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Tall Order

The orders keep getting taller for the Bengals as this season gets longer. Now this Sunday in the Colts' new paddock they must stop a Hall of Fame quarterback with a secondary full of yearlings. Memo from the roundtable:

"If the Bengals only have the ball for 21 minutes like they did last week," says The Guru, a former top football executive in the NFL, "they're going to get blown out."

The Eye, an NFL scout familiar with personnel in both conferences, offers, "The Colts don't make mistakes on offense and the Bengals have to take advantage of their size matchup against the Indy defense."

This is not a typical Tony Dungy Colts club. In fact, it may be more like one of his Tampa Bay teams from the late '90s with defense coming to the rescue at key times. But don't let that defensive touchdown win in Cleveland last week fool you.

It was quarterback Peyton Manning's worst game in a five-week winning streak that has still been pretty impressive in which Manning has thrown nine touchdowns and three picks, two of them last week.

"That's what has to be the scary thing for the Bengals," The Eye says. "I don't know how often he has two bad games in a row. He's over his knee problem from the beginning of the year. He's looking good in the pocket."

Plus, the Colts are going to be back on their fast track indoors after the miserable afternoon on The Lake.

"The Colts are a little different team than they have been," The Guru says. "They're not as dynamic. They struggle running the ball. But they're still a good team with Peyton calling the shots and an opportunistic defense. And they're tough at home."

They've been tough anywhere. In the last 10 seasons, the Colts have lost just 46 times in a stretch they are 4-0 against the Bengals and 3-0 in Indy. Manning is 5-0 against Cincinnati in his career and so is his head coach.

FB Dan Coats vs. Colts SS Bob Sanders
! Coats

You wonder if the Colts are going to dress their gimpy Pro Bowler against a team that is averaging less than three yards per rush. But they need help against the run, since they are only ranked 25th against it.

"They're fast, but they are small. They can get run on," The Guru says. "The Bengals are bigger than them, but they just haven't been able to run it on teams you think they could."

The Colts are an eight-man front with the fearless 5-8, 205-pound Sanders the eighth man in the box. They won't have middle linebacker Gary Brackett, not expected to play with an injury.

The Bengals will probably counter with their three-wide stuff to try to get Sanders out of there. But Coats has to move Sanders or whoever else on first down to get some room in the running game.

"He's like an extra linebacker. He throws his body around. He'll take on the fullback," The Eye says of Sanders. "That's why he only plays about 10 games a year. Little bodies get beat up, but the guy is as tough as nails."

LT Anthony Collins vs. Colts RE Dwight Freeney
! Collins

Collins got good reviews in his first two starts against some big-time pass rushers and here's another. Freeney has eight sacks as he nears his fifth double-digit season after getting just nine the past two seasons.

"I like what Collins is doing for them, but they obviously have to give him help over there," The Guru says. "Especially on the road."

Who's kidding who? Even if it had been 80 degrees and sunny, Colts chieftain Bill Polian would have had the roof closed once he found out the Bengals were starting a rookie left tackle. The Colts might blitz three or four times a game, so they rely heavily on their ends for the rush.

And why not? Last week Freeney undressed a Pro Bowl left tackle in Joe Thomas on the winning play, stripping the ball out of the quarterback's hands into those of tag-team partner Robert Mathis for the game's only TD.

"Freeney's got a ton of moves," The Eye says. "He can go around you and then once he's got you edging to the outside, he does the spin move inside. Now that he's got you on his heels, he uses his lack of height (6-1, 268 pounds) for leverage and bull rushes you back into the quarterback. That's what he did to (the 315-pound) Thomas. He'll go 10-15 plays without being noticed, and then he makes a significant play, a sack and strip, or a 12-yard sack."

RT Stacy Andrews vs. Colts LE Robert Mathis
! Andrews

Mathis has nine sacks and is a little bit more powerful and likes the inside move a little more than Freeney. With Andrews looking for the big money next year, either from the Bengals, or Eagles, or whoever, this is the kind of game he has to pitch a shutout or a one-hitter.

When healthy, Willie Anderson did it against Mathis. Remember the havoc this pair wreaked in '06 when both Bengals tackles were hurt?

WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh vs. Colts CB Keiwan Ratliff
! Houshmandzadeh

Can you just imagine all the trash-talking? But it will be X and O refuse because these are two of the smartest football guys that have played recently for the Bengals.

They'll be lined up in the slot and no doubt Ratliff wants to prove to the Bengals coaches they were out of their minds for cutting him before the '07 season. He's got one interception in his nickel corner role in Indy while Houshmandzadeh wants to prove to Ratliff that he can beat him in games as well as practice. He's just waiting for Ratliff to try and jump some of his routes.

"Games are different," says Houshmandzadeh, who talks with Ratliff regularly. "You don't take as many chances in a game. Too many people watching."

Houshmandzadeh doesn't buy the prevailing theory that Ratliff is playing better in Indy instead of Cincinnati because Ratliff's vision, smarts and sticky hands are a better fit in Dungy's zone-based stuff than the man-to-man the Bengals often used when he was here.

"If you can play, you can play, no matter what scheme you're in," Houshmandzadeh says. "And Key can play. I don't know why he's still not here."

He's not here because enough people didn't think he was fast enough or could hit enough. On Sunday, he'll try to show them that the word on the street is right and that he's tackling and covering well.

"This is the kind of game where T.J. should have a big day," The Eye says. "The way they play a lot of zone, and deep stuff on passing downs, it's not so much the athleticism of your receivers, but their ability to get to an open spot quickly with some route combinations and that's what T.J. does so well. He knows Ratliff has trouble turning and running."

