No hype as Bengals eye another title

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Carlos Dunlap had a big hand in beating Robert Griffin III on the road when RGIII was a rookie.

While the rest of the world is in an uproar over Cleveland's King James putting his arm around the Duchess of Cambridge, the Bengals are only worrying about getting their hands on Johnny of Football.

It seems almost fated by the royal astrologer that Sunday in Cleveland (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19), rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel's first NFL start is standing between the Bengals' second straight division title in a game of Texas gunslingers that includes the Bengals' Houston-bred Andy Dalton.

The day Manziel was born in Tyler, Texas, Dec. 6, 1992, the Browns beat the Bengals in Cleveland, 37-21, when Bernie Kosar outdueled University of Houston rookie quarterback David Klingler.

Naturally, Manziel was recruited by Texas Christian when Dalton was there and he says he became a fan of the Horned Frogs before he signed with Texas A&M.

And Wednesday was the 25th anniversary of the day Bengals head coach Sam Wyche grabbed the Riverfront Stadium microphone and bellowed the immortal words, "You don't live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati," in order to stop a crowd ruckus in a loss to Seattle.

So naturally there was a Wyche-like moment Wednesday, less than 48 hours and a full two apologies after Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis referred to Manziel as "a midget." Perhaps thinking Wyche was still coaching in Cincinnati, a Cleveland station sent a local TV icon to ask Lewis how his team planned to defend Manziel's 6-foot stature in the pocket after Lewis apologized a third time during his Wednesday news conference.

John Rinaldi, 4-foot-3, who co-hosted a popular weekly movie show for nearly 30 years in Cleveland known for its comedy bits as Lil' John, didn't get much of a reaction from Lewis.

"We just look at the 130-something plays that Johnny had this preseason, and the plays he had against the Bills this year, and go back and look at our time spent evaluating him in the draft," Lewis said blandly. "He obviously did well in the offense there at (Texas) A&M, so we just go through and adjust the plan accordingly to the things that we feel could be a part of their offensive game plan against us if he's in there."

That's where the Bengals are right now. There is no room for Johnny Football hype or height because they are hanging in first place in the AFC North by a dollar bill-thin lead at 8-4-1 over the 8-5 Steelers and 8-5 Ravens and 7-6 Browns. The Browns lose, they're out. The Bengals lose and they go from first place to scenario hell.

The race is the story in the Bengals locker room, as well as the 24-3 bruising the Browns gave them last month when they ran the ball down their throats 52 times in their own building. For them, Johnny Football is Johnny Footnote. And that's no knock on Manziel. They have bigger issues. Like the playoffs and run defense.

"That's what we're worried about,' said defensive lineman Robert Geathers. "We just need to start there because they're going to try and run the football on us. I know they don't want to put too much on his plate. They want to try and keep it simple. They really want to get the ground game going. We've got to go get this one."

Manziel is starting because after rookie running backs Terrance West (94 yards) and Isaiah Crowell (41) led the bloody 170-yard rushing attack in Cincinnati, the Browns offense went south with quarterback Brian Hoyer.

After giving up 185 yards rushing to Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell in last Sunday's 42-21 loss, the Bengals defense is teetering without pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict and is in jeopardy of giving up more than 2,000 yards on the ground in a season for the first time in 10 years and 6,000 total for just the second time in history.

So why not start the kid against a team you ran the ball on, but now have in your own building?

"That's been something that's been on our back. I can't wait for this this game because they came in here and embarrassed us in prime time," said nose tackle Domata Peko. "These are the times you have to redeem yourself.  We're really looking forward to getting up there on their home turf and try to do the same thing."

The Bengals aren't quite sure what awaits them, which is one of the reasons playing a guy in his first NFL start is uncomfortable. And maybe why the Bengals are 2-2 under Lewis against QBs in their debuts.

 The CW is they'll see some of the zone read even though Cleveland didn't run a snap of it against them last month. What they did run was the straight zone blocking scheme that the Texans run.

