Heading into the eighth week of the 2017 NFL season, two of the league’s teams have yet to win their first game. Those two — Cleveland and San Francisco — are the same two teams who entered the 2017 NFL Draft with the first and second overall picks. Both teams have been in the NFL gutter for multiple seasons, and their continued presence there comes to the surprise of few.
A third team, as it so happens, currently sits at a 2-5 record with wins over both of those teams (at home, no less). That team would be the Indianapolis Colts.
Fresh off a doomed road matchup against a resurgent Pittsburgh Steelers squad, the Bengals should be primed for a home rebound against one of the league’s worst units. It’s a desperately needed tune-up game for a team that hasn’t yet found the best way to put their parts together.
Call your shot: Week 8 predictions
Cincinnati: Tyler Boyd (Out), Cody Core (Out), Ryan Hewitt (Out), Kevin Minter (Out).
Boyd and Hewitt are out for Cincinnati for their second consecutive week with the same injuries. Minter will join them on the sideline due to the elbow injury he sustained against Pittsburgh, while Core will sit out due to a concussion that it’s unclear when he received.
Without any other names earning Questionable or Doubtful tags, the Bengals’ 46-man roster seems pretty cut-and-dry. Perhaps more notable than any name on it is a name that isn’t for the first time in several weeks: John Ross.
With Ross fully available to the team, as well as Boyd and Core both sidelined, Bengals fans should finally receive a showcase from coordinator Bill Lazor on how the dynamic first-round selection fits into the offense. If no sure plan is evident, there should at the very least be clear trial-and-error plays that fans can learn from.
Indianapolis: Andrew Luck (Out), Rashaan Melvin (Out), John Simon (Out), Kamar Aiken (Questionable), Darius Butler (Questionable), T.J. Green (Questionable), Ryan Kelly (Questionable).
Luck at this point is the most effectively-on-injured-reserve player in the NFL who hasn’t yet been assigned to injured reserve. He has yet to play this season, very likely may not play this season, and shouldn’t be expected to play unless national news breaks indicating otherwise. It’s a sad state of affairs to say the least, regardless of Jacoby Brissett performing relatively well in Luck’s absence.
Melvin and Simon are out with a concussion and neck stinger, respectively. Aiken, the only other player to miss practice on Friday, is nursing a shoulder injury. Kelly, listed with a knee injury, had his condition improve over the course of the week and seems likelier to play than not.
Aside from Aiken (receiver) and Kelly (center), the other injured players for the Colts play on the defensive side of the ball — and all but Simon (linebacker) play in the defensive backfield. Butler has filled in as the starting free safety since rookie Malik Hooker was moved to IR, while Melvin plays at cornerback across from Vontae Davis. Green is listed as the backup strong safety, but played 49% of Indy’s defensive snaps last week per Football Outsiders. It won’t bode well for the Colts’ secondary if Butler or Green are ruled out.
The Bengals’ offensive plan can look however they want it to look — Indianapolis ranks 31st in the league in passing defense and 26th in rushing defense. They’re third in the league in first down percentage (40.6%), first in the league in 20+ yard plays surrendered (40 — ten ahead of second-place Kansas City), and second in the league in 40+ yard plays surrendered (eight, behind only Kansas City’s nine).
This matchup will only worsen for the Colts if their secondary ends up without Butler and/or Green, even though the unit isn’t devoid of talent. Up front, Johnathan Hankins, Al Woods, Henry Anderson and Jabaal Sheard will all be available and are more than capable of performing well against Cincinnati’s mediocre offenesive line. The problems arise on the next level — Indy’s inside linebackers, Jon Bostic and Antonio Morrison, are little more than short-area thumpers. Bostic is an abject liability in pass coverage, while Morrison has missed more than his fair share of tackles.
Cornerback Vontae Davis, perhaps the only known quantity in coverage for the Colts heading into this game, should still be overmatched by A.J. Green. He’s still good enough to contain Green after the catch and pull in a turnover or two if Green continues to bobble passes, but he hasn’t been the kind of cover guy that can blanket a Green-level receiver and prevent him from ever coming open. It’s hard to imagine the Bengals losing in this phase of the game.
The Colts’ 27th-ranked passing offense and 21st-ranked rushing offense combine to give them the 28th-ranked total offense in the NFL — one place ahead of the Bengals. The scoring statistics tell another story — while Indy’s eight rushing touchdowns tie Jacksonville for second in the NFL, their three passing touchdowns is the single-lowest number in the league by multiple scores. This unit doesn’t have a passing game that can stand alone and succeed when it has to.
What it does have, at least, is intrigue in the backfield. Brissett has had varying levels of success as a runner, Frank Gore has ran better than any 34-year-old player in recent memory, and rookie Marlon Mack has looked like the possible heir apparent at the position in limited snaps. Gore is quietly 275 rushing yards away from passing Jerome Bettis for 6th all-time in career rushing yardage, and 297 away from passing LaDainian Tomlinson for 5th. If Gore’s able to finish with 1,000 rushing yards in 2017 for the tenth time in his career, he’ll likely finish his career on the heels of Curtis Martin’s 14,101 yards.
Unfortunately, conversations about running the ball are seldom entertained when a team consistently faces scoring deficits, as the Colts have this season. Hamstringing the entire passing game is a horrible knack for tacking sacks that both Brissett and the offensive line have some degree of responsibility for. While every team has struggled in pass protection against Jacksonville this season, Brissett is coming off a week in which he was taken down ten times by the Jaguars’ defense. The Bengals won’t match that total, but they’re capable of sending heat and should have the utmost confidence that it’ll get home.
Bengals 34, Colts 20
Three themes here: the margin should heavily favor the Bengals, and they should score plenty of points. The numbers themselves could be any number of things, but those two themes should remain consistent across the realm of possibilities.
Cincinnati could easily score 14 points in the first quarter, or at least 20 in the first half. At some point they’ll enter the phase of the game where Carl Lawson comes out of hibernation, pins his ears back and attempts to slice himself a piece of that Jake Brisket. It’ll be a good day for the defense regardless, but especially once that point in the game arrives.
The most interesting question surrounding the game is how Bill Lazor will establish the run game in the first half — whether he’ll stick with his full backfield approach from Pittsburgh or go back to streamlining everything through Joe Mixon, as he had in past games. More interesting will be if/how Ross is used to open the ground game, be it jet sweeps, jet action misdirection, reverses, shovel options, or none of the above.
Again, it should be a tune-up game for a team that desperately needs one.
– Andy Hammel is the managing editor for cover32/Bengals and covers the Cincinnati Bengals for cover32. Follow him on Twitter at @Andy_Hammel, and the cover32 Bengals team at @cover32_CIN.