Eyes in the Backfield: Bengals

12 Things to Watch in Sunday's Colts-Bengals Game

The Bengals are trying hang on for their first division title since 2009, and their third since 1990.

When last we met, the Colts were on the verge of public humiliation at the talons of the Arizona Cardinals. They did bounce back the next week against Tennessee, but now find themselves into a fight to the death with the Cincinnati Bengals. It's not actually a fight to the death, or really a fight of any kind, but it sounds dramatic, so we'll go with it. Anyway, here's what to watch for…

1. Watch for the vast majority of the marbles. It's silly to say that any game is for all the marbles in the regular season, but the Colts and Bengals are duking it out for control of the third seed in the AFC and a chance for more. Both teams have been inconsistent this year and posted some great wins and bad losses. The one who wins will be seen as a primary contender in the AFC (seriously) and the one that loses will have a long, hard road to the Super Bowl that will probably involve a road trip to Denver.

2. Watch the clone. Andy Dalton has become Flacco 2.0. He has spurts of fantastic play, but then looks like a complete fraud other weeks. To wit, Dalton has four games this year with a passer rating over 95. He also has four games with a passer rating under 65. When he's good, the Bengals are 3-1. When he's bad, they are 1-3. The only actual advantage the Colts have in this game is at the quarterback position. While that is the most important advantage you can have in football, Dalton can mitigate it by being "Good Andy". He's the Flacco-iest Flacco in Flaccoville.

3. Watch for The Defense. By "The Defense" I mean Robert Mathis. Mathis is about the only thing the Colts have going for them defensively. Even their good performance against the Titans was largely a mirage thanks to some terrible throws by Ryan Fitzpatrick. Mathis has more than half the Indy sacks on the season. All the other Indy pass rushers and linemen combined have just 9.5 sacks. If you wanted to make a list of all the Colts playing well on defense it would be comprised of Mathis and Cory Redding. Jean-Francois was playing well enough, but now he's hurt. So there's that.

4. Watch for the strangest Colt of all. Donald Brown's career is weird. In five seasons, he's started just 16 games despite a career average of 4.3 yards per carry. He hasn't been below 3.9 yards per carry in any season since his rookie year. Even going back to last year, fans fell in love with Vick Ballard, even though Brown was putting the same rushing numbers, but better receiving numbers. He's never been a great blocker, but ProFootballFocus numbers show he's basically identical to Ballard and Richardson in pass blocking efficiency. How many first round backs ever averaged over four yards a tote but started fewer than 20 games in five year? The answer is just four in the last 30 years. Jonathan Stewart of the Panthers is in the same boat, but you have to go back to the early '90s to find another back who was highly drafted, effective but just couldn't crack the starting lineup.

5. Watch Da'Rick. Fine. You are going to anyway so go ahead. Fans are all fired up about Da'Rick Rodgers getting playing time. My express opinion is this: if he was any good at all, he would still be on the Bills right now. I've been told that he looked great in Tennessee before behavior issues moved him along. I've heard he was a "second-round talent(!!)". I don't get excited about undrafted wideouts. Since 1980, only 15 undrafted wideouts have gone on to 1,000 yard receiving seasons. I will grant you that nine of those guys started after 2004. I get that Heyward-Bey is terrible, but to me, that should cause depression, not excitement over Rodgers. I hope I'm wrong, but I think it's far more likely that Rodgers is actually worse than DHB than an improvement. I'm much more interested in seeing LaVon Brazill get regular snaps.

6. Watch the road warriors. Tickets for this game sold out early in the week, so pay attention to how many Colts fans show up. Southern Indiana is solid Colts country, thanks in part to just how bad the Bengals have been for the better part of the last 30 years. If there was ever a road game that didn't feel like a road game, this would be the one. If not for the recent slide by the Colts, there would probably be even more fans. I personally considered heading down for the game as recently as a few weeks ago, but decided I was unwilling to spend any more money on this team this year. Other than, you know, shelling out $1,000 for my playoff ticket order. Ugh.

7. Watch the shift. The Bengals best lineman is Andrew Whitworth. Early in the Chargers' game, he moved from left tackle to guard and proceeded to dominate as the Bengals rammed the ball down San Diego's throat. Cincy has excellent tackles overall and can play three deep at the position. Against a Colts team that can't stop the run or rush the passer, they can afford to keep Whitworth inside if they choose. Or, they could move back outside if Mathis is causing too many issues. That kind of flexibility and depth is astounding.