But Browns head coach Mike Pettine was the Bills defensive coordinator last year when quarterback Thad Lewis Buffaloed the Bengals with the zone read in a game Cincinnati eked out in overtime and everyone has tape of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's 107 rushing yards against Cincinnati in the October tie. And Manziel can dish and deal out of the pocket.

But we now know for sure this week that Manziel is 6-0, 210 pounds.

"The option with Carolina is a totally different entity than with most teams, because Cam Newton has the size of a running back, he's 235 pounds," Lewis said. "So Cam is a different element that way. We don't know what exactly we'll get this week, and we'll see on Sunday."

But…

"Going against s a rookie quarterback is not that nerve wracking to us, but it's a bigger alert because of his ability to run. He's a playmaker," Peko said. "He's not a straight line fast guy, but he's really nifty and quick. We have to make sure we contain him. They're a zone team, naturally. I don't see them changing the whole offense for this game. Since they put a whipping on us last time, I don't see them switching it up much. We'll be practicing for it, but I don't think it will be their bread-and-butter."

 Geathers is the dean of the Bengals. When he was drafted in 2004, Manziel was half his age of 22. Geathers is going against a rookie quarterback for the 22nd time in his career, so it's not his first rodeo.

"He's a player. He makes football plays," Geathers said. "I'd be surprised if they changed up a lot. They've run zone pretty much all year. They ran one power play against us. I think they'll try some different things to see what works and if they run the zone read, we have to play discipline. You have to stick to your responsibilities."

Their most famous stand against a zone read came early in Robert Griffin III's rookie year in Washington in 2012. RGII went to a triple-option type deal and the Bengals figured it out by battering him all day. The defensive ends are huge against the option and it will be recalled that left end Carlos Dunlap came up big when he sacked and stripped Griffin at the Washington 12 to set up a touchdown. Like everyone else Wednesday, Dunlap spent time watching Manziel on preseason tape.

"The challenge is even if you do get a good rush on him, he has the ability to make you miss in the pocket," Dunlap said. "Kind of like (Tony) Romo and some of those guys who are good in the pocket. But at the end of the day, he is still a rookie. We have to go out there and stop his go-to. When you're struggling with something, you go to your crutch, which is his athleticism."

You've heard the buzz words before when it comes to defending a running QB. Contain. Patience. Smart.

"We'll treat him as a dual-threat quarterback," Dunlap said. "With Manziel, he likes to run a little bit more than pass, or extend the play like you've seen in college football. I've watched SEC football a lot because I'm from the SEC, so I've seen him play a few times. We know what he's capable of, and we just want to contain him and press the pocket and I want to get a couple hits on him as well.'

Manziel eschewed going to the Cavaliers game Tuesday night to see James, his agent stable mate, and studied the Bengals. He says he's learned some lessons on the bench.

"It's a different game. You have to pick your spots when to be aggressive," Manziel said. "More than anything you have to be extremely consistent the entirety of the game. There are times in college you get a chance to freelance a little more. If something is not there or a little thing is screwed up, you're able to get out of it just because of the level of competition. Here it's the best of the best in the National Football League. It doesn't get any higher than this. You need to be extremely consistent if you want to be good on offense."

If it sounds like he has bought into the AFC North mantra of turnovers, turnovers, turnovers, he has.

"Absolutely. If you look at the stats on which teams win the turnover battle, they win most of the time," Manziel said. "The team that wins that is usually going to come out with a victory at the end of the game. For us that's a key importance, moving forward."

His fellow Texan has kept up with Dalton since he spurned TCU.

"Watching Andy and A.J. (Green) the last couple of years, watching the highlights, he can really air it out," Manziel said. "I remember watching him at TCU; he could do the same thing. He's not afraid to let it fly, that's for sure."

The Bengals are just trying to stay grounded for the next three weeks, never mind the Johnny Football stuff.

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