With starting right end Antwan Odom serving the last game of a four game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing substance policy, the Bengals are shy on impact pass rushers. Before he got suspended, Odom had zero sacks in five games, but he was able to amass eight sacks in the first six games of 2009 before he was placed on injured reserve, so his production has been missed. Substitute end Frostee Rucker has only one sack thus far this season and left end Robert Geathers has chipped in one as well. Cincinnati as a team mirrors the pass rushing production of their starting ends, as they've posted only seven sacks as a team.
Geathers and Rucker, though, do a good job in run support on the outside, in addition to the support they get from talented outside linebackers Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers. They have yielded around four yards per carry off left and right tackle and around left and right end. Indianapolis has only been very successful running behind Charlie Johnson, as they are gaining 6.3 yards per attempt off left tackle.
Johnson should be able to handle Rucker in the passing game and may be effective in the running game, but the true weakness for the Bengals on run defense is up the middle. Cincinnati has allowed an average of 6.2 yards per rush up the middle this season, which is next to last in the league. The Colts are only averaging 3.66 yards per attempt up the middle, but they need to try to get Donald Brown on track by opening up big holes in the soft middle of this defense.
Jeff Saturday needs to get off the ball quickly and get his hands on defensive tackle Tank Johnson, who has been limited this week due to a knee injury. Reserve Pat Sims got his first start of the season Monday against the Steelers, but was mostly ineffective and was not able to get position on Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey, so the match-ups would still favor Saturday, Mike Pollak, and Jamie Richard against Sims or Johnson and under tackle Domata Peko.
With all the injuries to the receiving corps, Indianapolis will need to be able to run the ball in order to keep the Bengals defense off balance. That will all start in the trenches, with their ability to win the battles straight up the gut.
The Colts won't be the only team on the field Sunday that is struggling through numerous injuries. Maualuga and Rivers were both limited in practice this week. Both are athletic and physical players that have a nose for the ball and cover a lot of ground in the passing game, so missing one would hamper the defense's effectiveness, but missing both would be a huge blow to a front seven that was already below average. If both men are able to go, that would be an immediate upgrade for the front seven, but they are still a unit that has been getting pushed around for most of the season.
Middle linebacker Dhani Jones is a fine player that accumulates a lot of tackles, but he has a tendency to run around blocks and has made a good number of those tackles in pursuit. He is also very active in the passing game, but the Bengals have allowed an average of 6.46 yards per pass attempt in the short middle, which is 14th in the league.
If Jacob Tamme is unable to play, Indianapolis may still go with two tight ends since Blair White and Austin Collie have been held out of practice all week. That would leave Brody Eldridge and Gijon Robinson to attack Rivers and Maualuga in the running game and sit in the soft spots in the zone near Jones in the passing game.
Cincinnati is an interesting case on defense in that they blitz fairly frequently and from all angles, but they haven't gotten a lot of sacks. Rivers and Maualuga have a sack each and the team's leading sacker is safety Chris Crocker, who has two. If they do decide to bring pressure in order to disrupt the run and the pass, the Colts will need to be able to take advantage of those gambles with traps and hot routes.
The typical Indianapolis running strategy of calling delays, draws, and slants will not work against an aggressive Bengals defense. Brown has run hesitantly all season, so the Colts need to force him to make a decision faster through their game plan. They need to call more dives and traps in the running game and slants in the passing game in order to catch the Cincinnati defenders out of position.
The gambling nature of the defense extends to the secondary, where the Bengals rank 17th in the league in pass defense, but have also intercepted ten passes. Cornerback Leon Hall is the lone exception, as he tends to give a bit of a cushion to the receiver on his side of the field. Cincinnati has yielded an average of 7.35 yards per attempt to the short left, but only 8.35 yards per attempt to the deep left, though they've faced the most deep pass attempts in the league to the left side, at 31. Wayne should be able to gain some separation and catch some balls underneath in order to move the chains, but he's unlikely to catch Hall out of position and hit for a big play.
Jonathan Joseph on the other side of the field is a different story. He tends to play closer to the line of scrimmage, jam the receiver, and attempts to jump routes, which accounts for his 4.75 yard average to the short right. But, he does occasionally guess wrong on a route or allow a receiver to get behind him, which accounts for his 10.25 yard average on passes to the deep right.
Pierre Garcon needs to re-discover his consistency, re-discover his hands, and hit on some big plays in the passing game on the slant-and-go. Garcon has lost some of his timing with Peyton Manning given the revolving door at the receiver position this season, but he's also lost some of Manning confidence because of his inconsistent play. Garcon and Wayne should be eating these corners alive with the slant pattern early on, which would set up a double move on the slant-and-go later in the game.
Former Jaguar Reggie Nelson will most likely start for Crocker, who has not practiced all week. Both Nelson and free safety Roy L. Williams are better in run support than they are against the pass, but they have performed well thus far this season, allowing an average of only 7.18 yards to the deep middle, which is second best in the league. The Colts have averaged 13.13 yards to that area of the field in 2010, though most of those yards came from Dallas Clark and Austin Collie, who will not be on the field on Sunday. Indianapolis will most likely have the most success passing deep and outside the numbers on Sunday, though, taking advantage of their ability to run up the middle and compressing the defense.
The most important task for the Colts offense will be to jump on Cincinnati early and force them to play catch-up. There are few teams in the league that play better with a lead than Indianapolis. With an off balance defense and an offense that has third down issues, the bigger the hole the Colts can dig for the Bengals, the better. The best defense on Sunday will be a good offense. Let's just hope that the players that will be available for Indianapolis on offense can get it done.
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