1. Slow down Bernard — Bengals running back Giovani Bernard ran for a career-high 137 yards against Carolina last Sunday until a hit to his shoulder ended his game. Because the Bengals probably won’t have wide receiver A.J. Green, look for the visitors to test the Colts’ 11th-ranked run defense. While opponents haven’t been pounding the Colts on the ground, Indy does allow 4.8 yards per rush, which ranks 27th. It’s vitally important that the Bengals take pressure off quarterback Andy Dalton and the passing game, so the Colts will have to contend with Bernard and capable backup Jeremy Hill. Houston’s Arian Foster ran for 109 yards and two TDs on the Colts in the last game, although the Texans had to adjust their alignment and spread the field to open up running lanes. The Colts have been stout when teams try to go helmet-on-helmet smashmouth. The Bengals have done their homework and are sure to spread the field as well to free Bernard.
2. Make third downs easier — The Bengals are 29th in rushing yards allowed and yards per carry, so it makes sense for the Colts to commit a little extra to running the ball with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw. That doesn’t mean the Colts eschew what has worked so well during the win streak. Andrew Luck throwing the ball is a favorable option, but a successful run game should provide favorable third-down conversion situations. Third-and-short opens up the playbook. The Colts are eighth in third-down conversions at 45.2 percent (38-of-84). The Bengals defense is eighth in stopping third-down conversions at 36.5 percent (27-of-74). Something has to give. The Colts have been clicking so well lately, gaining yards in bunches, they might not face many key third-down situations. But when they arise, the shorter the distance, the better.
3. Exploit Bengals secondary — The Colts’ No. 1 passing attack shouldn’t have a problem finding holes in the Bengals’ pass defense, which ranks 22nd in passing yards allowed per game. Look for Cincinnati to double Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who used his speed to burn the Texans with nine catches for 223 receiving yards and one TD. That means other targets will draw single coverage on most plays, and Luck has completed passes to nine different receivers with seven of them scoring touchdowns. The hunch is wide receiver Hakeem Nicks is due for a breakout game. He’s been a forgotten man, for the most part, but is still capable of putting up numbers. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne is also an obvious option, especially on key downs. The Colts’ tight-end trio of Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener and Jack Doyle have combined to catch 39 passes for 441 yards and eight TDs.
4. Give Luck time — A successful running game and advantageous down-and-distance situations should give Luck ample opportunity to survey the field and find the open man. The Bengals have just eight sacks, which ranks 26th per pass play. Luck has been sacked nine times, a favorable number considering he took 73 in his first two NFL seasons. The Colts should have offensive guards Jack Mewhort and Hugh Thornton back from injuries, too. Pass protection was an initial concern for this team because of a youthful interior — Thornton is a second-year pro while Mewhort and center Jonotthan Harrison are rookies — but the O-line has held up rather well. Luck leads the NFL in passing yards (1,987) and TD passes (17) because his line has given him the time to do what he does best.
5. Watch out for trick plays — Cincinnati has caught opponents off guard with surprise plays. Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu has thrown two TD passes, including one to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. The Colts’ blitzing 3-4 scheme starts with getting pressure on the quarterback, so it’s important to not get fooled when the Bengals appear to be going with a familiar look and then try something unusual. While the fifth key could be the Colts’ pass rush, which has generated 17 sacks, the Bengals’ tendency to try surprise plays gets the nod because they’ve been so effective at them and the Colts are typically so aggressive on defense. So get ready for anything. Flea flickers. Double reverses. Double-reverse passes. Tackle-eligible passes. Whatever the unexpected, expect the Bengals to try something.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.