This week, as snow blankets the Midwest, the Indianapolis Colts are preparing for the arduous task of facing an AFC playoff team on the road in the cold, in a game that could have a bearing on seeding for the postseason.
The 8-4 Bengals, undefeated at home, have the league’s 6th ranked defense, 4th by Football Outsiders’ measure, and 12 ranked offense (11th in passing yards).
Colts on Defense
When we switch to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, however, Cincinnati’s offense drops to 21st, 6 spots below Indy – 20th in passing and 21st in rushing. As refreshing as that part may look on paper (or display screen), the game is played on the field, and, as Colts Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky sees it, the Bengals offense is no stroll in the park.
“It’s a talented team,” he said yesterday. “They got good receivers, a good quarterback and a good running game, so it’s going to be a challenge across the board, just like each week. But these guys are talented.
“They got some playmakers in the backfield with 42 (BenJarvus Green-Ellis) and 25 (Giovani Bernard), talented guys that can see the hole and break long runs, and that’s what they do. We got to make sure we bottle them up as best we can and that’s about it.”
Manusky’s unit isn’t highly ranked, just 20th in DVOA and 22nd in total yards, but they have a penchant for coming up with game altering plays at crucial moments. Although that trait appeared to be on sabbatical for a short time, it returned with a vengeance last week, to the tune of four turnovers and a late flurry of excellent tackling.
If they can disrupt the Bengals’ offensive rhythm early, their home field advantage could melt away into two good teams playing in a cold quiet stadium. That will start with the pass rush. Even if they don’t get to Andy Dalton, giving him less time to throw will make things much easier on the back end.
Colts on Offense
The Colts’ running game, once in the top five, has dropped to 20th in the league, the same as their overall yardage rank. Their recent struggles have led to some difficult first halves, sometimes followed by a brilliant second half, or even just a brilliant four minutes.
It will be important for Indianapolis to find a rhythm early against Cincinnati’s stout defense, and thus, yesterday, Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton had to answer questions about the dreaded “slow starts” as well as his plans for avoiding them.
“We have to be more efficient on first and second down,” he said. “We’ve had a ton of third-and-long situations over the past few weeks. That’s a tremendous challenge for any offense. I have to do a better job of putting us in a position to be more successful on first and second down. But I know our guys are up to the challenge.”
Third and long situations have hurt the Colts significantly at times. Last week, Indianapolis was just 3/14 on third downs, many of them third and long. Hamilton feels this team is built for this time of year, however, and that now is the time for the power run game to come alive and help keep them out of the hole on third down.
“Yeah, I think so,” he said of the running game before changing gears a bit. “I think we’ve done a decent job up until this point. We are 8-4 and we’ve won three out of our last five games. At times you would think that’s not the case. I do understand that we want to start fast. As of late, we’ve been like the Rocky Balboa of the National Football League. We get bloodied up, but we find a way to finish on top and we’re going to do that.”
Hamilton is also less than concerned about the cold. In fact, he welcomes it. When asked if the weather would affect his offense, Hamilton answered, “No, I think that should hopefully play in our favor. We consider ourselves to be a mentally tough bunch. We can overcome the elements. There are no excuses for us not to go out and play good offensive football.”
The Colts lost Dwayne Allen early, and worked hard to make up for his absence on the field. As the weeks went by, they lost two running backs and a very good left guard, Donald Thomas, to season ending injuries. After Reggie Wayne’s ACL tear, the team was left with a similar situation to the Texans: a good team ravaged by injuries.
Unlike Houston, however, and despite their struggles, the Colts have continued to win. Some good news moving forward is Pep Hamilton does have a few weapons left on the roster, aside from the obvious quarterback advantage.
WR T.Y. Hilton is a respectable 19th among 48 eligible receivers in Pro Football Focus’s wide receiver ratings at 93.7 (the top is DeSean Jackson with 127.1). Hilton has caught 57% of his targets with a drop rate of just 8.2 percent (PFF). Those are pretty solid numbers for a second year receiver.
TE Coby Fleener, who had a slow start to his rookie year, has quietly put together an impressive second season. Fleener has 44 receptions on 71 targets for 544 yards and 4 touchdowns, and according to PFF, 45 of Fleener’s targets were what they consider catchable. And with only one on the season, Fleener’s drop rate is a sparkling 2.22%.
RB Donald Brown is averaging 5.3 yards per carry, and WR LaVon Brazill has caught all eight passes deemed catchable by PFF (neither player has seen enough playing time to warrant a big pile of advanced stats). There are still bright spots on offense, though they are thin at nearly every position at this point.
Things might not be pretty, but if these four can help Andrew Luck move the chains in the cold against Cincinnati, Indianapolis has a chance of handing the Bengals their first home loss.
Hamilton on how Trent Richardson’s role has (or hasn’t) changed: “It’s never changed. It’s never changed. His role is, we have a running back by committee approach. We only have two true tailbacks now, so he’s a big part of our offense. He’s a guy that can finish games for us as well as, of course, wear the defense down during the games.”
Antoine Bethea on whether this team could manage to go on a hot streak in December: “Oh most definitely. Defensively, if we can piggyback off the game we had last week, creating turnovers and getting off the field on third down, that could lead us a long way. Everybody knows around this time it’s about who gets hot at the right time. We can do that.”
Trent Richardson on whether he likes the snow: “(Laughs) I’m from Florida, man. That’s a tough question there. I can play in snow, as a kid (laughs). But it’s just something, you just got to go out there and fight it. You got to man up. This is what the big playmakers have done their whole life. You look at the Jim Browns, the Emmitt Smiths, the Fred Taylors, the Ricky Williams and the Edgerrin James. Look at those type of guys. Those guys fought through it and they stuck it through the whole time in the snow. It didn’t matter to them.”
Hamilton on what he wants to improve in the red zone: “We’d like to get down there more and of course we want to finish with touchdowns, not field goals. We somewhat shot ourselves in the foot a couple times in our pass game. We had opportunities to make plays, and of course I could have called some better plays. But we got to finish drives with touchdowns.”