The Colts have an opportunity to win against a lesser opponent this Sunday, and they need to take full advantage of it.
If they don’t beat the rebuilding Cincinnati Bengals to run their record to 4-2, and follow it up with another win against the hapless Detroit Lions, this season could head down a very unpleasant road. All things are possible if the Colts win Sunday, but with a loss those dreams will ebb toward the very unlikely.
That’s the way it works with a 16-game season. In baseball and basketball, hope can flourish though 40 games. In the NFL, because of the scarcity of opportunities fattening the win total against teams that should be beaten must be exploited, especially when the remainder of the schedule provides stiff challenges.
And those challenges get very stiff once the Colts are finished with the Bengals and Lions.
With nine games remaining in the regular season, the Colts will likely be favored in just three of them (two against the Texans and a second game against the Jaguars). The combined records of the opponents in the other six games (Titans twice, Ravens, Packers, Raiders, and Steelers) is currently 23-3.
If a 9-7 record is needed to get to the playoffs, the Colts must beat the Bengals and Lions as well as the Jaguars and Texans (2X) in order to get to eight wins. If any of those games are lost, the Colts will need to find at least two wins among the five opponents in six tough games mentioned above.
So how do they beat the Bengals. On paper, it is easy:
Pressure Joe Burrow. Darius Leonard said it yesterday when asked what the Colts defense needs to do to win, “Pressure!” Burrow has been sacked an NFL leading 22 times through the first five games of his career. Rattling rookie QBs is the key to beating them. The Bengals are #2 in pass attempts, but 22nd in passing yardage. Burrow has averaged 6.3 yards per attempt, which is one foot per pass fewer than the number that caused the Colts to move past Jacoby Brissett as a starter.
Run and run some more. The Bengals run defense has been terrible, ranking 30th in yards allowed and in yards per attempt (5.2). Colts losses have come in part because Philip Rivers has thrown it to opponents twice in each of those two games. Turnovers kill mediocre teams, and so far the Colts fall into that category. They have yet to lose a fumble. Run the damn ball!
Run better! Opponents know the Colts want to run the ball, and they load up the box with a seven or eight defenders. The result has been the #31 rushing attack in average yards per run (3.6). Starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo was full go in practice yesterday, so it appears the Colts will have their full compliment of road graters opening holes for Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines. If those five need to block eight, that’s just the way it goes. Get it done.
Get off to a good start. So far this year, the Colts have been quite productive in their first offensive drive – scoring touchdowns in four out of five. Do that against the Bengals, and Burrow may try to beat the Colts by himself. In a couple of years, that could be a problem. Not in his sixth game though.
Control the clock. The Colts need to eat clock. Old fashioned seven-minute drives will both score points and keep Burrow off the field. Those drives are the result of short passes and runs that are less likely to cause turnovers, and as we’ve discussed turnovers will kill the Colts.
Get Burrow off the field quickly. The killer for the Colts in the loss to Cleveland wasn’t the Rivers picks, although they did not help. Allowing the Browns to convert on 10-of-17 third downs was brutal. Earn a third and long, turn it into a punt. Repeat!
Football isn’t brain surgery – hold onto the ball, move the ball, score the ball. Beating the Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium must be the expectation for a playoff team, and the Colts need to meet that expectation.
The Colts passed their COVID tests this morning, and now need to pass their football exam on Sunday. As Shakespeare wrote, “Cry ‘Havoc!’ , and let slip the dogs of war!” or consign yourselves to the ignominious multitude of inferiors.