8. Watch the wall. Michael Johnson is fairly awesome for the Bengals, especially against the run. He only has three sacks on the year, but he's an absolutely force in closing down the run game. The Bengals are very good all along the defensive front, and they have the ability drastically limit opposing runners. Donald Brown and Richardson will be banging their heads against these guys all afternoon. It's going to be incumbent upon Anthony Castonzo to win his matchup against a good run stopper if Indy hopes to get anything on the ground. And you KNOW Indy hopes to get gains on the ground!

9. Watch for the memories. Remember that classic Colts-Bengals game of the 2011 preseason? It was almost the only game Indy won all year. Oh and you know the Colts are still smarting from the 27-10 whipping the Thunder Cats put on them this past August. I know I'll never forget how Z.Robinson threw incomplete to V.Hazelton (defended by M.Harvey) with just 1:55 to play back in 2011. That sealed a huge preseason win for the Colts. Nothing compares to the immortal combination of Brandstater to White, though. Electric, baby. Absolutely. Electric.

10. Watch for the T-Shirt. It's coming.

Oh yes. It is. Imagine a number 12 on the back with Colts Authority on the nameplate. Just. In. Time. For. Christmas.  Details coming soon. That reminds me to watch for Stanley Havili out of the backfield. He has an 83% catch rate and a DVOA of 8.9%. I only mention it because Trent Richardson's receiving DVOA is almost the worst in football at -26.1%. Anyway, watch for the T-shirts. They are coming soon. UPDATE: THEY ARE OUT!!!!

11. Watch the coming storm. I'm not talking about the snow and wind, though that will be interesting. No, I'm referring to the rumors that Pep Hamilton is in trouble. I'm not in love with everything Pep is doing with the offense, but to hold him accountable for the weird philosophy of his superiors is unfair. The Colts built the wrong kind of team and offense. We've been hammering that for months. Now it's not working because injuries and its natural limitations are showing and Pep is to blame? Did Pep take Bjoren Werner in the first round instead of a wideout? Did Pep sign DHB? If Indy doesn't right the ship offensively, Hamilton will take the fall, but the real blame should go up the chain.

12. Watch for the malaise. With this Colts team it's coming down to what they do well. Right now, the answer is nothing. I don't have a bad gut feeling about this game, but I just can't justify taking Indy. They can win, but for the life of me I can't imagine what they'll do well enough to do so. Bengals 28 Colts 17.

Eyes in the Backfield-Bengals

7 Things to Watch in Sunday’s Colts Bengals Game

The name is Dalton.

Last week, the Colts fell in much the same manner that they have been falling all season. This week, they take the horror show that is 2011 on the road to Cincinnati to face the Bengals. The Bengals are off to a quick start behind a strong run game and the play of a top five pass defense. Here’s what to watch for this week.

1. Watch for turnovers. The Bengals pass D has been incredible early on. Now, I’ll grant you that McCoy, Orton, Smith, Fitzgerald and Gabbert aren’t exactly Marino, Aikman and Elway, but Cincy has smothered the passing game early in 2011. Interestingly enough, they aren’t great against #1 or #2 wideouts, but excel against #3s, tight ends, and running backs. That speaks to a defense with strong linebacker play. They are also 8th in adjusted sack rate. If this paragraph doesn’t freak you out, then you haven’t been watching the Colts in 2011.

2. Watch for an overdue rant. I’m sorry. I can’t go on with this weekly preview acting like everything is ok. Here in Indianapolis, there are actually people who think the front office should be fired because of one bad season.  I want everyone to stop and read what Michael Schuer wrote about the Red Sox yesterday, because I feel like he was sending a warning message to Colts fans. When you let the crazies run the smart people out of town, you wind up with the team you deserve. The “Fire the Polians” crowd is obvlious to facts (like the Colts have been the most efficient drafting team in the NFL in the last 5 years), history (10 straight playoff appearances is an NFL record), context (the team is built around Peyton Manning and uh, he’s not here), or any basic standard of logic (He’s mean! Fire him!). Fans have gotten so bad that if I write anything positive about players they are CERTAIN are horrible (Brown or Lacey), they freak out on me. It doesn’t matter if the observations are based on facts or stats. Some people have become so locked into the ‘mistakes’ the front office has made, that if you actually point out that maybe the mistakes weren’t that bad, they lose it. If it was just coming from a blog here or there, I’d let it go, but yesterday I was asked about it by a more reputable media person (who wasn’t endorsing it, just asking about it). All I can say about it is this: if you honestly think that firing the front office will make the Colts better, then all I can do is shrug my shoulders and say ‘Enjoy 2011!’. Because you deserve to be forced to watch 2011 over and over and over again while being prodded with pitchforks by Jack Trudeau and Jeff George in hell for a thousand million years, or as I call it, most of the 1990s.

