The marquee name on the offensive line for the Bengals is not left tackle Andrew Whitworth, but rather right tackle Andre Smith. Smith was originally drafted in the first round in 2009 to be the franchise left tackle for Cincinnati for years to come, but struggled against speed rushers and it was decided that his physical style was more aptly suited to playing on the right side.
Though Smith is the highly-touted, highly-drafted second year man, Whitworth is playing better in the running game and the passing game than Smith this season. He held his own against former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison on Monday night and the team is averaging four yards a carry to this side of the field, while attempting the second most runs to the left side of any team in the league.
The Bengals are still averaging about four yards a carry to Smith's side, but they seem hesitant to run behind him, with only 47 plays to his side versus 92 rushes to Whitworth's side of the formation. Dwight Freeney will have his hands full in the running game, as teams are averaging 5.6 yards per carry to his side of the field.
He should be able to consistently beat Whitworth in the passing game — especially at home, where he tends to get a jump on the left tackle — but Cincinnati has only allowed 14 sacks on the season, so Freeney needs to make the most of the opportunities he gets. As long as Robert Mathis can get a quick first step in against Smith, the Colts pass rush should be able to get back on track Sunday.
Antonio Johnson finally participated in practice on Thursday, though he was limited. Indianapolis has missed his presence in the middle the past few games, though Fili Moala has been less of a liability than expected. Johnson/Moala and Daniel Muir have done a good job up the middle through eight games, limiting opponents to 3.74 yards per carry, while the Bengals have been downright awful running the ball in that direction, averaging 2.82 yards per carry. They also rank 22nd in the league in rushing attempts up the middle, so expect them to test the edges and run off guard rather than straight up the gut.
Against the Steelers on Monday night, Cincinnati played mostly out of three wide receiver formations in an attempt to spread the Pittsburgh defense out and keep their base defense off the field. If they feel as though they would have an advantage by using two tight ends or a fullback, then they would use that strategy on Sunday. But, evidence and tendencies have shown that they will most likely work out of a three wide receiver set on Sunday and attempt to run the ball to the outside.
Terrell Owens leads the team in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns, and has been their most productive receiver by far. Chad Ochocinco comes in a distant second in all of those offensive categories, but he has not had a bad season. He's just been less productive than he has been historically.
Ochocinco has been a reliable target for Carson Palmer in the short and intermediate areas, along with rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham, who is averaging only 6.8 yards per attempt. In third down and less than six situations, Palmer will most likely target Ochocinco or Gresham. In third and seven or longer situations, he will look for Owens or rookie receiver Jordan Shipley, who is leading the team with a 14.1 yard per reception average.
The issue for the Colts will be finding enough healthy bodies in the secondary to cover all these talented receivers at all depth levels. Jacob Lacey and Kelvin Hayden should be able to work with the linebackers to patrol the short and intermediate routes, but if Owens or Shipley lines up to Aaron Francisco's side of the field, Indianapolis will be vulnerable deep.
Generally speaking, Palmer likes to throw the ball deep to Owens and Shipley when they are lined up to his left. He has been most effective throwing to the deep left and deep middle, averaging 12.3 and 13.5 yards per attempt to those areas, respectively. The targets to the deep middle have been on the deep post, isolating on a weak safety or exploiting man coverage over the top. Antoine Bethea and Francisco need to be careful not to get sucked into play action or pump fakes and they definitely need to keep at least Bethea playing center field.
Cedric Benson's career experienced a brief renaissance, starting in 2008 with a successful end to the season as the featured back and continuing with a 1,200 yard, six touchdown season in 2009. The key to his 2009 campaign was that he averaged 4.2 yards per carry and showed some explosiveness. In 2008 and thus far in 2010, he has not shown that burst and his longest run of the season was for 22 yards.
As badly as the Colts want to play tough, physical, inside run defense, it may be in their best interest to let Benson have some room to run. He is averaging 3.7 yards per attempt, while Palmer is averaging 6.6 yards per throw. Palmer's long pass of the season was for 78 yards and the Bengals have posted five passing plays of 40 yards or more thus far.
Benson may slowly chip away at the Indianapolis defense and wear them down, but he hasn't been deadly in any direction or at any point in a game. Peyton Manning has proven that he can still score points with a limited number of possessions and limited time of possession, so letting Benson slowly eat away yards and minutes will be the best way to keep the Cincinnati receivers blocking rather than catching passes and the best way to keep this game from turning into a shootout.
Carson Palmer has respectable statistics this season and the Bengals rank sixth in the league in passing offense. Palmer has thrown 14 touchdown passes against eight interceptions, has completed 59.9 percent of his passes, and has a passer rating of 83.8. The trouble with those statistics is that he has compiled most of them while the team was trailing in the second half or in garbage time. The Bengals have been notoriously slow starters this season and continued that trend by falling behind the Steelers 20-7 in the first half on Monday night before rallying with two second-half touchdowns.
Palmer has been woefully ineffective on third down, averaging four yards per attempt on third and three to five, 4.31 yards per attempt on third and six to ten, and 9.06 yards per attempt on third and 11-15, converting only about 33 percent of all third downs. The best plan for the Colts defense, then, would be to allow Benson to plod forward for a few yards per play, then make Palmer convert on third down.
Cincinnati has shown a tendency to start with the run and stay committed to the run until they fall too far behind to come back at 3.5 yards per carry. That strategy, combined with Palmer's stats on third down, go a long way towards explaining why this team is 2-6 at the halfway point. If they start out throwing the ball, they could gain some momentum early and play the whole game as though it was the second half.
They could also have a lot of three-and-outs if Palmer faces too many third and ten situations. But, odds favor allowing Benson to eat time off the clock and eventually show the Bengals the way off the field.
This is Palmer's game to win or lose, but Benson won't be able to beat them. The more importance Indianapolis can make Cincinnati give to Benson, the better their odds of winning.
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