Super test for Bengals


Leon Hall

For the eighth time in head coach Marvin Lewis's 10 seasons the Bengals play the defending Super Bowl champions when the Giants come to Paul Brown Stadium later this year.

The schedule won't be announced for two more months, but the Bengals do know they are going to have to shore up their pass defense before taking on two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning and his band of receivers.

The next event up on the Bengals offseason calendar is two weeks away at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. In the same building where Manning entered into the Hall of Fame discussion during Sunday night's Super Bowl with a 296-yard dissection of the Patriots, the Bengals figure to be looking at cornerbacks as they head to Lucas Oil Stadium with two first-round picks for the first time in 14 years.

Cincinnati's best one, Leon Hall, is coming back from a torn Achilles and is expected to be ready for the opening of training camp at PBS in late July. Adam Jones, who started in place of Hall during the last half of the season, is a free agent.

It is Manning's first trip to PBS since his rookie year in 2004, when the Bengals beat him with a dose of what has become his own medicine. Quarterback Jon Kitna capped a fourth-quarter comeback on the day after Christmas with a four-yard touchdown pass to Chad Johnson with 44 seconds left in the game that kept Cincinnati's hopes alive for a .500 season at 7-8. With Manning barely hitting 50 percent of his passes (19-of-37, 201 yards and a pick) and no touchdowns, the Giants fell to 5-10 in coach Tom Coughlin's first season.

The Giants beat the Bengals in the third game of their 2008 title defense in overtime, 26-23, on a day forever remembered for Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer suffering a season-ending elbow injury in the old Giants Stadium.

He missed the next game and played two weeks later, which would be his last outing of the season. Despite the injury, Palmer went toe-to-toe with Manning in a duel of overall No. 1 draft picks. Palmer went 27-of-39 for 286 yards and a touchdown and Manning went 26-of-43 for 289 yards and a touchdown with no picks on either side.

Now Lewis starts a third different quarterback against Manning in Andy Dalton. Lewis is 3-4 against defending champions, including the 2009 sweep of the Steelers and a 2006 win in Pittsburgh. There have also been overtime losses to the Steelers as well as the Giants and a last-minute loss to the Saints.

Coughlin coached against the Bengals annually in the old AFC Central as Jacksonville's first coach with a 10-5 record against Cincinnati. He's 4-5 at PBS.

LEWIS VS. DEFENDING CHAMPS

» Dec. 12, 2004 at Foxboro: Pats, 35-28

» Sept. 24, 2006 at Pittsburgh: Bengals, 28-20

» Dec. 31, 2006 at PBS: Steelers, 23-17 (OT)

» Sept. 21, 2008 at Giants Stadium: Giants, 26-23 (OT)

» Sept. 27, 2009 at PBS: Bengals 23, Steelers 20

» Nov. 15, 2009 at Pittsburgh: Bengals, 18-12

» Dec. 5, 2010 at PBS: Saints 34, Bengals 30

CHASING DREAM, GRONK: Giants middle linebacker Chase Blackburn, just off one of the most improbable interceptions in Super Bowl history, couldn't quite remember when he worked out for the Bengals this past season.

"Around Week 5 or 6," Blackburn said in Sunday night's glow.

It may make it in the book deal Mathias Kiwanuka tried to lobby for his teammate as the Giants ended the 9-7 fairy tale by slaying the big, bad Patriots with the help of Blackburn, the unheralded hero that very easily could have been teaching middle school Monday instead of getting ready for New Jersey governor Chris Christie's parade as a Super Bowl starter.

"He's a guy you should write books about," said Kiwanuka, one of the Giants outside linebackers. "They should write a children's book about his story and his life because he perseveres. He's always persevered. You're talking about a guy who was our special teams captain who found himself out on the street because of injuries and what not and when he got the call, he never stopped persevering."

Blackburn, a free agent out of Akron, had been here before. Before this season he had played 93 games for the Giants in a variety of backup and special teams roles until he was cut before this season. The Bengals were one of the few teams that brought him in for a look-see on a Tuesday, the players day off and the NFL's day for trying out street free agents, so called because they're not coming from a team but from off the street.

