GEORGETOWN — Ben Utecht headed for the left sideline at full speed, some 20 yards down the field with no defensive back nearby. He looked back over his shoulder and saw Carson Palmer's pass coming right on target.
The tight end stretched out both hands, cradled the ball gently and pulled it into his chest, completing a crowd-pleasing play near the end of the Cincinnati Bengals' practice on Thursday.
Get used to it.
The Bengals' offense could have a little different look this season, the result of one big decision and one important acquisition. After they struggled to move the ball consistently during their 7-9 season last year, they committed themselves to running the ball better so they're not so one-dimensional.
And, they signed Utecht, who gives their passing game a different dimension.
”He's a huge target, great wingspan, great hands,“ Palmer said. ”He wants to be great. He's always asking questions, always studying film. He tried to learn the entire offense in the first day, and then was frustrated when he didn't have it down.
”When you get a new guy that comes in that's so hungry to learn, so hungry to be ready to play and contribute, it's great.“
It's already paying off.
During a 20-17 victory Monday night in Green Bay, Utecht caught Palmer's first touchdown pass of the pre-season, a 14-yarder that ended with the tight end pointing to a group of 10 relatives and friends in the stands.
”It's always great to start a season like that, to connect with the team, to connect with Carson,“ Utecht said. ”I don't think the Green Bay fans were too happy — they thought I was heckling them. But I was pointing to my family.“
Utecht also led the team with four catches for 34 yards, an indication of how he could quickly become an important part of an offense that doesn't use the tight end as a receiver very often. Reggie Kelly had 20 catches last season with no touchdowns.
The Bengals signed Utecht to a three-year deal as a restricted free agent from Indianapolis. Utecht started 14 games last season and had 31 catches with one touchdown.
Until now, the Bengals haven't needed a pass-catching tight end because they've had three dangerous receivers — Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry. The Bengals released Henry after his latest arrest in the off-season.
Coach Marvin Lewis is pleased with how quickly Utecht has learned the offense.
”He'll add another aspect to our offense,“ Lewis said. ”He's been as we thought, a great addition.“
Utecht is in an enviable position. In the last two seasons, he has caught passes from Peyton Manning and now Palmer, two of the best.
”How spoiled I've been, coming from one great to the next,“ Utecht said. ”I'm seeing how many more similarities there are between the two, the more I play with Carson. They're great competitors, they have great attitudes, they're great students of the game. They really can put it where they want it. So it's been a really easy transition for me.“