BY GEOFF HOBSON
It is, of course, a frightening matchup.
The Bengals defense that has given up 14 big plays (five runs of at least 20 yards and nine passes of at least 30) plays a purring Denver offense that has busted two touchdown runs of at least 25 yards, and has four touchdown passes of at least 30, and 10 have resulted in touchdowns or touchdown drives.
Because, really, the key to Denver's top-ranked running game that has dominated the NFL for the past decade is the balance they get from their vertical passing game.
"They're effective at balancing the passing and running," said Bengals cornerback Deltha O'Neal, the former Bronco. "It can't be just the (running) sheme. Look at the backs they've had. They've had to have some kind of ability. Their pass game makes it hard to stop just one or the other."
The Bengals defense, ranked last against the rush, is at least familiar with Denver's running scheme that has produced nine different 100-yard rushers since 1995.
|Curtis Martin, Jets||21 yards||No. 2 play in 6-play TD drive|
|Martin, Jets||24 yards||TD|
|Jamal Lewis, Ravens||32 yards||No. 1 play in 8-play FG drive|
|Lewis, Ravens||75 yards||TD|
|William Green, Browns||26 yards||No. 2 play in 13-play TD drive|
|WR Santana Moss, Jets||31 yards||No. 5 play in 8-play TD drive|
|WR Jon Carter, Jets||46 yards||TD|
|TE Randy McMichael, Dolphins||37 yards||No. 1 play of 4-play drive ended by interception at Bengals 10|
|WR Randy Hymes, Ravens||38 yards||TD|
|RB Jamal Lewis, Ravens||46 yards||No. 1 play of 6-play drive ending in fumble in end zone|
|WR Plaxico Burress, Steelers||30 yards||No. 2 play of 5-play TD drive|
|WR Andre Davis, Browns||99 yards||TD|
|RB Lee Suggs, Browns||59 yards||TD|
|WR Dennis Northcutt, Browns||49 yards||No. 4 play of 10-play FG drive|
"It's a great scheme. It has to be if everybody they put back there totes the ball for triple digits," Clemons said. "Their whole scheme is designed to keep you guessing. If you think you have to come off the ball, they're going to get you going laterally. If you're thinking about going laterally to cover your gaps, they're going to try and get you to rush up the field ande try to stretch the field with their receivers. It's such a great complement that you have a tough getting a bead on what they're going to do."
What they do is built around their small, athletic offensive line, anchored by 296-pound future Hall-of-Fame center Tom Nalen. They average about 296 pounds across the front, about 20 pounds less than the Bengals offensive line, and have gained notoriety and championships with "cut," blocks designed to take out the legs of the defenders.
Finally, you won't hear about the Bengals' athletic defensive line being too small for this one. They average nearly the same.
"It's a good matchup. We're smaller than a lot of lines," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "They try to get people on the ground. If we can stay up, we'll be good. If they cut us, you'll be seeing those big holes."
Weak side linebacker Brian Simmons says the Bengals have to watch how quickly the Denver line flows in the hope of getting cut-backs, or seams for running backs that all have that one constant in shifting into a down-hill style.
"They want to get you running," Simmons said. "They want you to turn your shoulders and turn to the sidelines. We just have to penetrate and stay square, but mainl, y you have to be sound in your gap.
"The big play killed us in Cleveland," Simmons said. "We were pretty good on the run, three yards a carry. If we do that the rest of the year, everybody would be happy with that turn around against the run. But we have to stop the big plays."
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis calls them, "explosive plays." Defensive line coach Jay Hayes is preaching precision this week.
"If you're not precise with these guys, you're in trouble," Hayes said. "They try to get you looking at things you shouldn't be looking at. You could be watching the guy behind you, or looking for that guy coming down the line trying to take your legs out. You have to stay in there and read your keys."
It's a matchup that comes down to one of Lewis' mantras when he talks about the athletes he wants playing for him:
"Stay on our feet."