The Green-Dalton Bengals' struggles in prime time (getting outscored, 210-144) took center stage Thursday as they began preparations for Monday Night's Paul Brown Stadium extravaganza (8:30-Cincinnati's Channel 5, ESPN) against the AFC West champion Broncos.
Everyone seemed to have an opinion. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth theorized the Bengals wait for something to happen instead of making it happen. Head coach Marvin Lewis pointed at quarterback play. Safety George Iloka looked at the run defense.
But no one had a reason why they are 2-6 in prime time, and 2-9 in prime time plus post-season games. Or why quarterback Andy Dalton has a passer rating of 64.7 in those 11 games with eight TD passes and 14 interceptions. Right end Wallace Gilberry offered, jokingly, they were afraid of the dark.
Lewis had crack public relations staffer Brett Jager research all the prime-time stats and he went right to the passing numbers.
"The other team's quarterback has played better. We haven't had any effect on the other team's quarterback," Lewis said of the prime-time implosions. "Their rating has been about 100, and that's huge. We've turned the football over; we've given up plays in other parts of the game that have hurt us in those games. That makes a huge difference. So we haven't done a very good job of defending the other team's quarterback, we haven't made enough plays effectively on offense, we haven't been very good on third down in some of those games, and they make a big difference."
The opposing No. 1 quarterbacks have pumped up a 92.7 rating in prime time against them, but it's not like they've been strafed through the air with eight TD passes in the eight games, although they have just four picks.
Iloka chose to look at the run defense as he reviewed the 43-17 loss to the Patriots on Oct. 5 on Sunday night and the 24-3 loss to the Browns on Nov. 6. They gave up 220 yards on the ground in New England and 170 more at home against Cleveland with Iloka disputing they came out flat.
"I would never say we came out flat. I would say that we just didn't stop the run. One thing that can demoralize a team real quick is not stopping the run, because that's like you're getting physically punished and beat up," Iloka said. "That can make you turn flat or lose your spirit. I don't think any of us came out flat. The common denominator was that we didn't stop the run, and that can take our spirit away as a defense.
"If they catch a big play, you can say that's luck or we'll correct it. But when a team is running the ball when you know they're running the ball and you can't stop it, that can crush your spirit."
Iloka sounded a bit amazed at the game plan against one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever lived, but everyone feels that's the way it has to be with the Broncos on a four-game winning streak with more rushing yards than passing yards.
"Only thing I would say is common in both (New England and first Cleveland) games is we didn't stop the run. You stop the run, prime time, non-prime time, Super Bowl or not the Super Bowl you have a better chance to succeed and win so that's going to be our main objective come Monday: try to stop the run first and do our best job against the pass."
Indeed, in five of the six time prime-time losses they've allowed 4.4 yards per carry and at least 122 rushing yards five times.
"If we could turn a thing we'd fix it, but you don't turn a knob, you've got to go out and execute better and do it better. That's all," Lewis said. "I don't know why we haven't played as good on defense in those games, but we need to. I don't know why we haven't played as good on offense, or why we've given up a play on special teams in those games, but we need to do better. We don't need to worry about what time it is or anything. Half these guys, it's all new for them every time they go out there. That's the one thing that I'm pretty sure of. It's basically brand new for them every time they go out there."
Iloka admitted the buzz has become "annoying," but he doesn't see it as choking the locker room. He also knows there's only one way to fix it.
"The prime-time thing doesn't really get to me. I haven't been here too long. It's my second year starting. I don't think it bothers guys. It might get annoying, but I don't think it bothers guys," Iloka said. "They're not out there like 'Oh gosh, we've got to win because it's a prime-time game. People might start talking again.' We feel like we have to go out there and win because we want to win and we want to make the playoffs and we want to win the division.
"It's annoying and it's our job to make it unannoying. If we lose this game, the talk will come back again. But that's you all's job to do. If you feel like you see something that the team is lacking or having a problem with, you have to write about it. And if we want to silence the critics, so to say, we've got to put up or shut up. That's how it goes. It might be annoying, but that's on us."
