3TFO: Colts @ Bengals, Week 14
The 8-4 Indianapolis Colts will take a two hour trip down Interstate 74 to face the 8-4 Cincinnati Bengals in a game that could have major implications on playoff seeding in the AFC. As it stands today, the Colts edge out the Bengals on virtue of a half-game lead in conference games.
Emerging with a 4-2 record, with several close victories and lopsided losses, in the wake of Reggie Wayne’s ACL injury must be seen as a short-term victory for the Colts. Since Week 7, the Colts offense has struggled for the most part, with one nice game against the Titans standing out from the pack. Last week’s game against the Titans saw the Colts finish with 10 players with a -1.0 or worse overall grade, including the entire starting offensive line. It won’t get much easier for Andrew Luck and company this week against the Bengals defense, which boasts a top-tier run defense and coverage unit, though the pass rush is a big step down from what they faced last week.
At home for three of their last four games this season, the Bengals bounced back from back-to-back overtime losses with a pair of defense-driven wins. In doing so, they forced our top-graded passing offense into a negative grade for the first time all season, and Philip Rivers posted his first negative passing grade this season. The defense is on a roll, even after losing Leon Hall and Geno Atkins, reeling off three positive games in a row. Whether the offense can get on track remains to be seen.
Will the Bengals Establish the Run?
Weather forecasters are calling for a hellacious ice and snowstorm in the Cincinnati area today, and there’s a good chance for snow and freezing rain on Sunday. The Bengals are coming off a game in balmy San Diego where the running game feasted on the depleted Chargers front seven, and benefited excellent blocking from Andrew Whitworth at left guard and Andre Smith at right tackle. They could lean on that running game again, given the potentially inclement weather. Running it well last week sealed the victory for Cincinnati, bleeding the clock for the final four-plus minutes of the game. It also meant Andy Dalton didn’t have to put the offense on his arm, which could be seen as a good thing considering his recent struggles. Run blocking hasn’t been a strength for the Bengals for most of the year, though, so it will be incumbent upon the offensive line to repeat a strong performance if the Bengals want to become an old-school AFC North running offense as the winter months take hold.
For the Colts’ part, the run defense grades out in the middle of the pack, but hasn’t been as dominant in the last three games. Cory Redding is the anchor on the defensive line, his +19.0 run defense grade ranking fourth for 3-4 defensive ends. His play benefits those behind him, with inside backer Jerrell Freeman leading the team in Run Stop Percentage at 12%, logging 45 total tackles against the run. It’s a team effort beyond those two, as several other defensive linemen and Robert Mathis have all pitched in positive run defense grades as well.
Expect to see more rushing plays from the Bengals when they roll out multiple tight ends. With two tight ends on the field, they’re running it 40% of the time – with 65% of those coming on first down. With three tight ends, that number jumps up dramatically to 84.8%. On the rare occasion they actually put their full back, Orson Charles, on the field, they run it 94.7% of the time. Against any rush tendency package the Bengals roll out there, the Colts would likely answer with base 3-4 personnel. The bulk (62.7%) of the runs against the Colts base personnel have been on first down, where the Colts have had “stops” on 41.3% of the attempts against them. That suggests there’s some room for success on first down rushes for the Bengals, though the Colts have been moderately successful with stopping the run in their 2-4-5 personnel and on 3rd-and-short situations all year.
Stepping Up for Luck
Andrew Luck has suffered through rough days from his skill players since losing his top receiver in Week 7. Darrius Heyward-Bey has nine catches and four drops on 22 targets since Week 7, and defenses have honed in on T.Y. Hilton, whose 45 targets in the last five games leads the Colts. Coby Fleener has also seen a spike in usage, as his 38 targets, including 10 in back-to-back games in Weeks 10 and 11, are a career high for any five game stretch. Beyond those three constants, the Colts have tried to get production from LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen, Da’Rick Rogers, and a hodgepodge of tight ends. Nothing the Colts have tried has panned out terribly well, though Hilton and Fleener still have positive receiving grades on the year. The passing game simply isn’t the same as it was when Reggie Wayne was healthy, and one of these guys will need to step up to give Luck a chance to keep his offense moving on Sunday. The running game won’t likely be a huge help, considering its general woes this season including subpar run blocking from its interior. Mike McGlynn and Samson Satele both have significantly negative run blocking grades this year, and Hugh Thornton hasn’t posted a positive run blocking game since Week 7.
On the other side, the Bengals defense will have something to say about the Colts skill players getting back on track. Forcing Philip Rivers into a negative grade was a major achievement for the Bengals last week, and they got it done by taking away the deep ball and limiting the damage in the intermediate part of the field. This season, the Bengals have only surrendered “green” passing games to opposing quarterbacks three times, and held Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford to negative games in addition to Rivers. They’ve done it by virtue of disciplined defense and for the most part taking away the big play, only allowing one catch targeted further than 20 yards down the field in the last three weeks combined. If the Colts are going to get it done this week, it will take a unique effort – or a concerted, dink-and-dunk approach that could be tough to maintain against a recently in-form passing defense.
Indisputably the best pass rusher in this game, Robert Mathis will face a combination of Andre Smith at right tackle, and one of Andrew Whitworth or Anthony Collins at left tackle, depending on how the Bengals decide to configure their offensive line in the wake of Clint Boling’s injury. The plurality of Mathis’ pressure has been of the speed variety, 47.1% of the time running around the outside of the tackle across from him. That’s clearly his preference, but he has won on 10 inside moves as well, though the diminutive pass rusher has won on only four bullrushes this year.
All of the Cincinnati tackles that Mathis is likely to face are very good at preventing pressure to their outside shoulder. Whitworth has set the edge so effectively that no one has gotten an outside pressure against him all year. Collins gives up 25% of his pressures outside, totaling one all year on 158 pass rushing snaps. He’s shut down Julius Peppers and only surrendered two pressures against the strong Miami pass rush, then stepped in and posted a clean sheet in pass blocking against San Diego last week. Smith has probably been the most vulnerable to outside pressure, allowing 12 of his 37 pressures to run around him on 494 tries. When Mathis comes as a pass rusher, which he does on 93.1% of his snaps, he comes from right side about 60% of the time. If that stays true this week, he’ll have a heavy dose of Whitworth or Collins in the big strength-on-strength battle in this one.
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