* BENGALS WLB VINCENT REY VS. BRONCOS QB PEYTON MANNING*
Rey is a smart man. He's got his degree from Duke University, he's a scholar athlete from the College Football Hall of Fame, and the Bengals just tapped him as their Man of the Year nominee for this year's Walter Payton Award.
So he knows it's a bit backward to declare before Monday night's game (8:30-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and ESPN) against one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever lived that the key is shutting down the run. Madness, right? No one dead or alive has thrown more TD passes than Manning. The Bengals are just one win from qualifying for their fourth straight post season, and have to go through a Hall of Fame exhibit.
"We've played excellent coverage in the back end all year," Rey says. "I feel like it's on us as a front seven to stop the run."
Upon further review, that's probably not a bad way to go. Just as stunning, the Broncos have rushed for more yards than they've passed on their four-game winning streak, once thought to be impossibility with Manning. And in the four games they've lost this year, the Bengals have allowed an average of 186 rushing yards. With Denver climbing up the rushing rankings to 16th behind the play of running back C.J. Anderson with 4.6 yards per carry, Anderson is going to get his shots.
Manning's numbers against the Bengals in his unbeaten seven starts for the Colts and one for the Broncos are supersonic with 20 TDs and five picks while averaging nearly a ridiculous eight yards per throw. The last time he hit 77 percent of his passes in the Broncos' 31-23 victory at PBS on Nov. 4, 2012.
But just imagine how hard he is to defend with a running game. And clearly the Broncos have responded to last year's Super Bowl's shellacking at the hands of Seattle to re-make their team in the image of the Bengals' physical, ground-and-pound AFC North.
"You stop the run in November and December, it puts your team in a good position," says safety George Iola. "We want to try to stop the run first and foremost and then try to make them throw which is crazy to say with the quarterback they have, but at least make it one type of weapon. You don't want them to have the running game and the passing game going. We'll try to do our best to make them one dimensional."
Take a look at Manning's offense and isn't that what Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was supposed to have this year? A Pro Bowl No. 1 wide receiver in Demarrias Thomas, a stud No. 2 in Emmanuel Sanders, a dangerous slot man in Wes Welker, and one of those Swiss Army knives at tight end in Julius Thomas that can line up anywhere as a receiver.
But Dalton's No. 2, Marvin Jones, never played this season and his receiving tight end, Tyler Eifert, played only a quarter. The Bengals defenders can tell you best what that offense is missing.
"Usually when you have a good tight end, you put two guys his way. But you can't really do that with Demarrias, Emmanuel Sanders and then obviously Welker in the slot," Iloka says. "Why he's so successful is he's usually matched up against a linebacker one-on-one or on a safety out there with no help. Peyton has been real good in putting the ball in the tightest areas and he obviously does a good job of catching it. They complement each other very well."
The problems are exacerbated by Manning's lightning quick mind that matches the game's fastest release in the pocket, according to profootballfocus.com. Plus, the Bengals' most athletic linebacker who figures to draw Julius Thomas at least some of the time, SAM backer Emmanuel Lamur, has yet to practice this week with a hamstring injury. Which is going to put more on Rey's plate if Lamur can't play because he's the other nickel backer.
It remains to be seen how they're going to fix that. Safety Taylor Mays has been working with the linebackers, sixth-round pick Marquis Flowers hasn't played much SAM and is getting snaps there. Chris Carter, signed off the street less than three weeks ago, may be pressed into service in nickel. Lamur's injury is a tough one because he makes the Bengals so versatile.
"It's a different kind of challenge because we haven't really seen a team that's this multiple as far as their nickel package," says Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase about the Bengals. "We have our work cut out for us. It's going to be one of those [games] we've got to be really dialed in this week."
The Bengals' point man in it all is Rey, a college free agent groomed as a backup who has played 823 snaps this season, nearly double the 461 snaps he played in his entire career before 2014 because of the injury of Pro Bowl WII backer Vontaze Burfict. While wearing the radio helmet, he's the go-between the players and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
"He's obviously a very intellectual player. He's a smart kid. He's played about 18 different spots for us, so he knows the ins and the outs and the tricks from everywhere," says Bengals linebackers coach Matt Burke. "He does a great job of preparing all week and he comes in and tries to spend a bunch of time with me at different points in the week to really be in tune with the game plan and see some of the pre-snap keys and adjustments. He's a valuable asset."
Even though Rey played just two snaps from scrimmage in the '12 game, he's got more experience lining up against Manning than his mates because they work out together in the offseason at Duke, where head coach David Cutcliffe has become Manning's personal quarterbacks guru.
"That's not going to give me an edge," Rey says. "I just know how hard he works in the preseason. That gets me going because that makes me want to prepare hard this week."
Manning's software memory continues to amaze Rey each spring. He has been firing out observations from the '12 game for the last couple of years.
"He remembers a lot. He tells me stuff from the last game we played against them," Rey says. "He's just saying stuff about different games in general. He just remembers stuff so exact. It's kind of weird."
As Burke says, "I'm not sure you're going to outsmart 18," so there have to be other avenues.
"You have to keep a moving target. You've got to keep mixing your coverages, mixing your disguises, mixing your shows, mixing your personnel," Burke says. 'He's too good and deciphers things too quick. If he sees once or twice, he knows what's going on, so you can't keep giving him the same looks and same coverages and same bodies. You have to keep a moving target and keep him guessing as to what he's seeing."
What Manning is going to see is a secondary that has been as stingy as any. This why Rey has confidence in it. They've allowed a league-low 14 TD passes, have the third best passer defensive rating in the NFL, and have the seventh best completion percentage against. They've allowed just four passes of at least 40 yards, trailing only the Broncos and Dolphins for the least in the league with three.
"We just have to keep practicing perfectly," Rey says. "The more perfect we practice; the more excellent we'll be on the field Monday night."
It is a game that is all about trusting your eyes. That's why Burke has two tigers;' eyes on the wall of the backers' meeting room.
"Keep your eyes clean," Burke says. "Especially this week because he's the master on trying to trick you in some of that stuff."