Responding to the ‘Fire the Polians’ hooligans doesn’t require 3000 words and a million stats. I’ve been laying that out there for years. All it takes to see through that nonsense is two active brain cells and the will to rub them together.

3. Watch for the battle for the top running back. If I say anything to suggest that Delone Carter has been bad, people act like I kicked their puppy. Carter isn’t doomed to badness. I don’t think he’ll always be bad. However, by every possible measure, he hasn’t played well this year. He wasn’t great in the preseason, and he just doesn’t bring enough to the table yet. He’s 29th out of 35 running backs in DVOA. His success rate is 41%. He’s a bad receiver and a bad blocker. I don’t know whose coffee Donald Brown spit in, but he’s got to be the better option. Brown looked good last week, and the last time we really saw him before that, he was helping the Colts into the playoffs. The coaching staff screwed up by burying him on the bench last year, and it cost the Colts a playoff win over the Jets. Brown and Carter will be playing behind the same line and with the same offense on Sunday, and with Addai smarting, this could last a few weeks. We should get a real strong look at who is the better back. My money is on Brown, and I doubt it’s close.

4. Watch new face of the Bengals. Through five games, Andy Dalton has managed to be just about a league average quarterback. That’s an amazing accomplishment, really. All of Dalton’s metrics are pretty high, with the exception of interceptions. He has given away five in five games, which is neither unusual or overly high for a rookie. He’s playing a Colts secondary that has just one interception among everyone still playing. Bullitt and Brackett have the other two picks for the Colts, but they aren’t walking through that door (and if they did, they’d probably bump into each other and wind up back on IR). Dalton is completing nearly 60% of his passes, and despite looking terrible in the preseason, has been competent enough not to stop the Bengals defense from winning games.

5. Watch for the worst slogan in football. I get really confused between the “Who dat?” and the “Who dey?” I know one of them is the Saints, which makes sense because New Orleans is largely populated by swamp people. As for why the Bengals have latched on to an almost identical yet completely incomprehensible slogan, I can’t possibly guess. My guess is that it came from some of their Kentucky fans (Kentucky: Where education pays…in the form of animal pelts to paid bi-monthly either personally or direct deposited to your account at the trading post). At any rate, I suppose it’s better than their previous slogan: Bengals football: it’s ‘Natti-licious.

6. Watch the breakout star. Rookie wideout A.J. Green has had an instant impact on the NFL. He’s already posting strong advanced metrics, but if you need advanced metrics to tell you that 402 yards, 24 catches and 3 TDs are amazing from a rookie, then there’s no hope for you, Uber-Nerd. I think anyone would take nearly 1300 yards 76 catches and 10 scores in year one. Since you are an uber-nerd (and I know this because you are reading this site), you do care that his DVOA is 17.5%, his catch rate is 57%, and that’s outstanding because he’s posting 16.8 yards a catch. With Powers ailing, I have no idea how the Colts play on stopping him. Their only hope is to double him, and try to get to Dalton before he can hit Green. Good luck with that, Mr. Coyer. I do suspect his solution will involve the word ‘cushion’.

7. Watch for no mock celebrations. Remember the final preseason game? Remember how we celebrated that win with Bronx cheers? Yeah well, let that memory warm your heart on Sunday as you watch the Colts drop to 0-6. Bengals 30 Colts 16.

Eyes in the Backfield-Bengals

18 Things to Watch for in Sunday’s Colts-Bengals game

This class would do Chad Johnson some good.

Last week, the Colts suffered one of the most painful losses in their history, but there’s no time to sit and mourn.  The banged up Colts have to jump right back into action against their nearest geographical rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals.  As the Colts and Bengals hook up in the Luke on Sunday be on the watch for:

1.  Watch for the trap.  For years now, the Colts have taken care of business against losing teams.  They robotically take one week at a time, refusing to look ahead to the future.  They’ll need that focus this week, because with the Pats and Chargers looming, Indy can’t afford to take the slumping Bengals lightly.  Cincy is not a good football team, but they play lots of hard, close games.  They’ll be tired coming off a physical loss to the Steelers on Monday night, so the Colts ought to be able to put their foot down.  Well coached team don’t lose trap games.

