The other pick

Posted: 7:10 p.m.

While Bengaldom fretted that weekend in 2004 about taking Chris Perry instead of Steven Jackson, offensive line coach Paul Alexander had to answer to a higher authority about the 123rd pick the Bengals took from Sr. Louis.

"When I got home my wife asked me if we drafted a lineman," Alexander recalled Thursday. "And I said, 'Yeah, we took a guy in the fourth round who has never started a football game in his life.' She looked at me like I had two heads."

But it turns out the Bengals kept the head they already had because Stacy Andrews is making the transition from project to player in the seven starts he's made in the place of four-time Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson. If Anderson can't go again Sunday, Andrews gets another shot to get better in his new game as the biggest answer to a trivia question.

Q: When the Rams used a fourth-round pick to trade up two spots in the 2004 first round with the Bengals at No. 24 to take Jackson, which player did the Bengals get with the extra pick?

A: The 6-7, 340-pound Andrews, an elite track thrower and eye-popping athlete who had played all of 70 snaps of football at Ole Miss.

"He gets better and better every year and it will be up to him to take the next step next year," said quarterback Carson Palmer. "You lose a guy like Willie and it's tough. You're losing the best tackle in the game, yet Stacy has come in and held up. If we need him to play for the next 10 years, it'd be OK with me."

The multiple injuries to Perry have dwarfed that draft because the 6-2, 230-pound Jackson has emerged as one of the NFL's top backs and the league's defending scrimmage yards champion.

Although he injured his groin this year, Jackson is coming off two weeks he's flashed his cyborg brew of power and speed. He's broken 50-yard touchdown runs in each of the last two weeks with a running style he calls "violent passion." Throw in hands that caught 90 balls last year and the Cincinnati defense knows it has its own hands full.

Bengals backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jackson's teammate the previous two seasons, offered a sober scouting report.

"He's a 230-pound back so you assume he's a downhill runner," Fitzpatrick said. "When he needs to, he's going to light you up. But he runs away from defensive backs."

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Andrews

Andrews has softened the blow a bit. After playing in one game as a rookie and then in 14 as a special teams player and extra tight end as a sophomore, he started three games at right guard last year in his third season as Alexander and assistant Bob Surace gradually shepherded him along without any setbacks.

Now he has been the regular on the edge of a pass-protection unit that is second in the NFL in allowing the fewest sacks per pass.

The disturbing thing is his tendency to false-start at key times, the most glaring trait of his inexperience.

With the Bengals about to go up 14-0 on the Steelers Sunday night in Pittsburgh on third-and-two from the Steelers 20, Andrews moved early and the result was a missed field goal. He added another one late in the game.

The week before, Andrews false-started on the third play of the second half in a game the Bengals clung to a 14-6 lead over Tennessee, but Chad Johnson bailed him out of a third-and-nine with a 22-yard catch that led to a touchdown.

But Johnson couldn't bail Andrews out in Kansas City. Down 27-17 with 3:29 left in the game, the Bengals had a first down on the Chiefs 41. Andrews moved to make it first-and-15, and Palmer got picked on the next snap going to Johnson to basically end it.

"He'll get over that. His problem is in a game situation and the cadence gets a little bit different," Alexander said. "The clock running, the motion, the timing, and when the cadence gets a little bit different than it is in practice, it unnerves him, and that's been his problem more than anything.

"You've got to get used to playing in games because things change a little bit. It's a perfect example of game experience. It's been when the cadence changes a little bit and you only get that from doing it. It has nothing to do with focus. It has nothing to do with concentration. It has to do with experience."

And you forget. Andrews still has only 13 NFL starts.

Make that 13 starts in his life.

The Bengals will have an experience in the offseason, since Andrews is a free agent and the situation around Anderson's knee and foot don't appear to be resolved fully.

Do the Bengals risk losing a guy they've literally molded from scratch in Andrews? Will they get some concrete answers on Anderson, turning 32 in July? How far up is Andrews' nice upside?

But all these questions still may not be as hard as the one posed by Kathy Alexander three years ago.

"I sat out on the deck that night and wondered the same thing," Alexander said.

On Sunday, if the Bengals need Andrews again, he'll be there with Steven Jackson, and that's an answer not so trivial.

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