With middle linebacker Rey Maualuga severely spraining his ankle during a practice before the Oct. 16 win over the Colts, the Bengals had to perform some due diligence even though they figured Maualuga could probably come back in a month and he did for the Nov. 13 game against the Steelers.

"I know my workouts were for injures to occur, or for maybe (a team) to get a look at me for the next camp," Blackburn said. "I knew that was kind of what I was going into and I was doing my best to put it out there for them and hope for an opportunity to play. I felt pretty good down there, but I don't believe there were any (major) injuries. They were deep in the linebacker corps this year. I can't make decisions for any team. I did everything I could to try and get back on the football field."

No one called Blackburn, 28, for another month and he was starting to look into taking a middle school teaching job in Dublin, Ohio, not far from his hometown of Marysville. But then, it was his old team that had been hit by the injuries. Isn't that the way it always works? The Giants called and he played in the last five games of what turned out to be a stretch run.

Here he was sitting at a Super Bowl podium 10 feet about the ground instead of in an earth science class.

"They just texted me a couple of days ago that the teacher that was going on maternity leave that I would have been substituting for went into labor and had the baby this weekend," Blackburn said. "I would have started on Monday. I said, 'The Super Bowl is Sunday, I can still start on Monday.' Completely joking."

Blackburn wasn't joking on the second snap of the fourth quarter, when he found himself matched up one-on-one 50 yards downfield with Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Beast of the East. The 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski is the newest weapon in the NFL with a monstrous 17 regular-season touchdowns. The 6-4, 242-pound Blackburn look liked he was about to get Mel Kipered as scrambling Patriots quarterback Tom Brady escaped from the clutches of Jason Pierre-Paul and launched a bomb to Gronkowski slipping past Blackburn at the Giants 10.

But Brady didn't get enough on it and Blackburn never gave up on the play. He got to Gronkowski just as the ball was coming down and Blackburn leaped before Gronkowski could push off on his own severely sprained ankle.

Blackburn ended up with it at the Giants 8 down, 17-15, but now breathing. The Giants didn't score on that possession, but they kept it away from Brady for five more minutes.

"(Gronkowski) stopped. He ran a little stick route and he stopped for a second," Blackburn said. "I'm guessing that's when Brady was wrapped up a little bit. He got out of it. I was thinking once (Gronkowski) took off, he was going to go deep. That's what Brady likes to do is throw it down the field.

"When I saw him go vertical, I knew I had to run to catch up … that's what they're taught: scramble and go deep. I just tried to stay with him ... I was just trying to box him out. Once I had a little position, I saw the ball was little bit underthrown, so I was just trying to box him out. Play basketball."

The Pats had the right idea in their matchups featuring their talented young tight ends—Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez—against Blackburn and outside linebacker Michael Boley. Hernandez led the Pats with eight catches for 67 yards and a touchdown, but Gronkowski's injury didn't allow New England to exploit the mismatches even more and he finished with just two catches for 26 yards.

Blackburn said it was no secret that Gronkowski was hurting and the idea was for the Giants defenders to get their hands on him at the line of scrimmage.

"Try to make him restart," Blackburn said. "Make him run his routes with more than one break."

Kiwanuka wasn't fazed at all when he saw Blackburn dueling with Gronkowski half a field away.

"Because I knew what the play was. I knew if there was anybody who wasn't going to give up on the play, it was him," Kiwanuka said. "I knew what the defensive call was. I know whose responsibility that man was. There was no surprise he was still running down the field."

The only surprise is that Blackburn is the guy that walked off with the Super Bowl's only turnover despite living a life on the edges of the NFL. He doesn't know if he'll need that teaching job next September or not. He only knows one thing: he's got Tom Brady's ball.

"Put it in the trophy case," Blackburn said. "Hopefully my two boys don't play with it and rough it up in the yard."

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