The Bengals go into hand-to-hand combat with one of the game's all-time greats Sunday in the person of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and they have not fared well against immortality.
In 26 games against the top five winningest quarterbacks in NFL history, the Bengals have won two of them. They beat the leader on the list, Brett Favre, in Cincinnati in a 21-14 win over the Packers in 2005, and they blanked No. 5, the Vikings' Fran Tarkenton in Cincinnati, 27-0, in 1973. But they never beat No. 2 Dan Marino (0-6) and No. 3 John Elway (0-7) and they have yet to beat the No. 4 Manning (0-6). The Bengals were even with Tarkenton at 1-1 and are 1-4 against Favre.
Of course, none of them lost very often to anyone. All but Tarkenton had a winning percentage of at least .613 and Manning leads them all at .680.
"He's the best," said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer this week as he prepared to match wits with the consummate coach on the field. "He's excellent at getting the ball out. He gets them in the right place ... he's excellent in play-action. He throws the ball in places you say, 'Holy, man, what he is doing his unbelievable.' "
Zimmer's players are thinking the same thing. If there is one guy who is going to be tested by Manning's greatness, it is cornerback Leon Hall. Since Hall stays on the right corner, he's going to draw the only one of Manning's top three receivers that is playing. It just happens to be Pro Bowler Reggie Wayne, the NFL leader with 60 catches.
"He's the type of guy who knows what he wants to do before you know what you're trying to do," Hall said of Manning. "He uses all the play clock, he checks three or four times at the line. By the time the defense says, 'We'll get into our defense,' he checks to another play and he's successful. You'll have tight coverage and he'll throw it in there anyway … he has a lot of confidence in his arm and his accuracy, which he should."
Hall and cornerback Johnathan Joseph are key guys because if they don't take away the big ball to Wayne or Pierre Garcon, it is going to be a long day. The Bengals figure to try and make Manning dink and dunk, which is why Hall' s tackling is going to be as important as his coverage.
"They dump the ball," Zimmer said. "He likes to go deep and get the ball into the seam and go outside to his receivers. But if we don't tackle the slants, and the drive routes and the backs (out of the backfield)…"
Blitz? It seems to be the only way to get to Manning, sacked just 10 times this season. The Eagles, a blitzing team, got him three times last week in their 26-24 win in which Manning had his second lowest passer rating of the season at 65.7. But Zimmer notes Manning has over a 100 passer rating against the blitz.
Foes have had success passing in the middle of the field against the Bengals this season and the ESPN analysts took dead aim at middle linebacker Dhani Jones during Monday's telecast. But Zimmer is not ready to replace the brains of his defense with SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga. He loves Maualuga's effort and toughness, but not his reliability.
"If we felt like it was the best thing right now, we would do it; it's not," Zimmer said. "These last five (games) show we don't owe anybody anything. If it was the best thing for the team, we'd do it. Sometimes (Maualuga) just runs around like a chicken with his head cut off. He's here when he supposed to be there, he's there when he's supposed to be here…"
Zimmer was generally pleased with the way his guys played Monday. "Whatever they ate, whatever they drank, whatever they took, they need to do it this week," he said. But he has no explanation for one of the bigger mysteries in Bengaldom. Since he had 10.5 sacks in 2006 for the Bengals' first double-digit sack season in 15 seasons, left end Robert Geathers finally got his 10th and a half sack since on Monday night.
"I wish I knew," Zimmer said. "He's a great kid, he plays hard, practices hard. Does anything you ask him to do. He just hasn't gotten there."
Geathers' first sack of the season Monday night actually came off a blitz. Safety Chinedum Ndukwe and cornerback Morgan Trent came from opposite ends to flush the pocket and Geathers cleaned up.
Zimmer needs to get everything from everybody Sunday, particularly in the red zone, where Manning's adjustments that Hall talks about are at Indy's most lethal. In 29 trips inside the 20, Manning has generated touchdowns 65.5 percent of the time. They have to have a few stops because the Bengals only score TDs in there at a 45.8 percent clip.
Hall is coming off a rare drubbing in man-to-man coverage. Usually the team's most reliable defender, Hall got beat twice deep by Steelers speedster Mike Wallace. He said he took a false step on third-and-two at the line of scrimmage to give up a 35-yarder that set up one touchdown.
"Terrible," he said.
And Hall said he anticipated the wrong route on the 39-yard touchdown gadget pass from wide receiver Antwan Randle El. Hall said he didn't even know Randle El threw it until after the play and that he was going for a route that the Steelers like to run off of running plays, but he didn't get it and couldn't recover.
"They just do a good job of making everything look the same," Hall said.
RANGE TIPS: Bengals punter Kevin Huber golfs more than kicker Mike Nugent, but Nugent is relating the golf swing to his leg swing as he tries to get out of a slump in which he has missed three of his last four field-goal tries. All three have gone left, telling Nugent he's approaching the ball too fast and not coming through the ball all the way.
"The thing about kicking is your body is going to tell you what the ball is going to do," Nugent said. "If you bring the foot really fast, you're not going to bring the ball with you."
Special teams coach Darrin Simmons has been telling Nugent he can't fall into the habits that cost him a regular job in the two previous seasons and Nugent admits he's been "a little lazy" when it comes to mechanics. And he thinks Simmons' tinkering with those mechanics have made him more consistent and have added to his distance.
He spent a lot of time this week looking at tape and the difference between the first five games and the last three. A few weeks ago Nugent also looked at the tape of his workout with the Bengals in the offseason and noticed how much work Simmons has done with his stance.
"He just opened me up a little bit. My feet were real tight. Real close together," Nugent said. "We watched my workout a couple of weeks ago and it looked like a breeze could blow me over because my feet were so close together."