BENGALS QB RYAN FINLEY VS. RAVENS FS EARL THOMAS III
This just doesn't happen very often. The last time a Bengals rookie quarterback made his first NFL start in Cincinnati, the place was called Riverfront Stadium back on Nov. 27, 1992. Forget Finley. Not even the Ravens were born yet.
The only guys older than that game on Finley's starting offense are in front of him in 32-year-old left tackle Andre Smith and 27-year-old center Trey Hopkins. Of the four wide receivers Finley called into work for some overtime on Tuesday's day off, only Alex Erickson was around back then and he was just three weeks old when David Klingler got the call.
It's not often you see one of these central casting matchups, either. With six Pro Bowls and one NFL title, Thomas has one more ring than Finley has NFL regular-season snaps in what is one of Sunday's more intriguing storylines at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when the Bengals play the AFC North-leading Ravens. It is Thomas' 134th NFL game Sunday. The Bengals quarterbacks bring in Andy Dalton's 128.
Thomas, 30, is the consummate NFL field general. No active safety has more than his 30 career interceptions. In his first season since extracting himself from the Seattle franchise he helped to back-to-back Super Bowls while roaming the NFL's No. 1 defense five years ago, Thomas is a formidable foe for a rookie quarterback with two interceptions already in the bank for Baltimore's revamped defense. A free agent last offseason, Thomas is a free-lancer during the season.
"It's a cat and mouse game with him all day," says Bengals quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. "Where is he? It's the first thing we talk about. Finding No. 29. Is he playing man, zone? Is he in coverage? Is he pressuring? He's just so instinctive. He does a great job reading the quarterback's eyes roaming the backfield. He has full authority to do what he wants back there. You can see it on the tape."
Van Pelt has been a superb resource for Finley this week and since they traded up to take him in the fourth round in the spring. Along with Dalton, Van Pelt is the one guy at PBS that has made a first NFL start at quarterback. It wasn't as long ago as Klingler's start at Riverfront against the Steelers, but Nov. 2, 1997 was long enough ago that Van Pelt somehow beat Hall-of-Famer Dan Marino (and Craig Erickson) in the Bills' 9-6 victory during a freezing rain in Buffalo.
"It was a shootout," Van Pelt says with a laugh. "It rained the whole game. It was cold. I got hit early in the game and slid face first and was completely miserable until halftime, when I could change."
But this is what he can tell Finley. That first hit was OK.
"Absolutely. It's like anything else. 'The nerves are gone, now I've got to play ball,'" Van Pelt says. "It's expected you're going to be nervous. No question. Should be. But ultimately all the practice reps you've had, all the games you've played in college should come to the front. You should rely on your experiences."
Finley already has weathered some experiences under Van Pelt and lived to tell about it. For one thing, Van Pelt, who earned a bit of a reputation as a quarterback-whisperer during his stint with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, literally pulled out the welcome mat from underneath Finley. Van Pelt promptly tore up Finley's footwork and started from scratch when he placed his left foot forward in his shot-gun stance.
As Van Pelt said back in the preseason, it's like learning to throw with the other hand, which explained Finley's struggles during the spring. But Van Pelt said it was clear Finley worked on it during the six-week break leading into training camp and his 73.4 completion percentage computed to one of the best in the NFL during the preseason.
"The footwork is a lot different than I was used to," Finley told Bengals.com back in August. "I was used to doing my own thing. I think it's healthy just to have some organization with my feet. I feel like I have good feet, but having a set of rules has helped me be a little more comfortable and have my feet underneath me for throws."
During the preseason, Van Pelt reflected on how working with Rodgers convinced him the left foot was the way to go. He has coached it all three ways. Left foot forward. Right foot forward. The feet even. He said Tom Brady took it from Rodgers and went left. Van Pelt brought it with him from Green Bay last season and introduced it to Dalton.
"It gives you more rhythm in the pass game. Especially the quick game," Van Pelt said back then. "Less mechanical. More rhythmic. It's more like a little dance step as opposed to just a big heavy step. The rhythm is very important in the passing game. That's his game. The more he can play in rhythm with his feet, then he'll be more accurate."
Accuracy, brains and composure. That's Finley's M.O. as the guy that got his degree in psychology at Boise State and master's degree in liberal studies at North Carolina State. Right now, he's sweating crushed ice. Let's see when the Ravens give him the third degree and he's trying to find No. 29 with Baltimore sending everything at him but The Star Spangled Banner as one of the NFL's leading blitz teams.
"There are two schools of thought," Van Pelt says. "They can amp it up or they can say he's just a rookie, we'll play coverage and rush with our front guys and see if he can beat us that way. It will be interesting to see their approach. But I'm expecting pressure. That's who they are."
The Bengals are treating Finley like who he is. A mature guy who turns 25 next month. Van Pelt says he won't have a leash at the line of scrimmage. He'll be able to change plays.
"He understands all of our checks and all that we're doing. He's really sharp on all that," Van Pelt says. "Our run game has the normal amount of checks … We'll let him go. He's got to go learn on the fly."
And the unpredictable Thomas is lurking.
"I don't know about trying to outthink him, but you've to figure out where he is," Van Pelt says. "You don't have to trick him. You just need to know where he is. Have an awareness for him. You study him on tape. He has tendencies. He just doesn't have as many."
For instance, Van Pelt says, Thomas can drop into a three-deep zone 12 yards off the line of scrimmage and then suddenly he's robbing an underneath route because he can feel it. But then, these Bengals have seen this all before. They just saw it two weeks ago in London with Rams safety Eric Weddle after he played the three previous seasons in Baltimore.
"(Thomas) and Weddle have very similar styles," Alex Erickson says. "They're not always going to go by the book of the coverage. They're out there freelancing, trying to make plays. Try to trick you into making throws. Tricking you into making you think they're playing this, but they're doing that. That's what they take a lot of pride in."
Finley pulled a veteran move already on Tuesday when he called a few of his wide receivers and asked if they could come in on the off day for a quick session on the PBS turf. A couple of rookie practice squadders in Damion Willis and Trent Irwin also came in, as well as starter Auden Tate.
"Ryan wanted to get some extra throws. Just get comfortable with some stuff and he asked us to catch a few," Erickson says. "Just the base stuff we've been doing all year. Getting extra reps at it."
No surprise to Erickson. Or anyone around the locker room, for that matter. Even head coach Zac Taylor joked about how mature Finley seems, estimating he played about a decade in college.
But there's also that edge. His prowess as the Bengals' No. 1 ping-pong player has been analyzed Ad nauseam and there's no question he also likes to chop up his foes into little pieces during the other locker room games, like corn hole and putting a golf ball. He's an athlete.
"He's got that moxie as they say," Erickson says. "He's a competitor."
Now Earl Thomas III is on the other side of the net.