The Bengals have plenty of guys that have experienced "The Peyton Phenomenon."
Safety Reggie Nelson picked off Peyton Manning as a rookie, left end Carlos Dunlap dumped him for his first NFL sack, and cornerback Leon Hall is part of a rare double defensive feat that held Manning to fewer than 200 yards passing and no touchdowns.
But coming into their reunion with the mobile Hall of Fame exhibit this Sunday at 1 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium when the Bengals play the Broncos, none of them have experienced what backup linebacker Vincent Rey lived this past offseason. He has practiced against Manning post-neck surgery, thanks to a series of offseason workouts this spring at Rey's alma mater of Duke.
Rey's return to campus just so happened to be at the same time Manning hooked up with Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe to revive his career physically and mechanically while choreographing his NFL tryouts.
Cutcliffe had been Manning's mentor at the University of Tennessee a good decade before Rey became a captain on his first two Duke teams and then went on to join the Bengals as an undrafted free agent.
Rey figures he worked against Manning in three or so seven-on-seven sessions and came away as impressed as he was Sunday night of Manning's record performance in the blowout of New Orleans.
(Think he's back? Manning is just the second quarterback ever with at least 300 yards passing and three touchdown throws in four consecutive games to match Steve Young.)
"I'm sure I'm going to say what the other guys are going to say," Rey said after Monday's practice. "Pinpoint accuracy. Quick release. Very competitive. Very serious."
That's the biggest thing Rey took out of the experience: Manning's demeanor. It started when they stretched and didn't end until the last throw of the day. Maybe there would be some friendly give and take during lifting, but …
"When we were on the football field, there was no speaking like that," Rey said. "He's very serious about his football. That was very good for me to see."
And if Manning thought the defense was getting a little lax, he didn't care who was over there. He had some of his former Colts receivers with him, Brandon Stokley (who followed him to Denver), Austin Collie and Dallas Clark, and he was looking for more. So he'd get out the needle and say something like, "You know, we're not supposed to be running on air."
"He might talk a little trash, not just to me, but to everyone," Rey said.
None of this surprises Nelson and Hall. Some guys may have had their moments against Manning, but he almost is always the man of the hour. Nelson is 1-6 against him with Cincinnati and Jacksonville. Dunlap got him but Manning ended up escaping to raise his record to 7-0 against the Bengals. Hall helped keep Manning's receivers out of the end zone in Indianapolis in 2010, but two years before Manning strafed his secondary for three touchdowns, no picks, 277 yards, and 35 points at PBS.
"Peyton is a great quarterback; he's going to the Hall of Fame," Nelson said. "Peyton speaks for himself. We have to come out and cover those guys and make him hold that ball so our D-line can get in there and get after him."
Manning is the master of calling his offense at the line of scrimmage with a myriad of hand signals and other gyrations that give off all the complexities of a nuclear physicist. But Hall thinks the Bengals have a very basic task.
"Going into the game, you would think that disguising and trying to trick him would be the thing, but that's only a small part of the game," Hall said. "Really, at the end of the day, we talked about it this morning, it's big plays. Sometimes when he knows what coverage you're in, he knows how to attack it. You've got to out-execute that receiver on that given play or if it's a running back on a run play.
"A lot of teams try to show their coverages late against him, which is obviously what you want to do. But sometimes he still knows. He's obviously big in the film room, knowing about certain guys and what kind of position they're in, telling what coverage they're going to be in. It's something we've got to be smart about - sometimes disguise, sometimes not. It kind of helps that we have some guys that have been in the NFL for a while and have played against him a couple of times and are savvy enough to do that."
Nelson is one of those guys, seven times and counting and he knows exactly what Manning does best.
"The best thing he does is control his offense," Nelson said. "He knows where they're supposed to be. I'm pretty sure he's a quarterback that doesn't repeat a mistake."
Nelson watched the game Sunday night and made a copy of it. He's going to watch the TV tape and the coaches' tape as he tries to pick up even more about Manning. He and Hall already agree on a few points.
"If you watch the film," Nelson said, "they're getting better and better every week."
Hall has been watching film for several weeks and he finds it hard to tell the difference between Manning pre- and post-neck surgery.
"Going from the Atlanta game until now, they're probably one of the most improved offenses, if not teams in the NFL," Hall said. "It's hard to say that he's not (the same). He's been doing well, putting up a lot of good numbers, spreading the ball around to receivers and tight ends, (running back Willis) McGahee getting some catches. I don't know how the numbers compare, but as far as how he looks on film, I think he's pretty damn close."
Nelson, frankly, outright dismisses the whispers he hears.
"People say it's slowed him down. But I don't see anything slowed down on him. I just think he used that as motivation to get better and better," Nelson said. "I don't see anything. There's nothing wrong with his neck. He's getting the ball out and that's all that matters. And we have to cover it."
Rey is right. He saw in practice what those guys saw in games and they're all pretty much in agreement there, too.
"His arm looked plenty strong to me," Rey said. "Now it's time to get at him and we're excited for that. We have to get after it."
Except this time, Manning won't be urging those defenders to play tight as he tries to turn them into air. After watching Sunday's carnage, Hall said Manning didn't have him tossing and turning before he went to sleep. But he did keep him in mind.
"Not really; I slept pretty good," Hall said. "But I was impressed, though. Coming out of the game after it was over, I was definitely impressed with what they were able to do. It's something that obviously we'll look at in the film room and try to not make some of the mistakes New Orleans had."