All eyes will be on left tackle Levi Jones and whether or not he will return to action following the back injury that has sidelined him for the past two weeks. If he is unable to go, which seems likely given that the Bengals are not fighting for a playoff spot, rookie Anthony Collins will again start in his place.
LT Levi Jones
Given the recent resurgence of Dwight Freeney, he would welcome the chance to face off against a rookie left tackle making only his sixth start of the season — Jones missed time earlier this year — and the tight end help or assistance from a running back that that would involve for the rest of the defense. At this point, Collins cannot handle Freeney one-on-one, so Cincinnati will need to give Collins some help.
Robert Mathis and Raheem Brock also have a favorable matchup in Stacy Andrews, who is filling in for the deposed Willie Anderson. Andrews was a tackle-in-waiting, playing guard for the first few seasons of his career and has made the most of his opportunity to be a bookend in the NFL, but is not up to the pass rushing challenge that Mathis and Brock represent.
Compounding the issues along the offensive line, starting left guard Andrew Whitworth was placed on injured reserve last week and will be replaced by second year player Nate Livings. With the status of Keyunta Dawson unknown, that means that Antonio Johnson could make his first start at nose tackle, moving Eric Foster over to the other position on the defensive line.
The good news for the Bengals is that center Eric Ghiaciuc is starting and usually only struggles against truly massive nose tackles in the 3-4 defense and right guard Bobbie Williams will also be available.
However, these two men do not compare to the talent the Colts have faced in recent weeks and should struggle to stop the speed and penetration of Foster, Dawson, or Johnson. As long as the interior of the defensive line plays with its usual, active tenacity, they should be able to shut Cincinnati down between the tackles and force the Bengals to throw the ball.
TJ Houshmandzadeh has officially replaced Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson as the player to watch when Cincinnati lines up to pass. Houshmandzadeh runs crisp routes, has reliable hands, and has the size and ability to create space in the red zone. But, as the primary focus of every defense that he has faced, he has seen his production decline — particularly his yards per catch — over the course of the season.
WR Chad Johnson
Kelvin Hayden needs to be physical with Houshmandzadeh at the line of scrimmage, not allowing him a clean release and preventing him from catching the ball underneath. The Bengals have been able to move the chains at times in recent weeks by working the ball to Houshmandzadeh in the short passing game, but opposing defenses have clamped down on him throughout the course of the game and taken away that option from the Cincinnati offense.
If Indianapolis takes the safety valve of Houshmandzadeh out of the game early, they can force the Bengals out of their comfort zone and have them take shots down the field.
Johnson has struggled with injuries, ineffectiveness, and subpar quarterback play and has only 45 receptions for 428 yards and four touchdowns, which shows, by way of his 9.5 yards per reception average, that he has lost his place as the Bengals deep threat. Tim Jennings still needs to keep his full attention on Johnson, though, as he could suddenly break out of his funk and have a phenomenal game.
The Bengals rushing attack ranks 31st in the NFL, which, finally, does not place them in front of the Colts for a change as the Colts have improved to 29th in that category.
Running backs Chris Perry and Cedric Benson have the ability to do some damage if they are able to find a crease in the defense, but the creases have not been there for the most part this season. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick led the team in rushing against the Ravens in Week 13 with 29 yards.
While Baltimore does sport a very formidable rush defense, the fact Cincinnati could not manage a more respectable total in a game that was still up for grabs at the half speaks to their inability to run the ball.
They did manage 159 yards against a stout Jaguars front seven in Week 9, though, so the Indianapolis defensive line must remain resolute and continue to shoot their gaps, getting past the slow interior of the Cincinnati offensive line.
If Perry and Benson face defenders after taking the handoff, they will turtle and become ineffective. The last thing the Colts want to do is allow these men to see any daylight and attempt to do something with it.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is an intelligent young player with a decent arm that is making the most of a bad situation. The Bengals are stuck in a dysfunctional rut and he happens to be caught in the vortex of it as the team's starting quarterback by default.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
He doesn't have the talent, vision, decision making skills, or arm strength of Carson Palmer and therefore is ill-equipped to run this offense in this system.
Fitzpatrick's coaching staff adjusted their game plan with shorter routes, faster reads, and easier decisions, but defenses have adjusted. There is enough film on Fitzpatrick to shut him down and force him to make bad decisions or take a sack.
Cincinnati simply doesn't have the personnel or the running game to play small ball and Fitzpatrick has been the primary scapegoat of that shortcoming. This system and the offensive talent surrounding him was built around the big play, but he doesn't have the tools to make it happen and the skill position players involved are too specialized to adjust.
The Bengals coaching staff has decreased the odds of sacks and turnovers, but they have also severely limited the effectiveness of this offensive attack.
As long as the Indianapolis secondary is able to keep Johnson and Houshmandzadeh in front of them, they should be able to limit the passing game after the running game fails.
Focus. With the winless Lions next on the schedule, it would be difficult to classify this as a trap game. However, in-game adjustments and momentum need to be accounted for. Fitzpatrick has shown flashes of potential and has been able to manufacture scoring drives in short bursts.
Once or twice per game, whether the running game is working or not, he has been able to move the ball down the field and punch it in.
Indianapolis needs to take these moments of clarity in stride and not lose their focus. This is an offense that they have outmanned and outclassed. Period.
If they let up more than 17 points, it is because they left their gaps, ignored their assignments, and let a desperate team made up mostly of men fighting for their jobs get the best of them.
With a Wild Card spot still up for grabs, the Colts need to maintain their focus.