Bengals at Colts: How we see it

Sports

JACKSONVILLE, FL – SEPTEMBER 29: An Indianapolis Colts helmet sits on the sidelines during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on September 29, 2013 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals in Lucas Oil Stadium.

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: FOX59.

QB1

That would be Philip Rivers. Anyone wondering why we’re addressing the 38-year old $25 million QB first hasn’t been paying attention. He’s coming off a disappointing outing at Cleveland – he had a hand in 9 of the Browns’ points in the 9-point loss with a pick-6 and safety – and has suffered four of his five interceptions in the Colts’ two losses.

Is it fair to dump everything at the feet of Rivers? Probably not, but this is the NFL and the QB is the center of every storm and leads parade. It’s imperative for Rivers to come out against a vulnerable Bengals’ defense – 23rd overall, 16th in points – and quiet the growing unrest outside of the Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center. We’re not imploring him to settle into total game-manager mode, but eliminate the bonehead mistakes and make the plays when they need to be made.

Rivers relocated to Indy after enduring one of his least efficient seasons with the Chargers. Remember the 20 interceptions in ’19? Well, he’s now suffered at least two interceptions in 11 of his last 24 games. His teams are 2-9 in those games and have lost eight straight.

Our unsolicited advice to Philip: Clean it up.

QB2

That would be Joe Burrow. Rivers starts 230th consecutive game, which is the second-longest streak by a QB in NFL history and the fourth-longest regardless of position.

 Burrow makes his 6th career start after being anointed the centerpiece of the Bengals future when they selected him with the 1st overall pick in the April draft. The last time Cincy used the 1st overall pick on a QB, it was Carson Palmer in 2004 and it allowed Palmer to sit and learn as a rookie behind Jon Kitna.

From day 1, the Bengals’ offense has been in Burrow’s hands and he’s had his moments. He passed for at least 300 yards in weeks 2-4. He withstood a vicious Philadelphia pass rush (eight sacks, 10 more hits) to earn 23-23 tie against the Eagles before notching his first career win the following week against Jacksonville.

But the Bengals are testing Burrow’s durability. He’s been sacked a league-high 22 times and hit on another 29 occasions. Blame Cincy’s leaky pass protection, but also blame Burrow’s willingness to extend plays and try to make something out of nothing.

Can the Colts keep the heat on? End Justin Houston and tackle DeForest Buckner must be the catalysts to game-long pressure that forces Burrow to play like a rookie.

A side note: to make it a long day for Burrow the Colts’ defense first must neutralize running back Joe Mixon.

Is it time to run?

This is getting to be a weekly category. When will the Colts remember their offense is built around a physical run game? Sunday? Against a Bengals’ run defense that ranks 30th in yards per game allowed (159.0) and yards per attempt (5.2)?

Only one back has cracked the 100-yard mark – Cleveland’s Nick Chubb with 124 yards on 22 attempts – but opponents haven’t been shy about pounding away against at Cincy’s defensive front. The Bengals have faced 154 rush attempts, tied for fifth-most in the league.

Cincy’s defensive front should get more from Geno Atkins. The eight-time Pro Bowl tackle missed the first four games with a shoulder injury, and his season debut consisted of 19 snaps in the 27-3 loss at Baltimore. But that same front lost yet another tackle: D.J. Reader suffered a season-ending quad injury against the Ravens. He’s the third tackle on IR, joining Mike Daniels (elbow) and Renell Wren (quad). Also, tackle Josh Tupou opted out due to COVID-19 concerns.

So we’ll ask again: if not now, when?

Let’s see how rookie Jonathan Taylor fares with a heavy dose of attempts. We’re not advocating a 30-carry afternoon – he had 26 attempts and 101 yards against the Vikings, both season highs – but how about something in the 20-22 range? And we’re not talking about half of those coming on a drive in the fourth quarter. Give Taylor enough carries early and allow the offensive line to roll up its sleeves and reassert itself. The return of left tackle Anthony Castonzo should help with that. 

Regain efficiency, remember T.Y.

Mr. Obvious: things would go more smoothly if the offense could solve its issues on third down and in the red zone. The Rivers-led bunch ranks 27th in converting third downs (34.9%) and 29th in finishing red-zone drives with TDs (42.1%). As we’ve mentioned, the only teams worse in the red zone are the Bengals (35.7%), the New York Giants (30.8%) and New York Jets (25%). That threesome is a combined 1-13-1.

A more reliable run game would help in both areas, as would getting T.Y. Hilton more involved in the pass game. The four-time Pro Bowl wideout had 10 targets at Cleveland and has been on the business end of 20.8% of Rivers’ attempts this season, but his game-changing presence has been missing.

Hilton ranks third in franchise history with 33 100-yard games, but hasn’t reached triple digits in his last 18 games, including the playoffs. That’s easily the longest drought of his career. He and Andrew Luck teamed up for 13 completions of at least 30 yards in 2018. In his 15 games since then, Hilton has had a 35-yarder and a 33-yarder. That’s it.

 And the winner is

Colts 31, Bengals 17. It’s amazing the ebb and flow of emotions each week in the NFL. Win, and you’re contenders. Lose, and you’re bums. We’re not suggesting everything will be fine and dandy if the Colts take care of business against Burrow and the Bengals, but a suitable bounce-back would push them to 4-2 heading into the bye. We’re not expecting an offensive surge against Cincy, but we are expecting coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense to limit Mixon and harass Burrow.

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