Back during the NFL draft, there were a plethora of Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals fans who had contrasting emotions after one transaction. Having already drafted Dre Kirkpatrick 17th overall, the Bengals were about to come on the clock again with their second pick in the first round. However, the Bengals traded that pick, 21st overall, to the New England Patriots and dropped down to 27th overall. That took the Bengals out of contention for top ranked guard prospect David DeCastro and sent him to the division rival Steelers.
It has helped the Bengals’ front office that DeCastro tore his ACL earlier this year and hasn’t played at all for the Steelers in the regular season to this point, but it likely wouldn’t matter because of just how good the player the Bengals eventually took in his place. With the fanbase disgruntled about not landing the top ranked guard prospect, fans’ feelings at the times were compounded when the Bengals selected Kevin Zeitler, a guard, with their second pick in the first round.
Coming out of Wisconsin, Zeitler was in the shadow of DeCastro, but since the beginning of the regular season, it is he who has been putting others in his shadow. Zeitler has had as good a rookie season as anyone could have expected. Despite the losses of both the starting left guard and center who entered training camp with him, Zeitler has been very consistent as a dominant interior force on the same level as the team’s two outstanding tackles. In fact, Zeitler has been so good that he has established himself as a key component of the whole offense.
Against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Zeitler had another dominant outing although he was somewhat underused. The Bengals ran over the area occupied by Zeitler just nine times in the game, but those plays accounted for 87 yards. Brian Leonard ran three times for eight yards behind Zeitler, while BenJarvus Green-Ellis had six carries for 79 yards(discounting AJ Green‘s late blocking penalty). Green-Ellis’ two longest runs of the day went by the right guard. His first went for 19 yards as he was untouched before being tackled by a safety. His second went for 43, 33 after penalty, when Green-Ellis was freed into the secondary again by Zeitler and company into the secondary. Green-Ellis broke just one tackle on the two combined runs, some backs have to break tackles before they even get back to the line of scrimmage. Green-Ellis breaks them in the secondary more often than not.
Zeitler’s success has led to offensive coordinator Jay Gruden using him to be more creative. On the team’s scripted, first drive of the game on Sunday, not a coincidence that it was their best drive of the game also, this was on show. Green-Ellis’ first carry went for 19 yards, before Gruden came straight back to a play-action over right guard with a hand-off to wide receiver Marvin Jones on an end around. Jones benefited from good down-field blocking and very little resistance as he sprinted down the left sideline for 37 yards. After quick bubble screen to Andrew Hawkins, Dalton popped the ball to him on a sweep for an eight yard touchdown. Although statistically it was a pass, realistically it was just a forward hand-off when Hawkins evaded a defender on the edge before running through a well blocked lane for the touchdown.
Andy Dalton hit Jones for his first reception of the game off of play action at the beginning of the next drive as the defense bought completely on the fake again. It was no coincidence that Dalton’s only interception of the game came when the team ran play-action off of left tackle. Dalton rolled out of the pocket and threw to a relatively crowded area of the field. The ball went straight to Brandon Carr. Throughout the game the Cowboys’ defense bought play-action over right guard opposed to the left side of the line. That is because of Zeitler’s dominance at the position.
DeCastro may not have played a snap yet to be judged, but he would have to be a combination of Steve Hutchinson and Alan Faneca to take any of the shine off of Zeitler at this point.