BENGALS DC MIKE ZIMMER VS. COLTS OB ANDREW LUCK
In his free time, Zimmer likes to hunt everything from turkeys to deer, but he has reserved his work hours for big game as another beastly passer enters The Jungle in the form of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
In a remarkable 20-game stretch that began on Nov. 11, 2012, all sorts of the quarterback species have been unleashed against the Bengals. From the Super Bowl winners (Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco), from the No. 1 overall pick (Matthew Stafford), from America's quarterback (Tony Romo), from America's villain (Jay Cutler), from the Next Great One (Nick Foles), from the next Not So Great One (Geno Smith), from the journeyman (Jason Campbell) and from the Whodunits (Brian Hoyer and Thad Lewis), and the Bengals have emerged from the brush with a 15-5 record.
Not only that, they have allowed just 19 touchdown passes in those 20 games while picking off 22 passes and leaving opposing passers with a total passer rating of just 70.5, which in this week's NFL stats would be fourth from the bottom, just ahead of Brandon Weeden at 70.5. A total of eight of the quarterbacks the Bengals have faced in that stretch have ratings of at least 88 this week.
Only once in that stretch have the Bengals allowed three TD passes and a 300-yard game and that was both to Stafford in a 27-24 win in Detroit back on Oct. 20. They've allowed just five 100-yard receivers, two in the last two games with Cleveland's Josh Gordon and San Diego's Keenan Allen going for 125 and 106, respectively. Of the 19 TD passes the Bengals have allowed, only nine have been longer than 20 yards.
The numbers are even more dominating at PBS this season, where Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Brady, Smith and Campbell have been a combined out of luck 0-5 with a passer rating of 56 and a suffocating third-down percentage of 26 percent on 18-for-70.
Zimmer has made throwing against the Bengals slightly harder than a eating soup with a fork by alternating staid four-man rushes with exotic blitz packages complemented by tight, hard-hitting coverage in a fearless secondary that simply doesn't get beat deep, if at all.
"They catch some balls, but I'm not going to give up touchdowns," is how starting cornerback Adam Jones puts it.
Indeed, according to Pro Football Focus, 40 cornerbacks have allowed one or no touchdowns this season. Four of them, Jones and fellow starter Terence Newman along with nickel corner Chris Crocker and Cincinnati's best cover corner, the injured Leon Hall, have all allowed just one TD pass this season.
But just when you think the Bengals have seen it all, here comes the Next Peyton. The Bengals have yet to beat Peyton Manning in eight shots (in fact, he beat them with three TD passes in the last game before the streak) and they hope to get off on the right foot against Luck, his successor in Indianapolis.
Luck, in his second season, is finding life is tougher the second time around. He's the 26th-rated passer in the NFL, his best receiver (Reggie Wayne) is lost for the season, the Colts are 20th in rushing, and he's been hit more than any quarterback in the NFL, according to NFL.com.
But he is still a dangerous, big-time gunslinger. Luck comes into PBS with eight 300-yard career passing games, 10 fourth quarter/overtime winning drives, and has steered the Colts to a 15-2 record in one-possession games to put them a win away from the AFC South title this season by winning six of seven of the tight ones. The Bengals see him as a combustible hybrid of Roethlisberger and Rodgers.
"He reminds me of Roethlisberger," Jones says. "He's a strong guy that can run and he can make throws all over the field."
"He's like Aaron Rodgers," says head coach Marvin Lewis. "Those other guys you mention aren't quite as fast, but this guy is fast like Aaron Rodgers is. (Jay) Cutler can run a little bit, but this guy, legitimately like Aaron, can run."
The Bengals would love it if their 3-0 record against Roethlisberger and Rodgers in that stretch (with three TDs and five picks) would compute vs. Luck. Instead, we asked the best guys available to break down why the Bengals defense is so hard to throw on.
The Bengals offense.
