It sounds absolutely ludicrous, of course.
It's sheer madness to go into Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) against one of the greatest pure passers of all time with the intent to make Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning pass. But when you start thinking about how ridiculously good he was against the Saints last Sunday night and in an October he was AFC Offensive Player of the Month, it makes perfect sense in a mad, mad, league where Denver ranks second in offense.
"I wouldn't say we have to make him throw," said Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, but he also realizes to let Denver run the ball unleashes Manning at his MVP best and that the Bengals can't let him have his way with his lethal play-action passes off the rush.
"Really, it's no different than any other game plan," said Bengals safety Chris Crocker, who has been around long enough to remember what Manning was like when he had a running game. "When the Colts had Edgerrin James, they were rolling for a minute. It's been a little while since you've been able to put them in the same sentence."
The Broncos are a nightmare matchup this Halloween Week because of the no-huddle offense that often prevents sub packages, but the Bengals are hoping the physical talent they possess on defense can override Manning's magic playcalling at the line of scrimmage.
Besides ripping off clothesline straight 12-yard outs, Manning's game is literally nickel and diming a defense. As in, he'd love to get the Bengals in their nickel (pass defense) and smash running back Willis McGahee at them behind a group of athletic tight ends. Then if he can get the defense out of the nickel, he can start dropping $20 bills outside to his receivers. Manning has completions of at least 20 yards to eight different players.
It's a puzzle. For instance, if he's ready, the Bengals would love to get one of their best run defenders on the field in defensive tackle Pat Sims. But is the 327-pounder football ready after being on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to go up-tempo against a no-huddle? Plus, do the Bengals want to go with a run-heavy package if they can't sub?
And they'd love to get first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick his first NFL snaps at cornerback, but is it exactly a fit? With 11 defensive backs on the roster, the Bengals probably have to get to eight on game day because it's not exactly a day they can go light on the defensive line with the premium on keeping the big guys fresh against the no-huddle. Plus, you would think the Bengals are going to need all the safeties and outside linebackers they can get on the field to stay as versatile as possible if they can't sub.
As 11-year Bengals defensive back Nate Clements observed earlier this week, that's why Manning is going to drive the pace relentlessly.
"It's no secret he wants to have as much as time as he can so he can get the defense to show its hand so he can get the offense into the best play possible," Clements said.
Zimmer is one of the best Bengals weapons this week because he's gone against Manning during virtually every stage of Manning's career as the coordinator for the Cowboys, Falcons and Bengals. Zimmer has watched Manning go nuts (he threw for three TDs against him in Atlanta on 22-of-32 passing) and he's carried the day against him. When the Cowboys beat the Colts in 2006, they picked off Manning twice and held him to two touchdowns in a Dallas victory.
And the last time the Bengals faced Manning in 2010, Zimmer and his guys held the NFL's fourth-best pass offense to 185 yards while preventing him from throwing a touchdown.
Zimmer hasn't seen much of Manning in this particular offensive philosophy, but he's seen him enough to know that disguising looks is virtually useless.
"They have a few more different formations; they have a few different things," Zimmer said. "Their receivers are different. They run the ball a lot more. They run the ball well.
"It's really hard to fool him. Marvin (Lewis) said (Manning) has probably seen 50,000 snaps in his career counting OTAs and everything. You're not going to fool him much. He'll see it. He's smart. He's good. They don't have a lot of personnel groups. They basically have two groups and that's it. They do what they do and they do a lot of the same stuff out of the same thing."
In the end, Zimmer says it's the same thing that happens every week. It's a game of matching personnel.
"They don't allow you to substitute. We tried that in Dallas. We had a rush team and a cover team," Zimmer said. "And as soon as they saw that, he's going to get you on the ball and snap it. We're going to have to play with the guys that are out there. The guys have to rotate … (but) it's predicated on what they do situationally. It's no different than any other game that way."
A big key is getting a four-man rush. No one exploits a blitz better than Manning and he's already put his encyclopedic film work to use.
"I think they're second in the NFL in sacks, which have come from four-man rushes," Manning said about the Bengals in Denver this week. "They have multiple blitzes. I've always had a great respect for Mike Zimmer, their defensive coordinator. I've played against him a bunch in some different places. It's a playoff team, like I said, whatever their record is, all we see is what we see on film and in my opinion, their defense is good.
"Their defense is very physical. They play in a physical division. The teams that they play are good running teams, physical defense and Cincinnati matches that mold. I think their record is misleading. I'm not sure what's going on with their offense but their defense is playing solid."
Cincinnati's front four has caught Manning's eye, particularly defensive tackle Geno Atkins and his team-best seven sacks, and he understands why the Bengals prefer to let their four guys pressure. Against a lot of teams, they can.
"He's a physical guy. He's a big guy. It'll be a challenge for the guys up front," Manning said. "Like I said, I think they have the option. They could rush four and create pressure on the quarterback or they probably have every blitz in the book. It kind of depends on whatever they want to do so you've got to be prepared for all of it. He's a physical guy up front. (Domata) Peko, all those guys. It's a big, physical group."
But it still comes down to stopping the run. The Bengals know they can't let McGahee get off like he did last week against New Orleans with 122 yards on 23 carries while rookie Ronnie Hillman, a third-round speed back, jetted for another 86.
"If you have to put people in the box, you know what he's going to do next," Sims said.
McGahee nicked the Bengals for 101 yards on 28 carries in Denver last year, but they then went on a seven-game skein of not allowing a 100-yard rusher.
The Bengals put together a similar stretch before Jonathan Dwyer racked up 122 yards last week for the Steelers. In the previous four games they limited good backs (Morris of Washington, Jones-Drew of Jacksonville, Bush of Miami, Richardson of Cleveland) to 78 yards or less.
"They can run the ball and throw the ball all over the yard, but we're capable," Crocker said. "If we play within the scheme, we're capable. You can't get wrapped up in stopping this, or stopping that against them. You have to take it one series at a time. It's a game within a game."
Sims is an intriguing chess piece in all of this. He practiced for the first time in nearly a year this week and hasn't played in 11 months after two ankle injuries forced him out early last season. He tweaked a hamstring during the training camp conditioning test back on July 26, which didn't please Lewis.
The numbers say Sims is a factor against the run. A factor, not the reason, but the Bengals were giving up 3.4 yards per carry in the 10 games he played last season and 4.6 since.
"The Dancing Bear" is what right end Michael Johnson calls Sims because of his ability to move his big body.
"He's athletic and you just don't see that very often with big guys," said left end Robert Geathers.
Sims says he could go 20 or so snaps Sunday if asked, but the Bengals would have to cut someone to make room for him off PUP.
"That's what I'm known for," Sims said of the run. "I'm trying to get better. You don't ask a player that question. Of course I can go Sunday. I can give you a good 20 easy. I believe I'm in decent shape. I'm not in the greatest football shape. I've got a little ways to go. The hammy has been good for a long time."
Crocker looks at the talent poised to play the Broncos and he believes the Bengals match up. He knows Denver has been the best fourth-quarter team in the league and that the Bengals have to put together four after promising starts in the last three games that didn't play out.
"You respect every opponent," Crocker said. "But you have to hang loose a little bit and go in there and be confident in what we're doing. We've got good players over here. This is a great test. If we can play like we know we can play, we've got a great chance of winning this game. We have to play together. That's the most important thing. And finishing the second half."