Bengals prep for spread

Leon Hall

Perception and reality can be as dizzying as the wave of formations and receivers the Bills use to soak defenses while rolling up an NFL-best 38 points per game.

For one thing when the lone AFC unbeaten team comes into Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday (1 p.m.-ESPN 1530), it will face a completely different Bengals secondary than the one Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick microwaved for 35 points in the second half back in November. It will be an unveiling of sorts because the reserve Bengals cornerbacks have barely played the first few weeks compared to the minutes they'll log Sunday.

And for another, all of the Bengals concerns don't encompass Fitzpatrick's 103 passer rating or wide receiver Stevie Johnson's speed, or tight end Scott Chandler's deadly four red-zone touchdowns. A very big one is running back Fred Jackson and his dangerous versatility that has made him Fitzpatrick's "most favorite player I've ever played football with," and head coach Chan Gailey's X-factor.

But maybe the biggest misperception is the trigger man himself in Fitzpatrick, who has gone from Ivy League novelty to MVP candidate in the time it takes for one of his three-step drop passes to find a hole in a defense spread too thin.

Fitzpatrick may be one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league, but that doesn't mean he follows the rules when he matches wits with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Zimmer admires the "little gunslinger to him."

"He's very, very confident. He throws the ball into a lot of tight windows and he's not afraid to throw the ball," Zimmer said after Wednesday's practice. "In general the rule on Cover 2 is not to throw the ball down the seam. He throws the ball down the seam. If it's Cover 3, three-deep, or single-high, that means the rule is don't throw into the middle of the field, throw it outside. He doesn't go by the rules."

Zimmer isn't concerned about the bunch formations that can turn the Bills into an NBA team in the final two minutes with pick and rolls, as much as he is about the number of one-on-one matchups they force.

"You may have them covered and you might think the ball is not coming and it is, it's coming to you," Zimmer said. "Your guy is going to get the ball."

Secondary coach Kevin Coyle runs through the receivers like it's a Pro Bowl roster with Johnson's speed, Donald Jones' deep balls that took down the Patriots last week, the 6-5 David Nelson's height that causes matchup problems inside, not to mention Chandler's four touchdowns on nine catches.

And because the Bengals have been dealing with teams that haven't used much multiple receivers, Coyle will see for the first time what he's going to get from Kelly Jennings and Morgan Trent in extended stints as the Bills spread it out. He feels good about it because Trent is a versatile guy with experience that can play both inside and outside that now has a healthy knee and Jennings, a fleet outside guy, has brought his seasoned professionalism with him in the trade from Seattle.

"If I know these guys," said cornerback Leon Hall, "like I think I know them, I think they'll be in good shape. They're all up to the challenge."

A hamstring injury and the heavy diet of two-receiver and one-receiver sets have delayed a long look at Jennings' arrival as the third corner in the trade with the Seahawks. Now in his sixth season, he's using it as an advantage instead of a crutch.

"Coming from Seattle where I was starting, I could hang my head and be upset," Jennings said. "But it's given me an opportunity to sit back and watch the defense and learn where I fit in and figure out my role. I'm excited because I'm ready and we know they're going to spread us out."

Jennings says the bunch formations and the potential picks are going to put a huge premium on communication before the play because Fitzpatrick does such a good job getting guys in position before the ball is snapped.

"If we don't communicate," Jennings said, "we're going to get killed."

It was hard for the Bengals to communicate last year when the Bills rolled them in the second half because first they had to introduce themselves after three starting defensive backs went down in the first half and another one, Brandon Ghee, got hurt in the second half. The Bengals ended up going with Rico Murray and Tom Nelson helping out Hall at corner and Chinedum Ndukwe and Reggie Nelson playing safety. Trent was already on injured reserve.

"It was weird just being in the middle of it, just seeing all the people go down," Hall said. "I might have been the only one still out there. It was kind of weird how it worked out because of injury."

Murrray, Tom Nelson and Ndukwe are gone, safety Chris Crocker is back healthy, and cornerback Nate Clements adds 11 seasons of experience. Fitzpatrick admits between not seeing much of them in multiple sets and the new guys, "I'm interested to see how it goes down Sunday. They're flying around. There's a reason they're the third best defense in the NFL."

There's also a reason that Fitzpatrick is so high on Jackson. He calls him an all-around back, the best blitz blocker in the league and a moose that's hard to bring down with great hands out of the backfield.

But the Bengals are more concerned about Jackson's 6.4 yards per carry and the Bills running it out of the spread at 155 yards per game.

"Watching the Kansas City and New England games, there were a lot of mistakes," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "They took advantage of them. There were a lot of guys that were out of their gaps. That's what they do: they spread you out and run it and get you out of your (lane)."

Coyle warns, "You can't get into a game where you're thinking about the pass because they're very dangerous on the ground."

The Bengals would like to turn the tables on the Bills when it comes to secondary interceptions. Last year in their 10th game of the season at PBS, safety George Wilson's end-zone interception of a Carson Palmer pass was Buffalo's first secondary interception of the year.

The Bengals are seeking their first pick in the secondary this season, a concept that has been emphasized this week. In various published studies of the Bills offense, the M.O. is that all the crossing patterns give rise to tipped balls. Fitzpatrick had two interceptions last week against New England and here last year he had three in his first nine passes, one of which was called back.

"It's nothing that's going to rattle me," Fitzpatrick said. "I've had a lot more downs than ups. I'm used to having to find a way to come back from that pulling from past experiences and managing my emotions."

The stage is set for The Gunslinger From Harvard against Zimmer, The Old School Coach From Illinois State.

"More like Chan vs. Zim," said Fitzpatrick, who won't gamble on that.

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