"They've got so many different blitz packages. We're strong up front, not only with our blitzes, but just the guys we have are big, physical guys that can rush the passer really well," says quarterback Andy Dalton. "They're doing a lot of good things, and I'm glad to have that defense on our side. ... I don't know if there's one thing that's the best (that they do). They stop the run really well, and they get pressure on the quarterback. Those are the two big things you see with our defense."
Granted, when the first offense goes against the first defense in the spring and training camp, no one has their entire packages installed. But offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has a pretty good idea, starting with the blitzes drawn up by Zimmer and linebackers coach Paul Guenther.
"All the blitzes, that the first thing that stands out; great blitz package," Gruden says. "Paulie Guenther and Zimmer do a great job getting guys matched up on backs and getting free runners. You have to be sound in your protection, No. 1, and No. 2, you have to be stout up front. They do a great job stopping the run. Find 55 because he's all over the joint."
That would be WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict, a three-down backer and probably the defense's most important player because he's such a factor stopping the run and covering the pass. But the most effective weapon against the pass is the four-man rush, which has stayed pretty effective despite the loss of two-time Pro Bowler Geno Atkins with Zimmer mixing up ends and tackles inside in his absence.
"Great schemes with great players make it very difficult for offenses," Gruden says. "When they can get pressure with four and can cover you, it's a great combination for a defensive coach to know you can get pressure with four but also have an expanded blitz package."
The coverage in the back end has impressed 10-year NFL defensive back Artrell Hawkins so much that the analyst on the Bengals radio network says it is an extension of Zimmer's teaching of technique.
"There's a method to their madness," Hawkins says. "They are always doing something very specific. They are never going to lunge at you. Those corners know that between six and eight yards, they never let a receiver get even with them or in front of them. If a receiver does that, he's got an 80 percent chance to win."
Hawkins points to the play last week in San Diego on the first series of the game, when safety George Iloka gobbled up the fumble at the Bengals 18 after safety Reggie Nelson's hit on tight end Antonio Gates. He says it was another example of the Bengals secondary knowing exactly where the first-down sticks stand. Nelson stayed at home in the middle of the field and saw the play develop, linebacker Vinny Rey played a hook pattern, Iloka didn't bite on a route and stayed in the flat, and with a zone blitz Adam Jones made sure he didn't get beat deep in man-to-man coverage.
"They understand it," Hawkins says.
Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis sits with Jones and Burfict on the plane coming home and they watch both the offensive and defensive plays on their iPads, critiquing each other harshly and good-naturedly.
"Look at our defensive backs. All those guys come up and make tackles," The Law Firm says. "Sometimes you play DBs where they don't want to tackle. All our guys tackle. All 11. You don't get a lot of YAC when you play us because they come up and make sure tackles. If you watch the game on the Jumbotron, you throw the ball to the guy and you don't even see him. He just flashes from the screen."
Left tackle-guard Andrew Whitworth says what makes the Bengals defense so tough against the pass is the number of talented players at each spot. Most teams have a marquee lineman or corner, but he says the Bengals have two or three solid players at all spots.
"You have a lot of good, savvy, veteran players in the back end," Whitworth says. "The quarterback is trying to get it out quickly because of the rush and that's tough because it's going to take a while to beat (the DBs). I think that's the challenge. Between the blitzes and the great coverages, along with some really talented pass rushers, it makes it an extremely tough defense to beat. There's no one place to attack them. As any great defense, as long as they stop the run, they'll be OK."
The one guy the Bengals will have to stop from running is Luck. He's got more than 300 yards rushing. He's big, strong and can throw on the run.
"Our defense and our fans are making this a difficult place to play," Green-Ellis says. "You see it on TV in Seattle, New Orleans, Kansas City. That's what we're trying to get Paul Brown and they are doing a very good job with our defense to become the 12th man. It always starts up front. Both sides. When the O-line plays well, the skill players don't have to make incredible plays all the time. Same thing with the D-line. When these guys play well, they eat up blocks for the linebacker and put pressure on so now the ball comes out quickly. You sit back and watch this defense, and everyone is going hard."