Rookie offensive guard Kevin Zeitler had his moments, showing that he's still a rookie playing his first career preseason game. There were a handful of correctable mental mistakes. But it's not hard to see why the Cincinnati Bengals selected Zeitler in the first round after his first half performance against the New York Jets Friday night.
During Zeitler's first offensive possession -- ever in the NFL we might add -- the rookie didn't offer anything spectacular, though his performance was largely unnoticeable. And when an offensive lineman isn't noticed on the field, then you know he's doing a damn good job. On first and ten from the Bengals 41-yard line, Zeitler cut defensive end Mike DeVito during an off-tackle to the left. An unblocked and run-blitzing Calvin Pace sprinted down the line of scrimmage to make the stop as BenJarvus Green-Ellis gained two yards. Zeitler went into a pass protection mode on second down, absorbing DeVito's monster pass rush while Dalton released an errant throw on a two-count from shotgun.
Third-and-eight with 12:21 remaining in the third quarter and Zeitler showed his keen awareness, not unlike a racer describing the performance of his car by a feeling in his seat. Pace lowered his hand in a three-point stance over Zeitler. When Andy Dalton took the shotgun snap, Zeitler took on Pace with Andre Smith curling inside for a little help. A few seconds into the play, Pace began pressing his edge around the outside. Rather than following him with Smith, who was easily locked into Pace as it was, Zeitler let him go, standing his ground and protecting his gap. Eventually a blitzing Bart Scott made his way towards Zeitler, who offered complete resistance as Dalton threw an incomplete pass to Jermaine Gresham.
With 6:14 remaining in the first quarter, and for the first time in the game, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden called a run behind Zeitler. Smith and Zeitler double-teamed Quinton Coples, who tried spinning into the hole -- instead losing his base and finding himself at the complete mercy of Andre Smith. Zeitler chipped off the block, taking on Bart Scott. However Zeitler was a step slow with Scott striding down the line of scrimmage, fighting through the block and stopping Green-Ellis with a four-yard gain.
On third-and-seven with just over five minutes remaining, Andy Dalton lined up in shotgun. Pace, outside Andre Smith's shoulder, took a deep slant inside where Zeitler took on the block, allowing a few steps but ensuring that the Jets outside linebacker didn't present any pressure.
Dalton completed the seven-yard pass to Andrew Hawkins, picking up a first down.
Later in the drive from the Bengals 10-yard line, Dalton completed a ten-yard pass to Brandon Tate picking up another first down. Zeitler helped Smith momentarily in pass protection, providing a quick shoulder-punch at defensive end Mike DeVito before absorbing and completely neutralizing a blitzing Damario Ambrose.
Toward the end it looked as if Zeitler became slightly overwhelmed with a personal dilemma. Not because the Jets did anything special. They didn't do much all night. He noticed that Bart Scott was also blitzing with a full-head of steam inches to his left. Zeitler could have stopped Scott cold, but that would mean leaving Ambrose. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was tracking Scott, so Zeitler's obligation to stop two blitzing linebackers was unnecessary. But the damage was almost done.
Zeitler slightly peeled off his block making a motion to at least jab Scott, instead losing his base as Ambrose pulled Zeitler aside. It was irrelevant in the end. Dalton had already released the football and Tate was in the middle of completing his first-down reception. Though you have to like Zeitler's vision, seemingly keeping his head up even while engaged with a blocker.
We noticed what was probably his first mental mistake of the evening. With 2:26 remaining in the first quarter, Zeitler fired out of his stance and immediately went to the second level, hooking up with a linebacker and chopping his feet downfield, easily taking a linebacker out of the play. What's so bad about that? Well. Everyone else was pass protecting.
If the officials had noticed, Zeitler would have clearly been flagged for an illegal man downfield. But it's preseason. We're all working out the kinks. Including Mr. Jermaine Gresham, who holds his ground like no tight end has ever in the history of the game. And before you suggest it's a delayed route. It's not. Eventually he collapses inward, thinking about hitting a guy in a green jersey. He doesn't. Though one has to point out two offensive linemen appeared ready to run-block than pass block. So maybe it's more of a communication breakdown. Either way. Dalton overthrew Donald Lee out of bounds (more like throwing it away).
On the following play Zeitler cut inside of Muhammad Wilkerson, which should have allowed Andre Smith to pick up the block. However the play was an off-tackle to the left and Smith went to the right, appearing as if he was the lead blocker. Again. Either miscommunication or perhaps misdirection to keep defenders from crashing down from the backside. Zeitler chipped off the block and found... no one. His target appeared to be Bart Scott. However the linebacker blitzed and Zeitler was far too late recognizing it. Eventually Scott and Wilkerson were free in the backfield, with Wilkerson dropping Green-Ellis for a no-gain.
Over nine minutes remaining in the second quarter, following Jets game-tying field goal, describes one of my favorite plays by Zeitler. He didn't destroy anyone. Rather you see fantastic awareness from the guard in pass protection. At first there wasn't anyone for Zeitler block, controlling his gap with a look downfield and a little support for backup center Reggie Stephens.
Eventually Zeitler peaked back and noticed that Dennis Roland could use a little help, peeling around and solidifying the edge.
Despite the second picture appearing as if Brian Leonard is losing the battle with Aaron Maybin, there was a natural pocket for Bruce Gradkowski to launch a pass from. Instead he stepped into the pocket were it was breaking down the most and forced an underthrown pass to Donald Lee.
Over six minutes remain and the Bengals are moving the football from their own 45-yard line. Zeitler, the only starting offensive lineman in the game at this point, immediately targets the second level. Linebacker Josh Mauga didn't have a chance.
Leonard eventually picked up seven yards, unable to make the safety miss. But then if Leonard can't jump over the defender, then he's emptied his arsenal.
For the first game in his NFL career, Zeitler showed a ton of promise. Strong awareness in the passing game. No defender was stronger than he, and his technique appeared solid. There were some mental mistakes, but those are issues that coaching can resolve by next month. If this game is indicative of the starting point for Zeitler to grow from, the Bengals offensive line is in very good hands.