2.  Watch for the home field.  Under Jim Caldwell, the Colts are 12-1 at home including the playoffs. The only loss was the lay down against the Jets last year.  The Colts’ defense in particular has been dominant at home allowing just 13.3 ppg (25.6 points on the road).  In three home games, they’ve forced 6 turnovers. In five road games, they forced just 5.  The Colts’ are a dramatically better team at home this year, and very average on the road.  Fortunately, this is a home game this week, so watch for the crowd at the Luke to provide a major lift.

3.  Watch the twins.  Chad “I’m not going to call him Ochocinco ever” Johnson and Reggie Wayne were taken within six picks of one another in the 2001 draft.  Their careers are mirror images.  Wayne has played 149 games, Johnson 145.  Johnson has 10,425 yards; Wayne has 10,117.  Wayne has 736 career catches and 66 TDs; Johnson has 724 catches and 64 TD.  Wayne has been to four Pro Bowls and has six 1,000 yard seasons; Johnson has been to 6 with seven 1,000 yard seasons.  For all intents and purposes they have statistically been the same receiver.  This year however, Wayne is having a monster season and Johnson is on pace for just over 900 yards receiving.

4. Watch the secondary.  Despite the Bengals losing record, the Colts secondary has no easy task lining up against Owens, Ochocinco, Shipley and tight end Jermaine Gresham.  Owens is the star here hauling in 55 catches for 770 yards, but quarterback Carson Palmer does a good job spreading the ball around for an average of 263 yards a game.  With the return of cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Justin Tryon, along side Kelvin Hayden and Jacob Lacey, look for there to finally be some cohesion amongst the defensive backs.

5.  Watch the YPA.  Through 8 games, Manning’s yards per attempt is languishing at 7.1. That would be the second lowest total of his career if it held up for 16 games.  Most troubling is that his YPA has been under 6 in three of the last four games.  Simply put, the Colts are throwing more than they would like.  Manning has been at or over 38 attempts in 7 of 8 games, and twice was over 50 attempts.  It’s hard to keep an effective yards per attempt when throwing that often.  He’s also been under 61% completions in 3 of the last four games.  All the injuries to the running backs have forced Manning throw and throw and throw.  The Colts need fewer, more effective throws.

6.  Watch Garcon.  The Colts simply need better production out of Pierre Garcon than what they are getting.  DVOA calls him one of the worst wideouts in football, and it’s hard to argue.  His catch rate is worse than last year.  He’s on pace for roughly the exact same number of catches for fewer yards than in 2009.  He has not improved at all, and in fact may have regressed some as teams are learning how to defense him.  Garcon had one catch for a 57 yard TD against Washington.  Aside from that catch, he has 250 yards receiving on the year for just 11.4 yards a catch.  He’s killing the Indy offense.

7.  Watch James.  Brandon James is finally getting his shot.  The potentially dynamic return man showed some struggles with ball security in the preseason, but now he may well get a chance to run back kicks for the Colts.  All we ask is that he not put the ball on the turf.  The Colts have been slow to promote James, and it stands to reason that this is their fear.  If he can hang on to the ball, he could be just the kind of spark the Colts need.

