Jones reaches for stardom

10-30-03, 8:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The joke, it seems now, is on all the draftnicks who ripped the Bengals back in 2002 when they supposedly "reached for," Arizona State left tackle Levi Jones with the 10th pick in the draft.

On the weekend he returns to his college stadium to play the Cardinals Sunday at Arizona State, it turns out the Bengals are ranked even higher than that in the NFL when it comes to converting on third down. They are No. 6 and with quarterback Jon Kitna the league's fourth best passer on third down, the man protecting his bind side has opened a lot of eyes.

Jones' mother might be making the 45-minute drive from Eloy, Ariz., to watch her son play in the NFL for the first time Sunday, but it's the Bengals offensive line that has been mothering Kitna. More than half of his 11 touchdown passes (six) have come when the rush is at its most intense.

Third down.

"With how our tackles are playing, we don't have to use the (running) backs to help them in pass protection," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, trying to explain how the Bengals are converting 43 percent of the time on third down. "We can get the backs out to create better route combinations. When you're forced to use a back to help on a tackle, (the defense) can double team people more effectively. We ask our tackles to protect for us without help and not many people in the league can say that."

But people are saying Jones and right tackle Willie Anderson are providing such good protection that the only way foes have racked up six sacks in the last two games is primarily through blitzes. Strength coach Chip Morton calls him "a pro's pro at an early age." Offensive line coach Paul Alexander is watching a kid already mature, smart, and strong become a little more mature, a little more smarter, a little more stronger.

"A lot stronger," Jones said. "It shows on film. You get your strength early in the year and then you have to maintain it. . .and that's what our strength program has done for me. I think it's helped me from getting some injuries."

Jones isn't so much bigger than his rookie season at six pounds heavier (316 pounds), but his body feels better and stronger after seemingly spending all last year in one long whirlpool. He could be one of the top ten exhibits on how Marvin Lewis' strength and conditioning overhaul has directly affected games.

Let's see. There was a rotator cuff, toe, wrist. . .

"It was a long list," Jones said. "At this point last season, my body was breaking down. We were already pulling back last year. My body was starting to feel terrible. It was mainly my shoulders. They feel much better now, stronger."

Jones gritted his teeth and started the last 12 games as a rookie, gaining invaluable experience against some monster pass rushers, like the Colts' Dwight Freeney, the Steelers' Joey Porter, the Ravens' Peter Boulware, the entire Browns' front.

Then, Lewis was encouraged with how much Jones had improved this preseason in Indianapolis when Jones fended off Freeney, the opponent in his first NFL start. After struggling against Porter in Week 3, Jones has been superb.

When the Bengals allowed one sack in back-to-back games against Cleveland and Buffalo, Jones helped blank a Cleveland defense that had six sacks against them last year, and then he shut out the Bills' Aaron Schobel when he was among the AFC sack leaders. Boulware, the Ravens' estimable Pro Bowler, also didn't get a sack off Jones.

"He's gone against those kind of guys, and he has done an outstanding job, and he's kind of welcomed that," Lewis said. "I know there was all of this speculation about drafting Levi instead of possibly someone else, and I think he has more then paid dividends from where he was picked. What a solid guy, and we have him there for a while."

Morton says Jones is a diligent presence in his weight room, where the idea during the season is to maintain what has been done in the offseason. Because of limitations of time, injury, and energy, Morton's focus now is the body core and that has probably helped build up Jones' shoulders.

"We concentrate on the shoulders, the neck, the lower back as we go deeper into the season," Morton said.

Alexander watched Jones go through the typical rookie growing pains. But just like in the 2002 draft room when there was some pretty intense for heat for taking one of the Miami studs, tight end Jeremy Shockey or cornerback Phillip Buchanon at No. 10, Alexander knew Jones was going to be solid.

"He just looks more comfortable out there," Alexander said. "Levi's a smart guy. He's an aggressive player. He's not trying to do the impossible every play. He's in a groove technique wise."

Jones calls that calming down. He is watching guys left tackles like Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace and he notices, "They do a minimum of work." Meaning they are under control enough to do what needs to be done and not overdo it.

"I think I'm more patient and I think we're more patent as an offense," he said.

Jones has exuded much patience this week as he fields all sorts of calls from the great southwest. There is no truth to the rumor that Sunday's crowd of 25,000 at Sun Devil Stadium will all be related to Jones and fellow Arizona State product Victor Leyva.

But Jones has bought 45 tickets. He is also springing for the Santa Cruz Valley High School football team to make the trip. And he does have a busy weekend once the Bengals land in Phoenix. He's going to try and make his "baby" cousin's high school game Friday night and he'll see how far the 6-6, 230-pounder is from being the 10th pick in the 2010 draft.

Then on Saturday, Jones and Leyva plan to watch some of ASU's game, "but we don't want to stay out in the sun too long."

That's OK. The Bengals and Jones look like they are done taking the heat for going No. 10.

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