Matchup of the Game: Big Game Rivers rolls in

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     Philip Rivers knows Vincent Rey as "57."

    BENGALS WLB VINCENT REY vs. CHARGERS QB PHILIP RIVERS

For a non-division game, Sunday's Paul Brown Stadium opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) pits two familiar foes in an early key AFC matchup

The crafty Rivers faces a Mike Zimmer-Paul Guenther defense for the sixth time since 2009 as the hottest quarterback in the game. He ended last Sunday's fourth-quarter comeback win over the Lions with 20 straight completions and the numbers say he took dead aim at the middle of the field, isolating his slippery and quick wide receivers one-on-one with linebackers and

safeties.

 According to ProFootballFocus.com, 32 of his 41 passes were thrown behind or within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and his wide receivers, Keenan Allen and Stevie Johnson, are tied for the league lead with 80 yards after catch (YAC). His running backs, rookie Melvin Gordon and veteran Danny Woodhead are tied for 14th in the league in YAC.

It will be recalled that when the Bengals won a grind job in San Diego back on Dec. 1, 2013, WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict furnished the signature game of his Pro Bowl season roaming the middle and cutting down the angles while making those one-on-one tackles. Playing on a bum ankle, Burfict helped hold Woodhead to two catches.

With Burfict on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), Rey has taken over his spot as the play caller and leader who never comes off the field. And he'll be in a chess match with Rivers, making his 150th start. In that 2013 game in San Diego, Rey teamed with Burfict in the nickel package to play 42 percent of the snaps.

"It's obvious that linebackers matched on a receiver aren't great for a defense. Our guys have to mentally understand where their help is and how they're playing things," says Bengals linebackers coach Matt Burke. "Anticipating certain routes, they have to be on top of the mental game. Then you've got a guy like Philip Rivers who is going to be on the ball. He'll keep us up there (at the line of scrimmage)  trying to read our hands , trying to get double cadences and set protections, all the things he's good at and is one best in the business at doing. We definitely have our hands full."

On Wednesday's conference call with the Cincinnati media, Rivers rattled through the Bengals defensive personnel as if he plays them twice a year. Since '09 he's got a 2-3 record against them, but he's got better numbers against them than Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco with a 111.5 passer rating.

He still remembers rookie middle linebacker Rey Maualuga flying at him over a would-be blocker with such ferocity and recklessness in the '09 game, a vintage Rivers comeback game that yielded a winning field goal with three seconds left.

"The first thing I would say about that defense is they play hard," Rivers said. "They play together and they play hard and you can tell they have a great deal of confidence. Those are traits good defenses usually have and they've got them."

Rivers calls Burfict "a heck of a player," but, "I wouldn't short change those three linebackers one bit.  Those are good linebackers who have played a lot. (No.) 57, I'm talking about (Vincent) Rey, it seems like he's been there all the time when we've played them. It's a good linebacking corps. Every coordinator uses some different things and we haven't played them in a year. It's not like a division opponent, but we feel familiar with the players and the scheme."

While others get the sacks and the picks and are drafted in the first round, the undrafted Rey has become the quintessential Bengals defender. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther can use him at any spot in any package. His brain is as quick as his legs when the Bengals face passing downs, but he stayed on the field for every snap Sunday in Oakland. In order to do that, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons limited his co-captain to two plays.

"I see us all as a body and we all have different members of that body," Rey said. "Some have more of a job to do than the others, but at the end of the day everybody has to do their job. The guy that comes in for five snaps has to do his job every time. I'm the same way. I'm accountable to everyone else."

This is why the coaches love Rey:

"I feel great ownership of the defense," he said. "If they get a first down on us it's like they got a first down on me. It's very personal. Every yard they gain, just trying to get three-and-outs and turnovers, yeah I take great ownership in that defense."

Pressed into service last year as a full-time player in the wake of Burfict's injury, Rey was rated the 17th best cover backer in the game by PFF and he came out of the opener 14th.  He'll be challenged by Rivers.

"They have a great group of skill players," Burke says, "And they come at you with shallow routes, over routes, highs and lows and the guys have to be on top of all that."

Rey knows only one way to defend it.

"I'm a big believer in communicating before the ball is snapped," he says. "In the huddle communicating so we will be alert of those things. That's why we practice . . . everybody has a hand in this whether you are the look team offense or you are out there every snap or two or three snaps on defense."

Of course, it all goes for naught if the Chargers run the ball like they did in the Wild Card Game at PBS just five weeks after the win in San Diego, when they ran for 196 yards on 40 carries. Rey played just three snaps from scrimmage in that one, but he remembers how massive their offensive line seemed.

"Big, tough guys up front. Big 6-foot-10 guys," Rey says. "Have to be a tough guy. We have to be some tough guys out there on Sunday. Get on the block, get off of him and tackle Woodhead or Gordon and not let them break free for more yards. We can do it, too. Oakland had some good running backs and we did a pretty good job. So we know we can do it."

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