POLLAK TALKS PEYTON: It's a week for Peyton Manning stories since this could be The Sherriff's last trip to Cincinnati, barring a cataclysmic change in the playoff picture. Mike Pollak, the Bengals guard who made 43 starts in front of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning when they were in Indianapolis from 2008-2011, has a few of them.
Pollak still remembers when he arrived as a rookie Manning carried around a "raggedy old notebook," with probably a decade of notes.
"He was still coming to work wanting to learn about the game and that's impressive," Pollak says. "It was a great experience to see how a professional should carry himself. How he should come to work every day ready to learn."
Pollak is still amazed at Manning's relentlessness. Once when Colts center Jeff Saturday was telling one of his famous stories at lunch, Manning came over to the table and interrupted Saturday to ask about a blitz pickup.
Saturday pleaded, "Peyton, we're at lunch. Can we have at least 30 minutes to not talk football?" But Saturday gave in.
"Probably just so he would go away so he could finish the story," Pollak said with a laugh. "But that's the way he is. He wants to talk football with you 24-7. He just wants to find that edge. I guess that's what makes him so great."
Pollak says Manning handled his line with tender loving care. He not only admired Manning's professionalism, but his generosity. The Christmas gifts were always amazing. Brighton watches one year. A big screen TV another. There were also dinners during the season and one spring he took his linemen on a golf trip.
"He's really generous to the guys that helped him out," Pollak said. "I was very grateful for that."
T. NEW WON'T SHOW HAND:
When you have 37 career interceptions, fifth among active NFL cornerbacks, you can understand how they might begin to run together. But even though the Bengals' Terence Newman intercepted Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning on consecutive passes the last time the Broncos were at PBS, Newman said Thursday he doesn't remember how or why, only that he did.
"That right? That would be cool if I could do that again, if I could repeat that. I'll take that. I will definitely take that one, Newman said. "You got Drew Brees, you got some great quarterbacks, I don't know if it means more from one great quarterback to another but all of them are important because you are getting your offense on the field and giving them a chance to win games."
Both passes were intended for departed wide receiver Eric Decker, one was in the end zone and the other set up a score that gave the Bengals the lead early in the fourth quarter for a little more than two minutes before Manning rallied for a 31-23 win back on Nov. 4, 2012. According to Kevin Goheen of FoxSportsOhio.com, that is the only stretch the Bengals have ever led in their 0-8 series against Manning.
Manning, 38, and Newman, 36, are the oldest players on the field, so more than anyone they know about not tipping their hands. Newman may remember everything about those picks. Maybe not. But why tell how? And tip off the smartest QB who ever lived?
So Newman went into a pretty funny routine when asked if Manning was too smart for the Bengals to fool him with pre-snap disguises. He pulled out his phone.
"Hold on, let me call him," Newman said. "Let me see. Peyton, hey can we confuse you? He said it's not going to work, bro."
Seriously, Newman says they'll try everything.
"I think you definitely don't want to show your hand. You control different things and hopefully he's not going to understand," Newman said. "You see it sometimes where he drops back and is reading the safety. That predicates a lot of the reads and he's one of the best at doing it. You see him you study so much film you see him come to the line and make checks; he knows a lot of what people are going to be in. It's harder to fool him but it's possible."
ROLL CALL: Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green sat out Thursday's practice with nothing major and it's believed he should be back to work Friday. The club said he was out sick. SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur (hamstring) dressed in sweats and looked ready to rehab in the hopes of playing Monday (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and ESPN) against Denver in a key role. Lamur is one of the two starting nickel backers working against monstrous tight end Julius Thomas.
Backup defensive end Margus Hunt returned to practice for the first time since he injured his ankle in the first quarter Nov. 16 in New Orleans while Pollak rested his knee. Hunt went full go and so did cornerback Terence Newman (ankle) and tight end Jermaine Gresham (toe) after they missed Sunday's game.