INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts get a brief break from AFC South Divisional play on Sunday, when they travel to take on the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Colts (2-5) are coming off their 27-0 home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Bengals (2-4), meanwhile, fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 29-14, last Sunday at Heinz Field.
So what should fans be looking for in this Colts/Bengals matchup on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium?
1. Clean Operation
The Colts were simply unable to stop a talented Jaguars defensive front last week, which collected 10 sacks on the day — including seven in the second-half alone — on quarterback Jacoby Brissett. This week, each part of that operation for Indianapolis — the offensive line, the quarterback and the coaches — took responsibility for the poor performance up front. After going through those issues early in the week and then working through a new plan in practice, the Colts hope to put the sacks in the rear-view mirror — something that's easier than said against a talented Bengals defense. While the Jaguars are by far the league's top defense when it comes to rushing the passer, the Bengals certainly are no slouch, either, as they have collected 18 total sacks so far this season, a figure that ranks tied for 10th in the NFL. Pro Bowler Geno Atkins (4.0 sacks) once again leads the way, but the Bengals have four defensive players with at least 2.0 sacks so far through six games, giving the Indy offensive line plenty to study this week.
- Replacing Three Starters**
The Indy defense will need to find a way to replace three of its top playmakers on Sunday: safety Malik Hooker, cornerback Rashaan Melvin and outside linebacker John Simon. Hooker is a long-term change, as he suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Jaguars, while a concussion and a stinger, respectively, will keep Melvin and Simon out of the lineup on Sunday. Head coach Chuck Pagano said all hands are on deck for Melvin's spot as the No. 2 cornerback, though many wonder if second-round pick Quincy Wilson, who has been inactive since getting the start Week 2 against the Arizona Cardinals, will get another shot at those reps. Then, Pagano said fifth-year veteran Barkevious Mingo, the first-round (sixth-overall) pick for the Cleveand Browns in the 2013 NFL Draft, will get the start in pace of Simon, who leads all Colts players with three sacks. Veteran Darius Butler and second-year safety T.J. Green, meanwhile, are the likely candidates to get a majority of the snaps at free safety for Hooker — who had a team-leading three interceptions — moving forward.
3. Stifle Mixon, Green
After just seven carries for 48 yards last Sunday against the Steelers, Bengals rookie running back Joe Mixon expressed publicly that he thinks he should be a bigger part of the Cincinnati offense. After averaging 12 carries a game through his first six games, could Mixon get his way on Sunday against the Colts? And while the Indy defense will certainly prepare itself to stop the run first, it knows the focal point of the Bengals' offense, however, is wide receiver A.J. Green. The league's second-leading receiver (545 yards), Green has a touchdown reception in three of his past four games, and he looks to reach the end zone for a third straight game in his career against the Colts. "The biggest issue with the matchup is Andy (Dalton) loves the guy," Colts defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said of Green. "It doesn't matter whether he's the primary or not in a lot of concepts. If Andy Dalton likes the matchup, there might be three throws down the field during the game. That's the biggest thing. We've got to know that even when A.J. is covered, he's open, when you're looking at it from Andy's point of view. He's big, he's fast, he's physical, he's got great ball skills. All those things create issues on their own, but when they're all together, you've got what you've got – one of the rare guys in our league."
4. Get Doyle Involved
While the Bengals have one of the league's top overall defenses in terms of yards allowed so far this season, their linebackers have struggled at times in coverage. So while Jack Doyle is obviously always a huge focal point within the Colts' offensive gameplan week in and week out, he could factor in even more on Sunday in Cincy. Last week against the Steelers, every time Ben Roethelisberger targeted the Bengals' primary middle linebackers, Nick Vigil and Vontaze Burfict, he was able to complete his pass attempt; Vigil, alone, allowed three receptions for 75 yards. So with a focus on getting the ball out quicker to avoid as many sacks this week, look for Brissett to continue looking for Doyle, whose 30 receptions are third among all AFC tight ends, all afternoon.
5. Watch Out For Ross
Sunday's game is expected to feature the return of speedy Bengals rookie wide receiver John Ross, who has missed the team's last four games with a knee injury. Cincinnati picked Ross, of course, to give its offense the ability to stretch the field and hit the big play at any time, and his 4.22-second 40-yard dash — considered to be an NFL Scouting Combine record — this year is certainly evidence of that. So while the Colts' attention defensively will undoubtedly be focused on stopping Mixon and the run game, as well as getting plenty of help on Green on the outside, you know the Indy defense will also always have to pay close attention any time No. 15 is on the field for the Cincinnati offense, too.
6. Moving On
Heading into last Sunday's game against the Jaguars, the main theme for the Colts was an inability to close out games in the second half; from Weeks 2-6, Indianapolis took a lead into halftime, but would see the opposition either close the gap and run away with the ballgame, or in their wins against the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers, the Colts were able to withstand that run and come out victorious in the end. But Indianapolis was dominated from the start against Jacksonville, falling behind 20-0 by halftime and unable to mount any sort of second-half comeback of its own. Head coach Chuck Pagano said he's liked the response by his players this week in practice, however. "They went out there and busted their butts," Pagano said. "Just a ton of energy and a ton of juice. They understand there are very few opportunities. They understand that it's a privilege. We get to do this. We don't have to do this. We get to do this. So, they responded." We'll see if that can translate over to Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday.
7. Milestone Watch
Here are several milestones to look for on Sunday, courtesy of Colts PR:
• Cornerback Vontae Davis needs four passes defensed to reach 100 for his career.
• Running back Frank Gore, with the start on Sunday against the Bengals, will become the first running back to start 100 consecutive games since Curtis Martin started 119 straight games from 1998-2005; with one 100-yard rushing performance, Gore would tie O.J. Simpson (42) for the 16th-most in NFL history; he needs four carries for pass Barry Sanders (3,062) for sixth on the NFL's all-time list; he needs one rushing touchdown to tie Tony Dorsett (77) for 21st and two rushing touchdowns to tie Ricky Watters (78) for 20th on the NFL's all-time list.
• Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, with one reception, will have caught at least one pass in 40 consecutive games, passing Bill Brooks for the 10th-longest streak in franchise history.
• Kicker Adam Vinatieri needs 11 points to tie Gary Anderson (2,434) for the second most points in NFL history.