Making his way to the line of scrimmage, Peyton Manning peruses the opposing defense. The Indianapolis Colts quarterback has the freedom within the offense to call whatever play he feels will best suit his team's needs against the assembled blockade. More often than not in his seven previous seasons, the play called has been a pass.
Not this season.
Manning and the undefeated Colts come to Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday to face the Cincinnati Bengals in a matchup that will have implications down the road when it comes to deciding postseason berths, seeding and possible home field advantage in the AFC playoffs. While Manning has multiple receiving threats in Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley and tight end Dallas Clark, the Bengals know what their No. 1 priority is if they want to have a shot at beating what has been the top team in the NFL so far this season.
"I think the key right now is to slow Edgerrin James down," said cornerback Deltha O'Neal, who leads the NFL with six interceptions but pointed out Indianapolis' versatile running back. "If we can do that, because we've been up-and-down with the run game this year, if we can have a solid game and put a whole game together, not just one half or start off fast and not play hard towards the end of the game, but if we play a complete game and slow the run game down we'll be all right."
James is second in the NFL with 1,027 rushing yards this season, trailing only Seattle's Shaun Alexander. He's on pace to gain more than 1,800 yards on the ground this season, which would be a career high. The most he's carried a football in a season is 387 times, but James is on his way to eclipsing that total too.
The reputation of the Indianapolis offense has been built around the pass, but the Colts have actually run the ball more times (290) than Manning has attempted passes (276). Indianapolis is one of 11 teams in the NFL that have more rushing attempts than passing attempts. Three of the teams — Houston, Buffalo and San Francisco — have losing records, but the other eight are all either leading their divisions or are contenders for the playoffs through nine games.
Cincinnati has struck a good balance in its offense, attempting 293 passes compared to running the ball 265 times.
The Bengals defense is ranked 24th in the league against the run, allowing an average of 124.2 yards per game, and the 4.7 yards per rushing attempt its allowed is 30th out of the NFL's 32 teams. In their last two games, wins over Green Bay and Baltimore, the Bengals have played much better. Baltimore quarterbacks accounted for 60 yards on seven scrambles, but the Ravens running backs had just 58 yards on 18 carries. The Packers gained just 76 yards on 22 attempts.
James and the Colts are ranked sixth in the NFL running the ball
"He's really a great vision running back who can also catch the football," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said of James, who has 25 receptions this season and 337 for his career. "Not a lot of offensive football teams have ever had where you have a dynamic passing attack with a very, very fine running back that catches and runs and screens and things like that, things out of the backfield."
James suffered a knee injury in 2001 that ended his year six games into the season, but he's missed just five games since and scored 33 touchdowns since 2002.
The Colts' favorite running play is a "stretch" play in which the offensive line slants one way with its blocks while Manning hands the ball off to James moving in the same direction. There are opportunities for James to find a hole either to the front side of the play or by cutting back if defenders don't stay at home and maintain their responsibilities.
"Most people don't run that play because everyone is so fast but they do it and they have a pass off of it, too, so people don't know which they'll run," said Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton. "They make everything look the same. Everything they do looks the same, so it doesn't matter. That's why they get away with it. And they block people well."
The Colts drafted Manning No. 1 overall in 1998 and took James with the fourth overall pick in 1999. With Manning and James in the same backfield, Indianapolis has finished ranked lower than fourth in offense just once, in 2002 when the Colts were No. 9. Manning has been to five Pro Bowls, Harrison six and James three — but not until last season did a Colts offensive lineman earn a Pro Bowl berth. Left tackle Tarik Glenn went as a reserve.
"I don't know what other teams think of them, but I know that when you see them on film they're a good unit," said Cincinnati linebacker Brian Simmons. "That's the only thing that matters. When you look at them on film and see them run block well and pass protect well, you see that they're doing something right and they're a good unit. If you want to dispute that, just turn the film on."