Unknown QBs can challenge Bengals, too

CINCINNATI -- Brian Hoyer, Bruce Gradkowski, Shaun Hill and T.J. Yates all have something in common.

Before each made it to their respective third career starts as NFL quarterbacks, they had already beaten the Cincinnati Bengals. If you know anything about the league, you know that compared to the Tom Bradys, Aaron Rodgerses, Ben Roethlisbergers and Peyton Mannings of the football universe, the mere mention of the former four names doesn't strike quite as much fear into the minds of the defenders facing them.

Sunday, when the Bengals travel to Buffalo, they hope to keep from adding another relative quarterbacking unknown to that dubious list when Thad Lewis makes just the second start of his four-year tenure in the league. Signed off the Bills' practice squad this week, he will be replacing injured starter E.J. Manuel.

"Well, they're not going to create new plays," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said about Lewis' insertion into the Bills' lineup. "They're going to do what they do, and we've got a pretty good handle on that. We've got to do what we do, be disciplined on defense and get after it.

"We're going to have to worry about us. That's what matters most of the time."

It isn't much of a stretch to say that most of the time the Bengals have played against an unknown quarterback since 2006, they have struggled. Gradkowski got to them his rookie year, earning a 14-13 win while playing for Tampa Bay. Three years later, when he was in Oakland in 2009, Gradkowski beat the Bengals 20-17 in a game that saw him throw for 183 yards. He threw for 184 in the 2006 meeting.

In 2007, Hill tip-toed past with a 20-13 win against the Bengals while making his first carer start for the San Francisco 49ers. He was 21-for-28 on 197 yards and a touchdown in that game.

Four years later, Yates threw for 300 yards in a 20-19 win against Cincinnati for the Texans. That game was his second career start. That postseason, he tacked on another win against the Bengals by leading Houston to a 31-10 win in the first round of the 2011 season's playoffs.

Hoyer joined the list in Week 4 of this season, leading two 90-yard-plus Browns scoring drives in a 17-6 win that helped bring a measure of balance into what was once perceived to be two-team divisional race.

But as badly as the Bengals have played in recent years against relative no-name quarterbacks, they've thrived against the stars. This season alone, they already have beaten three Super Bowl-winning signal-callers in Brady, Rodgers and Roethlisberger. Next month, they'll have a chance to face another, when they face Joe Flacco and the defending league champion Baltimore Ravens.

"My feeling on quarterbacks is: the reason why they're in the NFL is because all of them have won games in some time in their career," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. "So whoever they are, we have a lot of respect for them."

When asked his thoughts about why the Bengals seem to play well for the best quarterbacks and struggle against players like Thad Lewis, cornerback Leon Hall simply shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't know what it is," he said. "I kind of look at it as, I can't tell you why, but sometimes we don't play as well as we should in those situations. It's a letdown on our part when we're watching the film and realize we didn't play as well as we should with the outcome of those games."

One theory has to do with the perception of lacking game footage on those quarterbacks. Tape of the bigger-name stars is much more readily available and accessible.

"To me, playing a quarterback that you haven't seen a lot is different, because you don't know what to expect," safety George Iloka said. "You don't know if he likes to scramble, if he likes to hit his first or second read. So we have to put in extra film study to make up for the limited film that's out there on [Thad Lewis]."

Between preseason games, some college tape and Thad Lewis' performance in last year's Browns-Steelers season finale -- his first career start came against Pittsburgh last December -- there are places to view his tendencies and style of play.

Cincinnati anticipates he will operate Buffalo's offense similarly to the way that Manuel ran it before going down last Thursday. With the AFC's strongest rushing attack, the Bills weren't passing the ball quite as much as the other teams the Bengals have seen this season. With a bigger bodied and mobile quarterback in Manuel, Buffalo also was able to run more read-option than anyone else Cincinnati has faced.

"In the read option, you have to be disciplined knowing the formation and assignments," Hall said. "Sometimes you second-guess who you have and get hesitant, but you have to know who you have on that call and play it and depend on the other guys."

While Thad Lewis has enough mobility to present a threat in the zone-read game, he has experience passing deep, too. His senior year of college, he threw for more than 300 yards seven times.

"From what I've been told, he's very smart, has good intellect and understands football very well," Marvin Lewis said. "Against Pittsburgh last year he was able to complete some deep-out throws both to his left and his right. That was impressive. He's had quite a few naked boots, and things which I'm sure we'll see some of. So we're going to need to knock the hell out of him every chance we get."