Loss, tie. If one wanted the briefest of synopses of the Bengals last two weeks, that's it. After dominating teams through their first three games, the Bengals have come out of their bye week looking like a completely different team--and that isn't a compliment.
Now the Bengals take a short trip to Indianapolis where they face the Colts, who, dare I say, are "en fuego" (that's for you, Mr. Patrick). The fact is that there are similarities between the Colts' 2014 season and the Bengals, it's just that they have the roles flip-flopped. Indianapolis faltered to an 0-2 start, but they righted the ship and are riding high on a four-game winning streak.
By now, the story with the Bengals is clear: injuries, poor preparation/coaching, and even worse execution has them on their heels a bit. While a loss against the Colts isn't a season-ender, it will hinder their standings in the division and conference races, as well as raise more questions as to the legitimacy of the Bengals as a playoff contender. A win and Cincinnati plants themselves firmly back towards the top of the NFL's elite.
Even with the plethora of injuries that have accumulated on the Bengals' roster, this should be a winnable game. Players will need to step up and the execution will need to be crisp in order to emerge victorious.
Shut Down Ahmad Bradshaw:
Andrew Luck does have weapons, but many of them seem to be of the feast or famine variety. Surprisingly, his security blanket has become veteran running back, Ahmad Bradshaw. Once courted by the Bengals for a job a couple of years back, Bradshaw landed with the Colts in 2013 and had his season cut short, playing only three games last year. With Trent Richardson disappointing in Indy, Bradshaw has become the key cog in the Colts' offense.
The irony is that Bradshaw's biggest contribution has been in the passing game. Though he's been efficient on the ground, churning out 4.7 yards per carry, his 28 receptions and five touchdown catches have been massive in Luck's comfort level. The Bengals will need to find someone on defense to shadow Bradshaw as he comes out of the backfield. Vontaze Burfict is likely to be the primary operative in that assignment, but a surprising player who could be in the mix is Taylor Mays.
The embattled "hy-backer" has barely seen the field this year, but with a significant injury to Rey Maualuga and another sketchy situation with Emmanuel Lamur with his own ailment, Mays might get some looks. If Lamur is healthy, he could be another one to look after Bradshaw. Whoever will be tasked with it will need to be on point. If Bradshaw makes plays, Luck grows confident and that won't be good news for Cincinnati.
Feed The Andrew Luck Turnover Machine:
The former No. 1 overall pick is gaining more and more accolades for his play with every passing week and rightfully so. Luck is toward the top of almost every important statistical category as a passer, but he's also tied for No. 2 in interceptions on the year with seven. Throw in a lost fumble and a sketchy offensive line and that could play into the Bengals' favor in Sunday.
Cincinnati thrived on the pass rush and turnovers in the first three games and have hit a major drought in both categories in their past two contests. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will need to dial up a sound game plan to play to this one crack in Luck's play. Pressure, hits and sacks will inevitably cause errors by the Colts' offense and they'll need to achieve this to keep the game consistently within their grasp.
More Returns For Adam Jones On Special Teams:
We're not calling for a full-blown ditching of Brandon Tate on returns like some people, but it's undeniable that big plays happen with Jones as a returner. The 97-yard beauty of a kickoff return brought the Bengals back in the game against the Panthers and the few opportunities he receives in this capacity seem to almost always pay off big time.
The Bengals need Jones at corner, but with injuries to Marvin Jones and A.J. Green at receiver, they need Tate on offense, as painful as that may be to hear for some folks. As a Bengal, Jones has 602 yards on 49 returns (12.3 yards per return) and 283 yards on 11 kick returns (25.8 yards per return average). He's a gambler, for sure, but those bets usually pay off in a big way. Jones doesn't need to be used on every return opportunity, but he should be on the ready--especially if the Bengals need a spark, as they did last week.
Re-Learn How To Cover Tight Ends:
If the Bengals had Tyler Eifert healthy, they may have something at the position group that resembles what the Colts have assembled in their group. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen have combined for two solid seasons through the first six games. Allen is shorter, bulkier and makes the tough catches, while Fleener is the taller, more fluid athlete and they both cause headaches for opposing defenses.
The twin towers on Indianapolis have combined for over 400 yards receiving, seven touchdown catches and 26 first downs. Cincinnati will need to find an answer to limit the damage with their tight ends, which hasn't really been a forte of Bengals defenses in, well, ever. Leon Hall, George Iloka and Reggie Nelson will tag team in coverage along with the flavor-of-the-week linebacker to cover these two and they will need to be successful.
Ride The Cliche And Play A Full Sixty Minutes:
It's one of the oldest sayings by coaches to their team, but it definitely rings true this week. The Colts under Luck have a knack for climbing back into games after it seems like there isn't any way for a comeback. In his brief career spanning just over two seasons, Luck has 11 comeback drives and eight fourth-quarter wins in his career.
When the Bengals and the Colts faced each other last season, Cincinnati had a comfortable, multi-touchdown lead late into the game. Somehow, Luck got the lead down to a relatively uncomfortable two-touchdown deficit which felt closer than it sounds. Later that year in the postseason, Luck engineered one of the biggest comebacks in playoff history against the Chiefs. In short, they're scrappy.
A good way to avoid the possibility of a comeback, if the Bengals are fortunate enough to be ahead in this one is to avoid the shootout and hog the ball. A heavy dose of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill will keep Luck off of the field and allow the Bengals to eat up the clock. That will be key on Sunday.