But Houshmandzadeh also knows he gave Ratliff a lot of tips in three years and he wonders how much Ratliff is going to show him. For instance, Houshmandzadeh remembers telling him if a receiver chops his feet, he's going short. If he strides longer and stays down, he's going long.

"How he plays me," Houshmandzadeh says, "is just going to come down to the defense they're in."

DT Pat Sims vs. Colts C Jamey Richard
! Sims

Veteran center Jeff Saturday isn't expected to go for the Colts with the calf injury that has ailed him all year and took him out of last week's game, when Indy rushed for just 3.1 yards a carry against the Browns.

Now it is quite a Senior Bowl matchup of rookies with Auburn's 320-pound Sims, a third-rounder, against Buffalo's 295-pound Richard, a seventh-rounder.

Sims is making his eighth start and the Bengals have been pretty impressive against the run since he broke in. The only time a team has gouged them for more than four yards per carry was in his second start when the Steelers went for 125 yards on 27 carries back in October.

Saturday is such a key guy because he's been playing with Manning so long (think Rich Braham) and things just haven't been as smooth up front at 3.5 yards per carry for the season. This is going to be Richard's fourth start at center (he's made three at left guard), but Sims is going to have to get his cardio in.

The Colts are most likely going no-huddle with their three-receiver offense and since the Bengals are down to virtually no defensive linemen on the bench, Sims is going to be on the field a ton.

"The Colts have had trouble running the ball this year," The Guru says. "It's taken some sting out of their play-action game and that's hurt their production some."

S Kyries Hebert vs. Colts TE Dallas Clark
! Hebert

The Bengals coaches have done a pretty nice job not showing their cards on which special-teamer is going to start in place of injured safety Marvin White: Hebert or Busing. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer even indicated they might start just one safety (Chris Crocker?) and go with all cornerbacks.

But the Bengals don't have any of those either against the most lethal passer in the game. Going by this week's practice time, there's a pretty good chance that for the second straight week, starting safety Chinedum Ndukwe and third corner David Jones are going to be inactive.

Add to that the three Opening Day DBs that are shelved for the year (White, safety Dexter Jackson, cornerback Johnathan Joseph), and can the Bengals really blitz Manning like Zimmer has blitzed so heavily most of this season?

"Most teams don't blitz the Colts as much as what they do against other teams," The Eye says. "That's amazing. I guess they're so afraid of Manning finding one of the two receivers (Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison) for the big play."

The Eye says the Colts haven't gone to Clark as much for the big play as they have in the past. When tight end Ben Utecht signed with the Bengals, they opted to replace him in the slot and in his flexed out position with wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez.

"If you counted up the stats, (Clark) has put his hand on the ground more than he's flexed out," The Eye says. "That's taken him out of running some routes and they've kept him in more on pass protection and leaking him out."

But Clark is still a dangerous downfield tight end that is more like a wide receiver. Hebert or Busing could be making their first NFL start, but it should be a little like home for Hebert, a standout in the pass-happy CFL.

Hebert should be able to literally give Clark a run for his money in space because he can run and he's proven it by running past enough people to rack up a special-teams high of 21 tackles, primarily from his position as a gunner on the punt cover team. He may struggle with the technique stuff of turning his hips, but he's fast and if Zimmer blitzes him, then guys like Clark are going to have to adjust to his speed.

Will he or won't he blitz? Maybe not as much as the Bengals have. But it's also hard to see Zimmer letting Manning sit back there and let them die a slow death.

CB Leon Hall vs. Colts WR Reggie Wayne
! Hall

Sometimes Wayne slides into the slot, but most of the time he's going to be on Hall's side in an intriguing joust between one of the NFL's emerging young corners and one of its established star receivers.

Hall is coming off the worst game of what has been a pretty solid second season. Although the Ravens made two spectacular catches against him in very good coverage, he still gave up plays of 32, 45 and 70 yards, something he absolutely can't do Sunday. Mark Clayton is a nice player, but Wayne is the NFL's defending yardage champion with 556 career catches.

"The Bengals are playing a lot better quarterback and better receivers than they did last week, when they gave up the big play, so they all have to play a lot better," The Eye says.

Hall is also looking for his first interception of the season. It's a phenomenon he can't explain. He's never gone an entire season anywhere without at least one interception (he had five as a rookie), so since this is Game 13 you figure he's never gone 12 straight without one and he's due.

"(Wayne) does pretty much everything well," Hall says. "He doesn't really do anything that stands out at you, he just does everything well. He's big, fast, good hands. He's one of these guys that he just has that knack of making the big play."

The Colts receivers aren't known as a physical bunch and that's one of Hall's strengths. But how physical will he be after getting beat last week?

And Wayne is Indy's biggest big-play threat with 14 yards per catch. He seems to be carrying that burden because Manning isn't spreading out the big plays like he used to. Gonzalez is averaging 12.1 yards per catch and the great Harrison is suddenly averaging fewer yards per catch than Clark (10.9 to 10.5).

Harrison can still run and he has a 67-yard touchdown catch this season. But since he's got just 505 yards on 48 catches, the Colts are getting drilled for giving him that last big extension.

But this could be a point of reference for the Bengals on the unsigned 31-year-old Houshmandzadeh. It took Harrison until he was 36 to slow down. And he's still got four TDs (the same number as Houshmandzadeh and Ocho Cinco this season) and his 67-yarder is 21 yards longer than any catch a Bengals wideout has this season.

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