The Indianapolis Colts have a passing defense which has allowed 7.2 yards per attempt (16th-best among defenses), an 88.7 passer rating (14th-best), a 27:12 TD:INT ratio (21st-best), and just a 58.9 completion percentage (6th-best) in 2014. Overall, the Colts' passing defense is above-average this year.
However, the Colts have allowed 4.3 yards per carry (23rd-best), 113.4 rush yards per game (18th-best), and have surrendered 14 rushing TD's (21st-best). The Colts' rush defense is below-average this year.
This season, the Bengals have had a passing offense which has passed for 7.0 yards per attempt (19th-best among offenses), an 84.0 passer rating (24th-best), a 20:17 TD:INT ratio (27th-best), and a 64.1 completion percentage (13th-best) in 2014. Again, these are team stats which include Andy Dalton, Jason Campbell, and Mohamed Sanu (Dalton by himself is ranked 21st, 25th, 27th, and 13th among starters in these respective measures of production). Overall, the Bengals' passing offense is clearly below-average this year.
Compounding this is that Dane Sanzenbacher is now on season-ending IR, and A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, and James Wright haven't been practicing. If they aren't practicing by Friday, then they could very well be ruled out. If so, then the Bengals' playoff receiving corps would consist of Mohamed Sanu, Brandon Tate, Greg Little, and Cobi Hamilton...not exactly a recipe for success.
However, the Bengals have rushed for 4.4 yards per carry (12th-best), 134.2 rush yards per game (6th-best), and a very impressive 19 rushing TD's (2nd-best). The Bengals' rush offense is clearly above-average this year.
In the 2011 through 2013 regular seasons, Jay Gruden called a combined 1,662 passing plays for the Bengals compared to just 1,336 running plays. Only about 44.5 percent of the Bengals' offensive plays from scrimmage under Gruden were running plays.
This season, Hue Jackson has reduced the percentage of passing plays. The Bengals have done 492 running plays and 504 passing attempts, a virtual 50-50 split. The pass attempts still hold the slight majority, though, so it certainly doesn't seem unreasonable to further reduce them considering the passing game has been the lesser effective option.
Spearheaded by two excellent backs in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, along with fullback Ryan Hewitt and a mauling O-line, the Bengals have run all over their opponents in the past three weeks: 45 carries for 244 yards (5.4 YPC) and 3 TD's against the Browns, 37 carries for 207 yards (5.6 YPC) and 1 TD against the Broncos, and 29 carries for 116 yards (4.0 YPC) against the Steelers. What makes this extra impressive is that the Broncos and Steelers both have top-10 run defenses overall, which is much better than that of the Colts.
In those three games, the Bengals were not really afraid to let Dalton throw, either. Combined, he had 88 passing attempts. Certainly, it made sense at times to pass the ball, such as on fourth downs early in the Browns and Steelers games, and on safe dump-offs such as the catch-and-run touchdowns by Gio Bernard against the Broncos and Steelers. Dalton deserves credit for making those open passes. Green's fumble against the Steelers was off a short wide-open pass, which was initially a positive play. The play-call and throw were not the problem there. In the second half with the Bengals trailing by multiple scores, and late in the game still trailing, it was necessary to throw the ball. Again, it made complete sense to throw in all of these situations.
However, in other instances, Hue Jackson has eschewed the run in favor of the pass for no good reason. By the third quarter of the Browns game, just about everything was going right for the Bengals and everything wrong for the Browns. Hill and Bernard were running wild. Suddenly, Jackson decided to call for an intermediate pass across the middle. Almost predictably, it was intercepted and run back a moderate distance. I'm sure I wasn't alone among Bengals fans by thinking "why on earth would you do that with the way the Bengals are running?"
That lone play let the Browns back into the game, simply because Jackson allowed for a non-safe pass to be thrown by Dalton even though the Browns couldn't stop the run at all. It seems that Jackson did this only because he felt he had to stick to some semblance of a run-pass split, no matter what.
On the Bengals' second drive against the Broncos, Jackson immediately called for a moderately risky pass across the middle. Not too surprisingly, it was intercepted and run back for a touchdown. Then on the very next snap from scrimmage of the game, the Bengals ran hard to the right with Hill behind Kevin Zeitler, Eric Winston, and Jermaine Gresham, AND both Andrew Whitworth and Clint Boling pulled to the right as well. Hill went 85 yards for a TD. While I was very happy with the play, I'm sure I wasn't alone by thinking "why didn't you start off with that on the drive before?" Jackson essentially gifted the Broncos 7 points by allowing an unnecessarily risky pass to occur.
On the Bengals' second drive of the Steelers game, Hill was running wild with 3 carries for 43 yards. But Jackson then called for an obviously risky deep pass to the right, which was intercepted. In the middle of the second quarter, Hill was again running well and Jackson yet again called for a risky deep pass play which was intercepted. I'm sure I wasn't alone by thinking "why would you call those with the way Hill is running?" Jackson's play-calling bailed the Steelers' run defense out and didn't allow the Bengals to fully play to the main strength of their offense.
Among qualified passers (min. 400 attempts) in 2014, rookie Blake Bortles has the highest interception rate, 17 INT's in 475 attempts. Bortles has a terrible supporting cast with the third-highest drop rate in the league. Guess who is very close behind with the second-highest INT rate in the league? Andy Dalton (17 in 482 attempts). Even the recently demoted Jay Cutler has a lower rate. Dalton had the fourth-highest rate (22 in 637 attempts) in 2013, higher than the combination of Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer, and Jason Campbell in Cleveland that year. Dalton tied Josh Freeman, who is currently out of football, for the fifth-highest INT rate in 2012. Both had exactly 17 in 558 attempts.
For all of these quarterbacks, especially Bortles, it's not entirely their fault - sometimes the receivers deserved blame as well. But in the Bengals' case, with the run working so well, why abandon it and take unnecessary risks?
Knowing Dalton's career trend of having a very high interception rate, Jackson should have prevented those passes from being attempted in the first place. When the run was working well, then besides handing off the ball, Dalton should have been limited to short, safe, open throws - preferably nothing beyond screens and quick outs near the line of scrimmage. If Jackson had done this, then the Bengals would have likely beaten the Browns by one extra score and the Broncos without having to overcome a pick-six by Aqib Talib. They would have also likely reduced the deficit against the Steelers or perhaps won the game.
All in all, when the Bengals are dominating with their run game, Hue Jackson sometimes gets unnecessarily cute with calling for risky passes which unsurprisingly result in interceptions and the destruction of promising drives. Jackson seems to do it simply because he feels he should continually stick to a run-pass split, even when the run is clearly the more effective option and the reason why those drives became promising to begin with.
The Bengals certainly ought to throw on open short passes. In addition, they should open up the passing game on third-and-longs, on fourth downs, if trailing by multiple scores and/or if trailing late (as they correctly did against the Steelers in the second half - albeit ironically to make up for abandoning the run and throwing interceptions in the first half), and if the opposing defense has stacked the box.
But other than those obvious passing situations in which the Bengals will essentially be forced to throw, Jackson should correct his general play-calling in order to take full advantage of both the Bengals' main offensive strength and the Colts' defensive weakness, and thus give the Bengals their best chance of winning the game.