After watching a lot of film on the Bengals and Colts and talking to coaches and scouts, I found some key things to watch in their "Monday Night Football" game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
Keys to the Game
Can the Colts stop the run?
The defense we saw at Jacksonville last Sunday certainly could not, and the Colts' run defense has struggled against the run for most of the year. The Colts' front four is more concerned with pass rushing, and leaves a lot of lanes open. However, a bigger problem may be in the back seven, as the linebackers continuously overpursue, and the open-field tackling is atrocious. The Bengals could focus on a physical running game between the tackles.
The Bengals will attack the deep middle of the field.
The Colts are decimated at safety with Mike Doss out for the season and Bob Sanders banged up for most of the year. They have been playing with Matt Giordano, Antoine Bethea and Dexter Reid, but this Cover 2 can be attacked in the middle of the field by the talented Bengals receivers. Even if Sanders plays, he may have to concentrate on attacking and shoring up the Colts' leaky run defense, and that leaves them vulnerable in the middle.
Can Indy make this game a track meet?
Both of these offenses love to throw the ball, but Indy needs to lure the Bengals into a wide-open passing game, even though it realizes Cincinnati is just as explosive. What Indy does know is that if Cincy decides to run the ball and slow down the game with RB Rudi Johnson, it will take the ball out of Peyton Manning's hands and limit his offensive possessions.
" As bad as the Colts' defense has been against the run, it would not be surprising to see the Bengals show a lot of three-WR sets and some no huddle early. They are capable of overwhelming the Colts' defense with an up-tempo style. Indy does not match up well versus the trio of Johnson, Houshmandzadeh and Henry, and if the Colts play man-to-man, Carson Palmer will find a matchup he likes. If the Colts stay in their Cover 2, Palmer will pick them apart over the deep middle and the intermediate perimeter.
" A matchup that concerns the Bengals in this game is rookie LOT Andrew Whitworth against RDE Dwight Freeney. While Whitworth has generally played well and Freeney has never really gotten untracked as a pass-rusher, he is still dangerous and could erupt with a big game if Whitworth doesn't have help. Look for the Bengals to utilize a TE to the left side to double Freeney, or even use some two-TE sets to grind the ball out versus the undersized Colts defense, giving Palmer maximum protection.
" The Bengals have great offensive balance and can attack the Colts with a power run game, but they can also spread the field with three-WR sets. It will be very difficult to stop this offense, because it can adjust to whatever the Colts do defensively.
" Cincinnati may show a defensive scheme against the Colts with three safeties playing zone schemes behind the two corners. Indy hasn't shown the ability to make defenses pay for playing softer nickel coverages, so the Bengals could stick with this scheme.
" The Bengals can attack the Colts by running to the right side over massive ROT Willie Anderson, who will be matched up versus athletic Indy LDE Robert Mathis. This is a huge size mismatch and Anderson can drive Mathis off the ball, giving Johnson a lot of room to run. The Bengals could also use the cutback run. Johnson should start right and run back left against the grain. The Colts attack gaps and overpursue, so they are easy to seal off on the back side.
" A goal for the Bengals' offense in this game will be to wear down the undersized Colts defense. Cincy has a big offensive line and needs to run the ball right at Indy's athletic front four, taking away its lateral movement and penetration skills. Also, Cincinnati needs to convert third downs to keep this Colts defense on the field.
" If the Bengals play some three-safety schemes, it wouldn't be shocking to see them blitz a safety at times to create additional pressure on Peyton Manning. The Bengals like to rush only four, but the Indy offensive line protects him well and that's why the safety blitz has a chance to help (as it did last week versus the Raiders).
" The Bengals may use a lot of two-TE sets to give their offensive tackles help against the Colts' edge rushers. However, if the Colts' pass-rush doesn't develop and the offensive tackles can handle the defensive ends without help, the Bengals will go to a lot of their patented three-WR sets.
" Turnovers could be a big part of this game, and the Bengals need to be very aggressive in their tackling and pass defense. The Colts are usually very efficient with the ball, but have 10 turnovers in the last five games. Usually, Manning is good enough to overcome mistakes, but with such a bad run defense that it can't get off the field on third down, Manning is getting fewer possessions per game.
" The Colts' defense is so bad against the run opponents are showing a lot more patience when they fall behind, and continuing to run the ball to get back into the game. There is no sense of panic and teams know if they continue to run the ball, not only can they score and get back into the game, they can keep the ball away from Manning.
" With injuries taking a toll in the passing game (TE Dallas Clark and WR Brandon Stokley), the Colts must establish the run early versus the Bengals. As strange as it sounds, the Colts are less equipped to get into a shootout than Cincinnati, and slowing down the game with the run is to their advantage. However, the Bengals have been playing good run defense over the last month and have really tightened up versus the inside run game. If Indy can establish the run game, it will open up the play-action package for Manning, where he can be most dangerous.
" A big problem for the Colts could be their red zone defense. They are ranked 30th in the NFL, having given up 25 touchdowns on 40 red zone possessions. That does not bode well against a Bengals offense that is excellent in the red zone. The problem here for the Colts is they are a Cover 2 zone team by nature and, as the field shrinks, their corners are forced to play more man-to-man schemes.
" The Colts' offense has failed to score 20 points in four of the last five games. Dropped passes, a marginal run game and offensive injuries have been a problem, and the Colts no longer look capable of overcoming mistakes and a bad defense by simply outscoring opposing teams.
" Indianapolis may have to come out of its comfort level and run blitz at times to slow down the Bengals' run game. The Colts prefer to rush four and drop seven into coverage, but that's not getting it done versus the run. They need their linebackers and safeties to step up and fill, closing off the big lanes that are open to opposing backs. They must tackle better because right now their defense doesn't break down and wrap up in the open field, and is fundamentally very unsound.
" How in the world are the Colts going to be effective with their three-WR package, without WR Brandon Stokley and TE Dallas Clark? Ricky Proehl now becomes the slot receiver, but it is going to be hard to lure the Bengals out of a deep zone shell defense, where they keep everything in front of the safeties.
" The big gaps that opposing teams are running through versus the Colts are between the defensive tackles and the defensive ends. Indy loves to rush its defensive ends wide and if the linebackers don't step up and fill (which they are not doing), it leaves a big hole in the defense.
" The Colts will use a lot of slants versus the Bengals to hit the gap and avoid getting overpowered at the point of attack. They are not a read-and-react defense, but they are vulnerable to backside cuts by running backs.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called The War Room.