacks to Jaguars sack ace Clyde Simmons at home. It helped the Bengals won that game, but Anderson sees Jones as a similar kind of guy who will learn and grow from mistakes instead of getting buried by them.
"You hear guys say, 'I saw it coming, but I couldn't make the play,'" Anderson said. "He's shocked, he froze. It's a sign to your brain. Are you going to move or freeze?
"From all I know about him and seen with his personality, he can deal with that stuff," Anderson said. "That's what they talked about him when they drafted him. He's the kind of guy who can study himself and not just watch film of another guy. I think he's doing fine and he's going to be doing fine. Tackle is just a hard spot to play because every week there's a good chance you're going against a Pro Bowl-type guy. It's that kind of position."
Two weeks ago is Porter. This week it's Carter. Next week it is Jeff Posey of the Texans with 4.5 sacks. In two weeks it is the Ravens and their Pro Bowl tag team of Michael McCrary and Peter Boulware. Then. .
"I don't think I have that low of mentality to let myself get shell-shocked," Jones said. "I'm just going to focus on what I have to do, and that's get better every day."