The Bengals’ Week 1 opponent is the Indianapolis Colts, the same team who the Bengals faced just last week in the preseason finale. But this time it’s for real. In preparation for the first game that counts, we spoke to Chris Blystone of Stampede Blue about the return of Andrew Luck and the Colts’ new coach, among other things.
Let’s go behind enemy lines!
Scott Schulze: I suppose any question regarding the Colts need to begin with the quarterback. Last year was one of those rare seasons over the past twenty which didn’t feature either Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck at quarterback. Now that Luck is (apparently) back and healthy, what are expectations from Luck this season?
Chris Blystone: The expectation after seeing what he was able to do throughout training camp and the preseason is a complete return to form. Andrew Luck had a career season in 2016, playing the entirety of it with a torn labrum. With his shoulder surgically repaired and an offensive minded head coach working directly with him to craft the game plans and prepare, the expectation is for him to take the offense to even greater heights.
Andrew Luck has had to carry a team that was not nearly good enough over the course of his career. He proved he was up to the task, despite mediocre coaching, but struggled more and more as the injuries mounted. He will still have to do some pretty heavy lifting this season, but the needle is pointing up on this roster rather than down, and Colts fans are expecting Luck to surprise those who have forgotten how exciting a player Andrew Luck can be.
SS: What was the most surprising roster decision on the team’s 53-man roster?
CB: The decision to cut defensive end John Simon was one that really shocked most Colts fans and even reporters. Simon was a player who clearly outperformed many guys in the preseason in an attempt to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. Simon was transitioning from an outside linebacker in a 3-4 to a defensive end in the Colts’ new 4-3 scheme.
Given the Colts’ needs in the pass rush, his production and success seemed indicators that he would make the team. However, general manager Chris Ballard opted for youth and scheme fit instead. There is widespread disagreement over this decision, and if the young players on the roster cannot produce, it will be something Ballard has to answer for.
SS: Any initial thoughts on first time head coach Frank Reich? Does he seem like the man who can get the team back above 8-8?
CB: So far Frank Reich seems like the perfect fit for a young and developing roster. He has a calming presence which is reminiscent of Tony Dungy, but demands hard work and results. Training camp was interesting to watch under Reich, because you saw the coaches immediately addressing player errors and teaching in a very active way on the field. That is critical for such a young team.
As far as the offense goes, Reich was instrumental in raising the play of Carson Wentz with the Eagles, and proved himself a very capable game planner there as well. He stresses collaboration, and will take full advantage of Andrew Luck’s prodigious brain as a key part of the game planning process.
The most noticeable difference in the offseason between Reich and Pagano was how physical the training camp practices were. The Colts have been a somewhat soft, finesse team during the past several years, and the coaching staff under Frank Reich immediately set to work changing that. I am not saying this will become a smash mouth team, but it will be one that can take a punch and not wilt under pressure.
SS: During the 2018 NFL Draft, many of the talking heads were describing Quenton Nelson as possibly the best prospect in the entire draft. Through camp and preseason has he lived up to those lofty expectations?
CB: He absolutely has. Quenton Nelson has done things already which we have possibly never seen an offensive lineman in Colts blue able to do. He has areas of improvement, but there are very few guys who have his awareness on the field, and nearly none who have the athleticism to move the way he can at his size.
He has looked very good despite being situated beside a revolving door of left tackles while starter Anthony Castonzo attempts to recover from a hamstring injury. When Castonzo is able to return and offer stability to his left, Nelson will really be able to show how great a pick he was. There are probably some Colts fans who think they picked a guard too high, but I am not one of them, and I think our running game and pass protection will be greatly improved as he grows throughout this season.
SS: Last year the Colts finished 4-12 and finished in the bottom 3 in the major offensive and defensive categories (points and yardage). I assume Colts fans expect that to change for the better this season. What will be the main contributors for a successful Colts season in 2018, and what would fans consider to be a successful season?
CB: The biggest difference immediately will be on offense. The Colts with a healthy Andrew Luck are a much different group on the offensive side of the ball. If the offense is able to reach its potential, it could find itself easily in the top ten in terms of yards and points. They have a couple of pretty intriguing players at running back, and a talented tight end group which will take some of the pressure off of T.Y. Hilton to be the go-to target. Combine those things with a more modern and creative offensive play caller and you are likely to see a huge improvement on offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, the name of the game this season will be turnovers. In their base defense, the Colts will be starting 5 players who are in either their first or second season in the NFL. When they run nickel, which they will a lot, that number changes to 6. That much youth means this team is going to make mistakes. Young players struggle with consistency and simply lack the experience that comes with time.
They won’t be one of the better defensive units in football. What they need to be to find success, is opportunistic. If they can take the ball away, they’ll put it in the hands of their talented quarterback and let the offense go to work. That will be the primary formula for this team to win games in 2018. Given a year of development and some breakout performances by a couple of these young players, this could be a very good defense in the coming years. Right now though, they are a team that needs to keep growing.
SS: What are your expectations for the game this Sunday?
CB: I expect this first game for the Colts to be kind of sloppy. Andrew Luck has missed a lot of time, and despite some solid play during the preseason, he will be nervous about his first real game back. The Bengals’ pass rush is no joke, and the Colts have had a couple injuries on the offensive line that have kept them from getting any real cohesion this offseason. If Anthony Castonzo is not back in action for this game, I think it will create issues for the offense.
Luck has shown a tendency to force the ball to his trusted playmakers, and while I expect Reich to scheme some easy throws for him early to build some confidence, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gives up a pick.
On defense, I expect the team to struggle a bit. They do a good job of gang tackling, but have shown already that a quality running back can really rack up the yards against them. They’ll do their best to be a bend but don’t break style of defense, but I expect that approach to yield a lot of yards for the Bengals. However, they have done quite well in terms of red zone defense, and have been able to generate some turnovers, so lots of yards won’t necessarily translate to touchdowns.
All in all, I expect this matchup to be a sloppy outing but a close one. I think the game will come down to a single score late in the game, and there is no one I’d rather have for a fourth quarter comeback than Andrew Luck.
Colts win, 28-24
Thanks to Chris Blystone for taking the time to answer our questions about the upcoming Week 1 matchup. You can find more of his work, and his fellow writers, at Stampede Blue.