After starting the season red hot, the Cincinnati Bengals have cooled down considerably and have several issues to address ahead of Sunday’s matchup with the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The 3-1-1 Bengals are still tops in the AFC North, but in consecutive weeks they’ve suffered a major meltdown on the road against New England, and tied with Carolina at home in Week 6, all mostly due to a slipping defensive squad.
A defense that was one of the best in the NFL last season let up 33 combined points in the first three games this year. But following the Week 4 bye, Cincinnati’s allowed 80 points and 936 offensive yards in the las two games. The Bengals pass rush, ranked tenth in the league last year, has dropped to 25th with eight sacks.
The lack of a pass rush is concerning, especially against NFL passing yards leader Luck, but Cincinnati’s secondary has picked up the slack. Safeties George Iloka and Reggie Nelson have accounted for four of the Bengals seven interceptions, tied for the fifth-highest total in the league. Opposing quarterbacks are also averaging a 71.4 passer rating against the Bengals, the best mark in the NFL.
On the offensive side of the ball, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has seen his arsenal of weapons slowly dwindle. Receiver A.J. Green could be inactive against the Colts with a nagging toe injury, tight end Tyler Eifert went down with a dislocated elbow earlier this year and might not return until Week 10 at the earliest and any hope that receiver Marvin Jones would make his return from a broken foot was dashed on Monday when the team placed him on the season-ending injured reserve list.
Still the Bengals have lots talent at the skill positions to keep pace with the high-octane Colts. Filling in for Green, receiver Mohamed Sanu has answered the call, most recently with 10 catches for 120 yards and a touchdown last week. Second-year running back Giovani Bernard has also emerged as one of the more lethal, dual-threats in the league, and rushed for a career-high 137 yards. He’s also come up with 18 catches for 178 yards in five games this year.
On the flip side, the Colts have erased a 0-2 start to the season with a four-game winning streak, and are coming off a huge victory over AFC South rival Houston to keep the division lead. Luck passed for 370 yards, the fourth straight game and fifth this season that he’s exceeded the 300-yard mark. He also tossed three touchdowns, upping his total to an NFL-best 19 on the season.
More than two-thirds of Luck’s yardage went to third-year receiver T.Y. Hilton, who tallied 223 yards and a touchdown off nine receptions. The performance catapulted Hilton into the top five with 604 yards, and going forward he'll likely take some defensive pressure of running back Ahmad Bradshaw.
The veteran and former New York Giant leads the team with five receiving touchdowns, and in rushing yards per carry (4.7), and has helped open up space for tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, who’ve combined for seven touchdowns.
The Colts defense has performed better than expected, even with the loss of last year’s top defensive end and sack leader Robert Mathis. Arguably one of the best linebacker trios in the NFL, D’Qwell Jackson, Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner have combined for nine of the Colts 17 sacks. Though sacking Cincinnati’s Dalton might be a tall task. The Bengals offensive line has only surrendered two sacks this season.
But even if Dalton manages to stay upright, he’ll need to monitor the whereabouts of top Colts cornerback Vontae Davis at all times. Davis has snatched two interceptions this season, and is tied for fourth in the NFL with eight passes defended.
Start Time: Sunday, 1 p.m. EST
TV Channel: CBS
Betting Odds: Colts -3
Over/Under: 50 points
Prediction: Indianapolis 27, Cincinnati 24