8. Watch for Angerer. It looks like Gary Brackett will not play on Sunday look for Angerer to step in and provide another solid outing.  In his first start of the season he came up big, recording 11 tackles and one sack. He was outstanding for a rookie linebacker in his first start. Angerer did so well he has even seen time at weak side linebacker, but has been quiet there.  A move back to his natural position could create big dividends for the Colts defense, but watch for mistakes in coverage.
9. Watch for Steady Eddie. To stay on the linebacker theme, it’s imperative the Colts keep a close eye on Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones.  The former 6th round pick of the New York Giants seems to have found a nice home in Cincinnati.  Since the 2007 season when he joined the Bengals, Jones has had at least 90 tackles every year.  And this year is no different. Through eight games he has zero sacks and zero interceptions, but he does have a team high 60 tackles.  Last Monday night against the Steelers Jones had a nose for the ball racking up nine tackles in the loss.  He’s not making dynamic plays, but he’s making a lot of routine ones.
10. Watch for jumping Ship. And by Ship, of course I mean Bengals wide receiver Jordan Shipley.  You might as well call the rookie out of Texas Brandon Stokley’s little brother.  With Terrell Owens on one side, and Chad Ochocinco on the other, Shipley lines up in the slot and is free to roam and find the open space. This season Shipley has hauled in 28 passes for 396 yards, averaging a very productive 14.1 yards a grab.  With Powers and Hayden lining up over the Bengals mercurial stars, Jacob Lacey will have to cover Shipley.  Lacey likes to jump routes, so watch him on Ship.  Good ol’ Ship.
11. Watch for the last resort. Indy might need a nice game out of Gijon Robinson. Did I really just say that?  As I’ve mentioned earlier, if you’re open, Peyton is chucking the ball your way. With our receiving corps in shambles, and tight ends Jacob Tamme and Brody Eldridge both spending time on the injury report, expect Robinson to step up.  Not only does Robinson know the system, he seems to be a solid guy as well. Nick met him at training camp and he was more than polite to him and his wife and all the fans. Despite pouring sweat from every pore, he signed autographs for a lengthy time and is a player who seems to truly appreciate the fans.  He’s due for a good game. I predict 5-6 catches for about 60 yards.

12.  Watch the glaring weakness.  The Colts protection problems the last two weeks have stemmed largely from the substandard play of Charlie Johnson.  CJ has been giving up too much pressure, and his run blocking has slipped as well.  When you look at where the Colts run successfully, they are acceptable in every direction except left end.  Johnson showed up on the injury report this week with a toe problem, which could partially explain why he’s looked so bad the last couple of weeks.  The Bengals have NO pass rush, so if CJ gives up a sack, it’s time for the staff to start looking for a replacement.

13.  Watch for Batman and Robin.  Much like their namesakes Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens have an ambiguous relationship.  Johnson spends most of his time with large groups of women, and T.O. likes to preen.  They aren’t exactly Ace and Gary, but I have to admit that I’m a bit uncomfortable at the thought of grown men who take flamboyant names, dress in cat stripes and wear skin tight pants.  I’m not an evolved thinker.  Sue me.

14.  Watch for Brown out of the backfield.  Indy ran effectively for the most part last week, but Don Brown’s catches out of the backfield were especially valuable.  Indy’s offense is devastating when the wideouts can run deep routes, and the backs can release out of the backfield for healthy gains.  I was encouraged by DB’s efforts last week, and with every conceivable player hurt for the offense, the Colts desperately need to manufacture yardage.  Brown breaking a catch for a long gain would really help.

15.  Watch for the Jack Del Rio of the AFC North.  Marvin Lewis’s ability to not get fired is astounding.  In 8 seasons, he’s 58-61 (which passes for success in Cincinnati).  He has taken the Bengals to the playoffs just twice without a win.  He’s mostly just good at keeping the Cats in the middle of the back, four times finishing 8-8 or 7-9.  Two of his last three seasons have been difficult, however.  The most interesting thing about this matchup is that no one cares that there are two black head coaches facing off tomorrow.  It’s exciting and encouraging to see that what would have been noticed less than 10 years ago is now not a story at all. 

16. Watch the wannabe.  Remember when Carson Palmer was threatening to become one of the best QBs in the league?  That was a long time and a knee injury ago.  In his second year as a starter, Palmer lit up the NFL for 32 TDs and a passer rating over 100.  In his last four seasons however, Palmer’s rating has been below 87 every time.  This year, he’s the king of garbage time, piling up huge numbers with the Bengals trailing.  His accuracy has been a big hangup, regularly posting numbers below 60%.  In 2005, he and Manning staged a scoreboard burning in Cincinnati, but that dynamic Palmer is long gone.

17.  Listen to Lamey.  I’m so bored by Gumball and Dierdorf that I can’t even make fun of them anymore.  Indy seems perpetually relegated to getting CBS’s “B” crew.  They aren’t good, and I’ve made every joke possible.  Turn down the sound and listen to Hockey Bob scream his guts out.

18.  Watch for bragging rights.  Indy is going to win this game.  You get the feeling that underneath all the injuries, this is still an elite club.  Players have already started to get healthy, and in another couple of weeks, the Colts could be back at close to full strength.  This is the game that they have to win in order to be in good position to make a run in the second half.  Manning won’t let them down.  Colts 38 Bengals 10.

Thanks to Nick Pease for his contributions to items 4, 8, 9, 10, 11