A whole lot can change over the course of an NFL season. Take the Bengals for example. In the Week 7 slaughter they faced at the hands of the Colts, A.J. Green was on the bench. Jeremy Hill really only had two carries in the game, until two more came in mop up duty. Since Week 8, no running back has rushed for more yards than Jeremy Hill. Not even rushing leader, DeMarco Murray. The emergence of the rushing attack for the Bengals is a huge difference heading into this game.
The Colts also have some changes. For example, in the first game against the Bengals Ahmad Bradshaw was a huge part of the Colts offense. Against the Bengals he had 88 yards and two touchdowns. Those were on 10 carries and 3 receptions. He was a driving force for the Colts in the beginning of the season when they boasted the league's best offense. Then, after he was hurt, everything changed.
I talk with Josh Wilson from Stampede Blue for some insight on his thoughts about the Colts struggle recently. I wondered if the Colts were a gritty team, finding ways to win or are they struggling with teams to finish the season. He answers "Well, it's a bit of both. The injury side of it cannot be ignored. Not to mention that they've been playing all year without star pass rusher Robert Mathis, the biggest injury was losing Ahmad Bradshaw for the year in week eleven. Since that, the Colts' offense has never really been the same, as that was a huge loss. And then several players have been dealing with injuries: wide receiver Reggie Wayne is playing through a torn triceps, right tackle Gosder Cherilus has been playing through injuries for much of the season, right guard Hugh Thornton has missed a lot of time recently, tight end Dwayne Allen has been injured, and then on the defensive side of the ball guys have been nicked up as well. So yeah, injuries have been a part of it, but also the Colts are finding ways to beat themselves - namely with turnovers, etc. And then, of course, when they played the Cowboys, pretty much everything went wrong - so that one was somewhat due to their opponent, too."
Four of the six lowest point totals for the Colts have come in the last six games of the season. A big part of that has been because of Andrew Luck. In nine of the first 12 games of the season, Luck boasted a 90.0 or higher quarterback rating. In his last 3 games of the season he posted a 59.8, 76.5 and 41.7 rating. In the same span he threw four touchdowns and five interceptions. His yards per attempt ranged from 5.3 yards to 0.86 yards in that span. He is in the top 2 QB's for most turnovers this season (with Jay Cutler being the other).
It is not all Luck's fault though. The Colts lead the league in dropped passes this season and not by a slim margin. The Colts have dropped 40 passes. The next closest team has 28. In the last six games the Colts have turned the ball over 15 times. No team in the NFL has fumbled more than the Colts.
Another big contributor to their struggles has been the offensive line for the Colts. They have started 10 different offensive line configurations this season. This has led to 14 sacks in the last 6 games for Luck. Also countless hits and pressures over that time. The inconsistency in the line has affected the running game as well as the passing game.
I ask Josh if there is any concern from the Bengals front 4. He says: "To be honest, every team concerns me when considering the offensive line the Colts have. There's a very real chance that they could be starting their eleventh different offensive line combination this Sunday against the Bengals, and they haven't been able to get any consistency. The line has been playing very poorly, and part of it is due to the fact that defenses don't respect the Colts' run game anymore with Bradshaw out. So yeah, I'd be concerned about the Colts' offensive line, but that's mainly because the Colts haven't been able to really protect Andrew Luck yet against any opponent."
The Colts are not the same team that faced the Bengals in Week 7. The Bengals are not the same either. This Sunday's game is a matchup that looks much different than the first meeting. The Bengals need to take advantage of the Colts' new look and weaknesses to come away with their first playoff win in 24 years. One way to change the outcome could be to focus on the run.
I question how the Colts stack up against the run. Josh answers: "The Colts aren't great against the run - as the Patriots showed several weeks ago. Indy's defensive strength is with their secondary in pass coverage, not against the run, and they can be beat on the ground. They're decent against the run against average to below average teams, but they can be run on. If I'm the Bengals this Sunday, I'd be giving the ball to Jeremy Hill a ton. That's the best way for them to beat this Colts defense, because while Indy has done a solid job at times on defense, they can still be beat on the ground and they have weaknesses there. It's just up to opposing teams to exploit those weaknesses - the Patriots did, and I think the Bengals could have some success on the ground against the Colts as well. I don't expect them to have the type of success that New England did, but if Cincy is committed to running the football they should see results."