After weeks of games against mid-tier opponents, the Indianapolis Colts face their biggest challenge since defeating the Denver Broncos in Week 7, a road game against the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals.
With both teams at 8-4, this game will likely determine the third seed in the AFC, an important prize considering the wild-card situation in the AFC this season. The fifth seed will likely be the 9-3 Kansas City Chiefs, a team that has played as well as any team in the league this season. The sixth seed, however, could be any one of the current 6-6 and 5-7 teams, anyone from Baltimore or Pittsburgh to Tennessee or San Diego.
Any of those teams, while not sure wins, would be a much easier matchup in the playoffs, especially for Indianapolis, who doesn't matchup well with the Chiefs at all.
It's safe to say that this game is the biggest game of the final quarter of the season for both of these teams.
The Bengals are coming off of a 17-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers, an impressive defensive performance against one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL. Cincinatti's defensive play has been notable all year, but the fact that they're still dominating (fourth in DVOA) without their best defensive lineman and defensive back (DT Geno Atkins and CB Leon Hall are on injured reserve) has been astounding.
It's the defense that will be most challenging for Indianapolis on Sunday, but the Bengals boast a litany of weapons on offense as well, such as Giovani Bernard, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and, of course, A. J. Green. Add in a dominant offensive line and you have quite the threat. It's sure to be a challenge for the Colts, but here are a few things they can do, or not do, to make the task a bit more doable.
Offense: Neutralize the Defensive Ends
The Bengals' biggest asset on defense is their defensive line, even without Atkins in the lineup.
Defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap are two of the league's best 4-3 defensive ends, and do a fantastic job of keeping opposing offenses contained. The two have 10 sacks between them and are also ranked second and third in Pro Football Focus' run grades for 4-3 defensive ends (subscription required).
So how can the Colts avoid the two home-wreckers?
In the run game, it's simply a problem of matchups and play designs.
The Colts have run really well behind their tackles this season, ranking first in the league in Adjusted Line Yards behind their left and right tackles, according to Football Outsiders. Up the middle or around the end, they're below average.
So how do you reconcile that with the Bengals' run-stuffing defensive ends?
First, get rid of your tosses and end-arounds for this game. The Colts' toss plays generally haven't worked well this season, as the Colts offensive line isn't athletic enough, as a whole, to get out in front of toss plays and open up lanes.
This toss, for example, basically ended this drive against the Titans, as Donald Brown was stuck with nowhere to go after tight end Jack Doyle and left tackle Anthony Castonzo's poor efforts on the outside.
This would be an especially bad idea against Cincinnati. Their defensive ends in one-on-one blocks with tight ends would be like trying to stop a flood with handkerchief.
How about the wide receiver end-arounds that offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton is so fond of? Well, those may not be the best idea either.
So is the answer to run up the middle? Well, the Colts' interior linemen are terrible, so that may not be the best solution. With OG Jeff Linkenbach out with an injury, some combination of Joe Reitz, Hugh Thornton, Mike McGlynn and Samson Satele will rule the three interior linemen spots. It's a sad state of things.
Of course, Brown has still done a decent job of finding holes there, but the Colts won't want to force the issue. They'll need to mix in off-tackle runs, but will likely need to pay extra attention to Johnson and Dunlap, perhaps with double-teams from a tight end or fullback, especially when running behind right tackle Gosder Cherilus.
The real issue, however, is the passing game. While Castonzo and Cherilus are solid tackles, they can be susceptible to strong pass-rushers. Unfortunately, outside of keeping a tight end or running back back to block, there's not much the Colts can do to improve the protection. The Colts offensive line is bad, and it will be bad.
What the Colts can do is encourage/allow Luck to leave the pocket earlier. Several sacks last week came when Luck hesitated to leave the pocket. The Colts can both design quarterback rollouts and encourage Luck to leave the pocket when uncomfortable, both of which would be preferable to Luck being hit play after play behind the Colts' struggling line.
Defense: Make Andy Dalton Beat You
The Bengals' biggest threat is their own limitation at quarterback: Andy Dalton.
While Dalton has had his moments in his short career, he's held the Bengals back from truly being a Super Bowl contender. With an elite defense and numerous weapons on offense, Dalton is the missing piece.
The Colts must use that against Cincinnati.
That means two things.
First, don't let the running game beat you. The Colts have allowed teams to run over them at times this season, especially in the first half of games. Against Cincinnati, the Colts will need to avoid falling behind early, because if they do, the Bengals will take the ball from Andy Dalton and put it in the hands of their running backs Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
It's better for the Colts if it stays in Dalton's hands.
Bernard is the real threat for Indianapolis, who has given up some big runs to speedy backs this season, which can be a killer for any defense. The Colts do a decent job on the defensive line of bottling up "power" runners, but poor angles from defensive backs and linebackers struggling to fight through traffic can lead to big plays on the ground, like this Chris Johnson touchdown from Week 11.
So, the Colts have to put a premium on keeping the Bengals, especially Bernard, bottled up at the line of scrimmage and minimize the amount of space he gets with defensive backs.
Second, don't let A.J. Green beat you.
Green is one of the premier receivers in the league and is good enough to make Dalton seem better than he is. The Colts desperately need Dalton to be forced to sit in the pocket and read the field, where they can make him uncomfortable and possibly force a mistake. If Dalton can just throw the ball up to Green, it will negate that.
The Colts can start by putting cornerback Vontae Davis on Green. But the Colts like to keep their corners on one side of the field, and if the Bengals move Green around, Indianapolis won't compromise their scheme by moving Davis around. So, they can't be shy of double-teaming Green or shading a safety to his side.
Force Dalton to make plays to other players, and you'll increase the chances of him making a mistake.