Peyton Manning is coming off one of the worst games of his career, but he still has 35 fourth-quarter victories and he's staring Sunday at a starting secondary that has 25 starts with the Bengals.
"It's kind of, 'What would you do?' " said safety Chinedum Ndukwe before Wednesday's practice. "They look at a corps that has only one true guy in there consistently from the beginning of the season. It's common sense. It's not rocket science. We know they're going to try and toss it."
Like he has the past three weeks, Ndukwe didn't work Wednesday with a tear in his foot and he's taking it day-by-day. So is third cornerback David Jones (knee), who also didn't play last week. But that's business as usual for a secondary that has already lost three safeties and one cornerback to season-ending injured reserve.
So it is mix-and-match,slice-and-dice. If Ndukwe can't go, then either Kyries Hebert or John Busing might make his first start since the CFL and Miami University, respectively, opposite safety Chris Crocker and the two Bengals starts he's had since signing Oct. 30. Veteran Jamar Fletcher, who arrived here Sept. 23 and is making his second start, is at one corner and when the Colts use their standard three-receiver set, rookie free agent corner Simeon Castille is going to spend his sixth NFL game in the slot against guys like Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez.
Zimmer is tipping his hand on none of it, but he knows he's sailing into a Perfect Storm if he can't get some pressure on Manning.
"We could," said Zimmer when asked if he'd go with just one safety. "Maybe we'll have to use an extra linebacker. That's something you wouldn't want to do against this team. It would be nice to have six corners."
The last time the Bengals had six healthy corners, it seems, was OTAs. With Jones limping, they only have four and Castille and starter Leon Hall are the only guys standing from the Georgetown training camp.
Start with Crocker, whose versatility and knowledge of Zimmer's scheme have been a life saver. He says the good thing about Zimmer's defense is that everyone is trained to do multiple jobs.
The Bengals gave up four passes of 30-plus yards and Hall was at the center of it, getting badly beaten on a reverse pass and losing close battles with Ravens receiver Mark Clayton on perfect throws of 70 and 45 yards by rookie quarterback Joe Flacco.
"He didn't play very well last week," Zimmer said. "When you don't have all your guys, your best players have to play well. He'll be OK."
Hall will be OK because he's got a bullet-proof psyche. He has had a solid second season, but he stood up after the game Sunday, took all the media questions, and admitted his mistakes. Walking out the door, he was talking about this Sunday and how he had to play so much better against Manning and his receivers.
"It's like that every week (for a cornerback)," said Hall before Wednesday's practice. "If you have a good game, you have to forget about it. It's a lot better than last year, when I had a lot more bad games, but all that really matters now is getting ready for this week."
Hall says he went into the film room Monday to see what went wrong and the video confirmed what he knew.
"I've got to tighten down technique. It was a technique we're not coached," Hall said.
Zimmer saw the one-handed grab by Clayton on the 70-yarder and how he caught the back end of the ball on the 45-yarder and called them "great catches." But, "he was able to do that because we weren't in position," Zimmer said. "It's a lot more about position on the release than so much at the line of scrimmage and he wasn't in good shape on those."
Hall figures the Bengals defense will keep it simple Sunday, which means Wayne, the defending NFL yardage champion, is going to end up on his side most of the day. Castille is going to get Wayne sometimes in the slot and he relishes the chance. You figure most guys out of the SEC (Alabama) would talk about what kind of physical attributes they bring to the matchup. But Castille is talking about his film study.
If it sounds like he's been around like a guy who has played just five NFL games, he has.
But it's still going to be a slice and dice day. Zimmer says he'll have to pick his spots against Manning because he won't stop blitzing just because he's got new guys back there. He may have already pocketed the memory that on the two plays Hall got beat by Clayton, there was no blitz.
"He finds the right guys," Zimmer said of Manning. "He controls the game. He knows when to pass, he knows when to run, he makes the right checks, he sees the blitzes."
Hall: "He assesses the defense quicker than most in the league. He gets the offense into the right play so quick to go toward the weakness of the defense."
Ndukwe is hoping he gets a chance to play Sunday because he knows the basic truth about defense.
"I think you get a consistent feeling of where guys are going to be at by playing with them," Ndukwe said. "A lot of times great defenses are great because they stay healthy and guys that are out there know where the other guys are going to be at. They know their tendencies and know what the guys behind them and and in front of them are going to do on the play. It's something we haven't had an opportunity to have since the first game of the season."
Zimmer had to smile when told his defense doesn't have gamebreakers like the Colts do with pass rusher Dwight Freeney and Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders. Heck, right now he doesn't have Ndukwe and Robert Geathers.
"You can play good defense without having one great player," Zimmer said. "You can have 11 good ones."
And they all have to show up Sunday.
Here's the one stat: The Colts lead the NFL in third-down conversions, as they have for the previous three seasons. Last Sunday, Flacco threw for 157 yards on third down in the first half alone.