Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner discusses balancing the run defense and pass rush.
INDIANAPOLIS — Friday’s false positive scare is over.
The Colts are back on schedule, hoping to bounce back at home in Lucas Oil Stadium in a 1 p.m. Sunday kickoff against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team trying to rally around its brilliant rookie quarterback.
Indianapolis (3-2) must keep pace with undefeated Tennessee in the AFC South, and the Bengals (1-3-1) have been a little bit tougher than advertised with Joe Burrow at the helm. With that in mind, here’s a look at what to watch on Sunday.
1. Philip Rivers has to take care of the football. The 38-year-old quarterback’s pair of two-interception games has cost the Colts two games they could have won, and the Bengals have five interceptions this season, tied for fifth in the NFL. When Rivers takes care of the ball, the Colts have been hard to beat, even though the offense has been pedestrian. When he doesn’t protect the ball, things get ugly.
2. The Bengals secondary will test Rivers and the Colts passing game. Cincinnati challenges every throw, and it’s paying off for the defense. The Bengals have 26 passes defended this season, rank ninth in passing yards allowed (228.6), seventh in yards per play (6.46) and fourth in opposing quarterback rating (81.7). If there’s a weakness, it’s that Cincinnati is somewhat susceptible to the explosive play; the Bengals have given up 16 passes of 20 yards or more this season.
3. Rivers should have time. The Bengals have just nine sacks — 3.5 by defensive end Carl Lawson — and the Colts have given up just five sacks all season. If left tackle Anthony Castonzo (ribs) is ready to go despite being marked as questionable on Friday’s injury report, Indianapolis should be able to give its quarterback plenty of time.
4. If interior pressure comes, it will likely come from veteran Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Cincinnati is painfully thin on the interior defensive line, ravaged by injuries to a long list of big bodies, led by nose tackle D.J. Reader.
5. T.Y. Hilton leads the Colts with 19 catches for 231 yards, but he’s still looking for his first touchdown and wants to hit more explosive plays. Cincinnati has been a mixed bag against an opponent’s best receivers, slowing down the Chargers’ Keenan Allen but giving up big plays to Cleveland’s Odell Beckham and Baltimore’s Marquise Brown.
6. Five weeks into the season, the Colts’ best receiving tight end has been Mo Alie-Cox, who will be forced to miss this game due to a knee injury suffered against Cleveland. The Colts will have Jack Doyle and TreypBurton, and both players need to get on track. Rivers has had trouble connecting with Doyle when the veteran is open, and although Burton has eight catches on 11 targets the past two weeks, he hasn’t made an impact down the field.
7. Even though he’s technically on the practice squad, Marcus Johnson has emerged as the Colts’ big-play No. 3 receiver with Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman out. Activated off the practice squad each week, Johnson has a 36-yard catch in each of the past two games.
8. If the Colts can’t run the ball against the Bengals, they’re never going to Run the Damn Ball this season. As good as Cincinnati’s pass defense has been, the run defense has been the opposite. Cincinnati is giving up 5.2 yards per carry and 159 yards per game on the ground, numbers that are both the third-worst in the NFL.
9. The Colts need to feed rookie Jonathan Taylor. While Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins have struggled over the past couple of weeks, Taylor has averaged 4.4 yards per carry, and that number is on the rise. Frank Reich needs to treat Taylor the way he did against Minnesota, when he handed the rookie 26 carries and made him the clear bell cow.
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10. Rivers has seen defenses take away one of his favorite targets, the running back. After 17 completions to running backs in the opener, he has just 18 since. The Colts might need to dial up a few screens to get the ball in the hands of Taylor and Hines in the open field.
11. Isaiah Rodgers should be salivating. One week after his 101-yard touchdown on a kick return against the Browns, Rodgers faces a Bengals kickoff unit that is 31st in the NFL, giving up a whopping 38 yards per return.
12. By the same token, Bengals punter Kevin Huber has quietly been one of the league’s best, averaging 48.6 yards per punt and limiting opposing return men to just 4.0 yards per return. Nyheim Hines has his work cut out for him.
13. Indianapolis has had success against the NFL’s best kick returners this season, and the Colts need to keep it going. Cincinnati’s Brandon Wilson is averaging 30.3 yards per return, and he has the speed to make a game-breaking plays.
14. The Bengals offense begins with running back Joe Mixon. Mixon is fifth in the NFL with 374 rushing yards so far, but it’s taken him 101 carries to get there because Cincinnati’s offensive line has struggled to open holes. An Indianapolis defense that ranks third in the NFL against the run and did a solid job on Cleveland’s top-ranked ground game last week should have the advantage against Mixon, as talented as he is.
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15. For a long, long time, wide receiver A.J. Green was the Bengals’ top offensive player, but the 32-year-old is struggling mightily this season. Coming off of an injury, Green has made just 14 catches for 119 yards on 34 targets, and he was under fire for an apparent lack of effort last week.
16. The new No. 1 in Cincinnati is Tyler Boyd, who leads the Bengals with 32 catches for 362 yards. Rookie Tee Higgins has also been a big-play threat, averaging a team-best 13.4 yards per grab on 16 catches.
17. Unlike Cleveland, which was able to hit several chunk plays in the first half against Indianapolis last week, Cincinnati has not been able to consistently make the big play a part of the offense. The Bengals have just nine completions of 20 yards or more this season, tied for the worst mark in the NFL. A Colts defense ranked No. 1 in just about every passing category is no easy mark.
18. The big reason the Bengals have struggled so much to create big plays is that the offensive line isn’t capable of protecting the No. 1 pick. Despite his mobility, Joe Burrow has been sacked 22 times already this season, including eight times by Philadelphia and seven by Baltimore last week. A Colts defensive line that ranks seventh in the NFL in pressure percentage should be able to make Burrow’s life miserable.
19. When he’s not getting hammered by defensive linemen, Burrow has shown why he was the No. 1 pick. Tough, cool under fire and accurate, Burrow has completed 65.2% of his passes for 1,304 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. The only question is whether the Bengals will be able to keep him healthy this season.
20. Indianapolis has to be licking its chops against a rookie quarterback, even a good one like Burrow. The Colts lead the NFL with nine interceptions this season, and the ferocity of the pass rush often leads to mistakes.
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21. If there’s one thing the Colts pass rush must do better, though, it’s keep mobile passers like Burrow in the pocket. Too often this season, Indianapolis has allowed quarterbacks to escape, taking sacks off the board and giving receivers more time to get open and make plays. Burrow is arguably at his best on the move; the Colts must keep him hemmed into the pocket.
22. With Darius Leonard doubtful, expect Anthony Walker and Bobby Okereke to team up again after a solid performance against the Browns last week, when they combined for 16 tackles and two interceptions.
23. The Colts are on a weird streak this season. Indianapolis has not lost a fumble this season, and the Colts also haven’t been able to recover one. Each side of the coin has only fumbled once. At some point, that luck’s going to change for somebody, and the Indianapolis defense needs to start adding fumbles to its turnover-producing ways.