Cook's 'chess game' protects King Dalton

CINCINNATI -- If there were another position on the football field that Cincinnati Bengals center Kyle Cook could play, according to him, it would be quarterback.

No, don't rub your eyes and don't adjust your computer screen. If you're reading this on a tablet or mobile device, don't go running to your settings, either. You read it right. The 295-pound lineman would like to be a gunslinger.

"I'd be one awful quarterback," Cook said, "but I'd like to play a position where you get that, like, chess game kind of thing and where you can see what they're giving you [defensively]."

In the past when I've asked coaches about the positions they think are not only the hardest on the field to learn but also the most difficult to play, they always say quarterback and center. The quarterback portion of that makes sense. On just about every team, at every level, it is the one position that has the most eyeballs on it, and more scrutiny than any other.

Quarterbacks have to have the shortest memories and toughest skin of any player on their team. They also have to have some measure of athletic ability, a sharp mental acuity and an ability to see one, two or three plays into the future. They have to be able to see the play take shape, from both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, before the ball is even snapped.

For that reason, it's an important position.

But because quarterbacks can't quite see everything, they have another set of eyes. Those that belong to their centers, who make line checks and calls that can buy a little extra pocket time before a pass gets thrown.

Cook's eyes, according to offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, have been among the more underrated components of his overall game.

Against Buffalo last Sunday, Cook was playing the same kind of chess game that Dalton was as the pair went through constant line checks to spot blitz packages and inform their teammates where rushes were coming from. A seemingly nonstop blitz team, the Bills were sending defenders from every angle at Cincinnati's offensive line, forcing Cook and quarterback Andy Dalton to spot more rooks, bishops and pawns than they had much of the season.

"They're all over the joint," Gruden said about the Bills' blitzers, including defensive backs. "They're bringing nickels, they're bringing dimes. It's hard.

"And that's where the value of Kyle Cook really separates itself. He did an excellent job with the calls. Him and Andy both, getting us to the right protection, sliding the guards or doing whatever we had to do to pick up the blitzes."

Even though Dalton was sacked three times, Gruden blamed them on tight Bills coverage that left Dalton with nowhere to throw. He also thought they were the result of his quarterback not throwing the ball away at times when he should have. The offensive line, he felt, had it's pieces in the perfect places to protect his third-year gunslinger.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, the Bengals boast the NFL's second-best pass blocking efficiency at 84.5. Which team ranks ahead of them? This Sunday's opponent, the Detroit Lions.

Much of that success is a credit to Cincinnati's entire offensive line. But when it comes to getting the right protections in place for the remainder of the line to block, that starts with Cook and Dalton.

"Kyle's done a great job," Dalton said. "One of his big strengths is he's a really smart player and communicates well and gets us into some of those right protection checks."

While the Bengals defense will have its hands full trying to break through the seemingly impenetrable wall the Lions line has built this season, Cincinnati's offensive line will be facing a slightly different challenge than what it saw in Buffalo. Detroit's defense doesn't blitz quite as often, instead relying on getting good pressure from a line that has three former first-round picks on it. This week, it'll be all about being physical and not letting Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ezekiel Ansah, in particular, into the backfield.

"Yeah, they're a more straightforward defense," Cook said. "They're a 'here's what we are, here's what we're going to play' kind of thing."

Maybe that's a good thing. Compared to what he saw from the Bills, Cook may as well be playing checkers this week.