8-19-02, 9:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Levi Jones, who went to Arizona State on an academic scholarship, is still pulling the grades.
After watching the left tackle outpoint Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney in Saturday night's heavyweight bout featuring the Nos. 10 and 11 picks in the NFL Draft, Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander gave Jones a 91.
"I don't think I've ever given a rookie that high of a grade in a pre-season game," Alexander said.
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said Monday that Jones has graded high enough to put himself in a position very close to the regular lineup, and he planned to discuss with his staff Monday night whether or not Jones should get his first NFL start in front of Richmond Webb Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium against the Saints.
"Seattle couldn't block him," said Bratkowski of what Freeney did last week. "We blocked him."
Webb also blocked Freeney early in the game. But it also showed why the Bengals drafted Jones and why the coaches are now talking about him so quickly as a starter:
The 6-5, 310-pound Jones, the 10th pick in the draft, worked overtime last week watching film of the 6-1, 268-pound Freeney, the 11th pick out of Syracuse who reportedly runs his 40-yard dashes like a receiver. Jones had spent a good portion of his career at Arizona State working in practice against a similar player and the "A" student applied the lesson.
"The guy was a great athlete, an upper-build guy," Jones said Monday.
"I know the way Freeney runs that 4.3 (40) up the field is vicious, but I prepared for him. I watched film and I knew exactly what I had to do."
That is why the Bengals think they've hit the jackpot in Jones. As right tackle Willie Anderson said, "If he has a bad practice, he can't wait to put the pads back on and make up that day. That's all you can ask for in a great athlete is that competitiveness and to have that fight in him."
Of course, Jones won't be saying how he blanked Freeney because he has to go back and face him for real Oct. 6. But it's no secret that the entire offensive line has been grading out highly in a preseason it has allowed no sacks in two games.
"It's a product of being in the second year of the same protection scheme," said Bratkowski, who counted just one mental error from the Colts' game. "If you can do that, you don't give up sacks unless you're getting beat. And we're not getting beat."
The way left guard Matt O'Dwyer looks at it, experience carries the day when you combine the second year of a system with a core group that has been together since 2000. Only Webb (2001) and Jones (2002) are newcomers.
"Think about it," said O'Dwyer, the eight-year veteran now in his fourth year here. "When a guy has to take a second to think what to do, in that second the guy gets past him."
Right guard Mike Goff, a third-round pick from 1998 moving into his third season as a starter, tips his hat to the quarterbacks.
"We don't have young ones anymore," Goff said. "What is Gus? In his ninth year, right? Kit is in his (sixth) year. Akili's in his fourth. He's not sitting there holding the ball. They've all done a great job doing that. They've all been around and they can feel the pressure coming. That helps us because if we screw up a protection, they can help get us out of it by getting rid of it. Knowing the playbook and having faith and trust in the guy next to you goes a long way."
Anderson saw it almost immediately in this year's training camp. Last year, as the line struggled with Bratkowski's new offense, the defense that would eventually finish ninth in the NFL had its way with them virtually every day.
"But this year, there must have been about a week where we took it to them just about every day," Anderson said. "And we know how good they are and I think that gave us a lift. A big thing is our depth. We go 10 deep with good players. If you look at the way we've been running the ball in these games, that's how you can tell."
The Bengals think Jones is a big reason why they have bludgeoned the Bills and the Colts with the run in the second half of the first two games. Try 293 yards combined in those four quarters.
"He gets on people so quickly," said Jim Lippincott, the club's director of football operations. "And when he hits you, he has a pretty good punch and he's got kind of a wallop to him because he gets under (the pads) so fast."
Bratkowski isn't saying that Jones is ready yet to unseat Webb and his seven Pro Bowls. But he is thinking about the future and wants to give him a chance to work with O'Dwyer more extensively in a game.
"So much that goes on on the offensive line is guys working with guys and their communication and the knowledge of the game and how the guy next to him handles it," Bratkowski said. "If we were to do it, it would be to see how (Jones and O'Dwyer) handle things together."