Levi steps up

12-14-03, 5:50 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Last Monday morning, Levi Jones had about 40 percent of his cartilage removed from his right knee. By Sunday night, it was 100 percent apparent how much their second-year left tackle means to the Bengals emotionally and physically.

Jones not only played Sunday for the 30th straight game. He started his 26th straight game. He not only started, he held San Francisco's top pass rusher to a harmless sack. He not only played well, he played the kind of game that makes a NFL star's reputation for toughness and leadership.

"I don't think there was any doubting in Marvin's head or the coaches' head. He was going to play," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "I told him that he should get the game ball. I told him, 'You caused us a lot less stress today by your presence.' If he didn't play, our whole game plan would have been changed up, to kind of help who was ever going be over there. He's playing on one leg, and he's up against one of the top guys in the league, and you didn't hear the guy's named called but once."

The Bengals were ready to go with Scott Rehberg. They felt he would be a different player at home with a week of preparation than the guy that allowed two sacks-and-fumbles, and committed two false starts in the second half in Baltimore.

But Jones was convinced he could play as early as Tuesday afternoon. Head coach Marvin Lewis knew Friday. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander knew he would be fine after working him out Saturday, and Jones survived getting pushed around and able to get in and out of his pass sets.

"He's one in a million. A special guy," Alexander said. "He's not only a good player, but he's a great competitor. He's got rare competitiveness."

He's also got a pain tolerance bordering on immunity. Jones said it hurt before the game, during the game, and after the game. But he knew that was part of it.

"I knew my teammates needed to see me out there, especially how things turned out without me in Baltimore," Jones said. "I knew a lot of their hopes were riding on it. If I could get out there and have a good day or have a decent day, I just felt it would have boosted the confidence of my teammates."

He was right. Quarterback Jon Kitna couldn't help notice what took place before the game.

"It's unbelievable. Guys do that a lot in this league — maybe more than you know," Kitna said. "Guys often come out and play in games you would think they have no chance to play in. He was the emotional leader for us before the game today. It's not very hard to get up for a game when you see a guy who could barely walk two days ago be the most excited person in your locker room."

Jones played through shoulder and toe problems last year, but he said he learned playing hurt from his college position coach. In college, he suffered though a knee sprain, a sprained back, and cut up a finger two days before spring ball started .Jones said the coach got the stitches cut out so he could play.

Tough?

Here's a guy who still kept a commitment to be a Santa's elf at a charity event Wednesday night for between 30 to 40 needy inner city school children even though he was smack in the middle of rehab. But Jones wasn't feeling too charitable when he thought about the matchup with 49ers defensive end Andre Carter, an old college rival from California. Alexander, knowing the competitor, pushed the right button a few days ago when he casually mentioned he'd get another shot at Carter in about six years, thanks to the NFL's new rotating schedule.

Why, Jones would also want to do it now for good old Arizona State. He admitted he wanted to play Carter now.

"And I'm still mad. I was on his draft highlights," Jones said. "He beat me on three out of 72 snaps and they put me on the highlights. There were a lot of great battles. It was a good deal to see how we were then and how we are in the NFL. That' s what I wanted to see."

The Bengals liked what they saw. Carter beat him once for a sack on an outside move in the second quarter, but it almost appeared like it was a coverage sack because Carter didn't beat Jones right away.

The big thing, in the end, is they didn't have to change much of what they've been doing this season. They started out helping Jones in pass protection with running backs and tight ends, but when they saw he could do it, they stopped. Plus, it probably helped that Kitna ended up throwing just 25 passes, his second fewest of the season.

"When they saw I could hold my own, they got away from (helping me)," Jones said.

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