INDIANAPOLIS - Nobody ever beats the Colts in November or at home. But if you had told the Bengals on Sunday morning they wouldn't allow Colts quarterback Peyton Manning a touchdown pass or sacks to one of their two Pro Bowl defensive ends until the final 25 seconds, they would have taken their chances before that 23-17 loss at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"We communicated; we got the calls to everybody," said cornerback Johnathan Joseph. "We played solid defense. It's not like we had crazy calls, sending all our guys. It was 11 guys playing together."
With Manning playing without three of his top five receivers, the Bengals were able to focus taking away wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne, the NFL leader in catches. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's plan worked perfectly. The Bengals didn't allow Manning big plays. Wayne had just three catches and his longest was 18 yards. Garcon had five and his longest was 14.
"We blitzed a few times; playing a little cat-and-mouse there," Joseph said. "You can't show your hand every time."
Zimmer changed up looks more than he blitzed. He showed Manning a lot of three-man fronts in the red zone, where the Colts had to settle for two field goals in three trips, reversing their 65.5 touchdown success rate. Zimmer also tried to disguise what the Bengals were doing until the last possible instant and matched substitutions whenever he could.
Which meant he got a mega game out of safety Rico Murray in his sixth NFL appearance after being signed from the practice squad Saturday. With safety Chris Crocker (thigh) and cornerback Morgan Trent (knee) out, the Bengals needed a versatile sort to play the third corner and Murray held his own in the slot against Wayne on a few occasions.
"Pretty much every time they substituted," said Murray of his action on passing downs. "Peyton is real good at catching defenses off guard in substitutions. Getting them to the line and calling the play. Anytime they substituted, that's when we would do our substituting. I was prepared to play (vs.) two tight ends or three receivers because they do the same thing. They just split out a tight end."
The Bengals basically did what the Eagles did last week when they beat the Colts and let tight end Jacob Tamme get his catches. He had seven balls for 73 yards Sunday, but nothing longer than 20 with Manning only completing 20 of his 36 passes for 185 yards. Murray had the second-most tackles on the team with eight behind only middle linebacker Dhani Jones' 13 and added two passes defensed.
"(The plan was) being around their receivers when they were getting out of the break so that we can make those catches real tough for them," Murray said. "We didn't have (to blitz). Peyton is a real smart quarterback, so we tried to fake him a lot. As far as pressures, we tried to show things and switch it up and sometimes really bring it."
Zimmer mixed up his lineup a little bit. He started Michael Johnson at right end instead of Frostee Ruker and went with Brandon Johnson's pass coverage over Keith Rivers at WILL linebacker with Rivers hobbled by a foot issue. Rucker still played quite a bit and was part of an active front group that made sure the poor Colts ground game never got off the ground (76 yards on 22 rushes). Johnson also shared a sack with tackle Geno Atkins.
The Bengals also got decent pressure on Manning and sacked him twice, a big number for a guy sacked 10 times all year. The Bengals got a big game out of rookie end Carlos Dunlap with his first NFL sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit. And that was after he missed practice all week with an illness.
Murray not only played a batch of snaps on defense, he also worked on the kick and punt teams and had two more tackles. Plus, he had a block on the Bengals' longest play of the day, a 42-yard run by Brian Leonard off a semi-fake punt on fourth-and-one.
It's the second time the fake has worked this year and it led to a touchdown. Punter Kevin Huber was on the field, but lined up in a different spot while Leonard took what amounted to a direct snap and ran left behind a combination of starting linemen and punt-team blockers.
"He played his (bleep) off," Joseph said of Murray. "He was Chris Crocker, he was Morgan Trent, he was Alex Erickson. He was all those guys. ... I have to see the film, but I'd give him an A-plus for the way he competed out there."
PASS PRO: The Bengals changed up their pass protection to defend feared sackers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and helped their tackles with chip blocks from their tight ends and backs. The only time left tackles Andrew Whitworth and Dennis Roland were left one-one for quarterback Carson Palmer's 42 passes was when the Bengals got the ball at their 21 with 46 seconds left. Mathis got his first sack of the day on that snap and Freeney followed up with his first on the next play. It was still a heck of a performance by the tackles against ends that are perennial double-digit sackers. Especially given the noise and the fact the Bengals were down double-digit points most of the game.
"Those guys pin your ears back; they're looking for blood," Whitworth said of the last drive. "You don't have to be real good to do that. As good as they are, they're going to have the advantage in that situation."
Whitworth said the Bengals tried to keep the Colts off balance with different looks in their passing packages and Palmer said the offensive line can't be criticized for its work Sunday.
"I don't think I got hit all night until the end of the game; the pass protection was amazing," Palmer said. "When you play against those guys, it was amazing. We did something that no other teams have done, which is come into their place and block their two big D-ends. The last two plays of the game, they're extremely difficult on our tackles. They're one-on-one and those guys are just teeing off. But all game long, I didn't get touched."
"All day it was max protection, 7-on-3 or 7-on-4 protection," he said, "and we said if they are going to max protect we're going to create some turnovers because they have less receivers going out in coverage and we're going to have a chance to make a play on some of the balls. So we knew there would be some opportunities today and we took advantage of them."
The Bengals ended up rotating Anthony Collins with Dennis Roland at right tackle and it seemed to be an effective combo against the pass rush with Roland getting the bulk of the snaps.
But the Bengals' inability to run the ball took everyone by surprise. It wasn't a season-low in rushing, but 42 of the 72 yards came on a fake punt and running back Clint Boling had his lowest total (24) since he only had seven carries before he got hurt against Pittsburgh last year. The Colts had the fourth-worst run defense in the league, but the Bengals never got anything against it. They cited Indy's strategy of putting both safeties in the box.
"They outplayed us in some areas. They were out to stop the run, and they got ahead of us. They were more tenacious," Benson said.
Benson has another critical fumble, his third of the season, and it came at the Bengals 25 one snap after Palmer threw a pick-six to Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden.
"The second guy in hit my arm," Benson said. "It's been a tough season."