The 2015 NFL Playoffs kick off with a wild card round battle between division rivals as the Bengals face the Colts. The Cincinnati at Indianapolis preview has what to look for on gameday.
WHO: Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1 – #5 Seed) vs. Indianapolis Colts (11-5 – #4 Seed)
WHEN: Sunday, January 4 – 1:05 p.m. EST (CBS)
WHERE: Lucas Oil Stadium – Indianapolis, IN
The Indianapolis Colts host the Cincinnati Bengals in a rematch of their Week 7 clash. Andrew Luck and company dominated the previous meeting, holding the Bengals offense to just 135 total yards en route to a 27-0 victory. Indianapolis started its season with consecutive losses, but won 11 of its next 14 games on the way to the AFC South title. Cincinnati remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in… the usual Bengals stuff. At times Marvin Lewis’s team looks like an elite club; their victories over Denver in Week 16 and a season sweep of Baltimore are among their more impressive wins in 2014. At other times they seem like a flat and listless team. 2014 saw the Bengals continue their run of less-than-prime time performances on the national stage, as they were routed by New England on a Sunday night, lost by 21 to Cleveland on a Thursday night, and ‒ after seemingly exorcising the demon with the win over the Broncos ‒ lost the division to Pittsburgh on the final Sunday night of the regular season.
When Indianapolis Has the Football
Indianapolis’ Passing Game against Cincinnati’s Defense
Luck steers the league’s top passing offense, ranking first in the NFL with an average of 305.9 yards passing per game. His connection with T.Y. Hilton is one of the most productive combinations in today’s game. Hilton’s numbers were on par with his stellar 2013, as he caught 82 passes for 1,345 yards and seven touchdowns. Of his 82 catches, 62 resulted in first downs for his offense. In addition to keeping the chains moving for his team, the Florida International product melted hearts with this touchdown celebration hours after he and his wife welcomed the birth of their third child, Eugenia:
Luck and Hilton were on the mark during their Week 7 game against the Bengals. Luck completed 27 of 42 passes for 344 yards and two touchdowns, while Hilton caught seven balls for 107 yards. Part of their success was because of creative play-design. The Colts often threw from run-heavy formations with the intention of protecting the quarterback against the tough Cincinnati pass rush. Here is one example:
The Colts use an unbalanced line on the play, with right tackle Gosder Cherilus lining up on the left between tight end Coby Fleener (in a wing alignment) and left tackle Anthony Castonzo. After the snap, Luck fakes a handoff to the running back, freezing the linebackers in place for a moment:
Meanwhile, Fleener (#80) and Hilton run their patterns: The TE runs a deep post route that holds the free safety in the middle of the field while Hilton runs a deep in route. The formation, unconventional personnel (note the RT lined up as a TE), play-action fake, and post route from Fleener all work together in creating a huge throwing window for Luck and Hilton to connect:
This next play is another deep throw to Hilton from a running formation. Luck is under center with 12 personnel on the field. His favorite target is the inside receiver aligned slot left. The Colts send three receivers on pass routes during this play, and the two men to watch are again Fleener and Hilton:
Opposite Hilton is Leon Hall. The defensive back uses press-bail alignment and technique on this play. But as the WR begins his route, Hall chooses to turn and run with him rather than get a jam on him. Bad choice:
Hilton uses his speed to get away from Hall. However, just as Hall seems to be gaining a step, he nearly collides with Fleener on the tight end’s crossing route. His nightmarish play gets worse when he fails to tackle Hilton after the catch, leaving him shaking his head after the big 46-yard gain for the Colts.
Cincinnati might want to trust the talent and ability of their front four and refrain from stacking the box against the heavy sets Indianapolis uses. Given that the Colts have the league’s top-rated passing attack and an average running game, maybe let them run the ball a bit and attempt to take away Luck’s throwing lanes. But as we will see, that approach might not be palatable, given how well Indianapolis ran the ball against the Bengals in Week 7.
Indianapolis’ Running Game against Cincinnati’s Defense
While the Colts had success throwing the ball out of heavy formations in Week 7, they also had success running the ball in these alignments. Indianapolis ran the ball 34 times for 171 yards in their earlier meeting, averaging five yards per carry. Trent Richardson gained 77 yards on 14 carries, and Ahmad Bradshaw ran the ball 10 times for 52 yards and one touchdown.
In this clip, Bradshaw carries the football on a stretch play to the left edge. Watch how well the offensive line moves on this play, particularly Castonzo (#74) and left guard Jack Mewhort (#75):
Fleener blocks down on the defensive end, allowing the two linemen to turn the corner and take on the incoming linebackers. Both Castonzo and Mewhort execute their blocks well, and Bradshaw gains the edge and races upfield until he is finally pushed out of bounds by a safety.
The Colts run a toss sweep on this next play, and now the guys on the right side get to have a little fun. Luck is under center and Indianapolis has 13 personnel on the field:
Cherilus and right guard Hugh Thornton lead the way on this play. The tackle pulls outside and erases the playside cornerback, while the guard turns around the edge and takes on the MLB. TE Dwayne Allen (#83) turns the defensive end at the snap, sealing him from the play. Not to be ignored is the effort from Donte Moncrief. The WR (#10) enters the screen from the right to take on WLB Emmanuel Lamur:
Richardson takes the pitch and thanks to the work from the guys on the right he has a nice hole around the corner.
On this final play, Cincinnati implements an eight-man box and adds a safety blitz to the play-side B gap. Indianapolis has 13 personnel on the field, with reserve TE Jack Doyle lined up as a fullback:
This play illustrates the danger Cincinnati faces Sunday. Even with an eight-man box and a blitz, the Bengals can’t stop the run. Add in the success Indianapolis enjoyed when throwing out of these formations against such defensive alignments, and you have a recipe for disaster for the Bengals.
When Cincinnati Has the Football
Cincinnati’s Passing Game against Indianapolis’s Defense
The Bengals’ offense turned in a woeful performance in their Week 7 meeting against the Colts. Andy Dalton completed 18 of 38 passes for a meager 126 yards and was sacked three times. The offense was without star wide receiver A.J. Green, and Mohamed Sanu managed only three catches for 54 yards, all while Vontae Davis was draped on his back.
What was frustrating watching this film was that Cincinnati left a number of plays on the field, failing to execute. Take this attempted tight end screen pass, their first offensive play of the game:
The outside receivers do a good job of running off their defenders and there is a lot of room for Jermaine Gresham to run:
Here is another example of a missed opportunity in the downfield passing game. The Bengals face 2nd and 9 and put Dalton under center with 11 personnel. The Colts have their nickel defense in the game and utilize Cover 1 in the secondary. From the right side Sanu runs a deep dig route:
Winning games in the NFL is tough, but winning playoff games on the road is tougher. A team just can’t leave plays like this on the field. If the Bengals are to pull off the win Sunday, they must connect when opportunities like this arise.
Cincinnati’s Running Game against Indianapolis’ Defense
A similar lack of execution – coupled with some stellar individual efforts from the defense – plagued the Bengals’ running game in Week 7. Cincinnati faced a defense that ranked 18th against the run in 2014, yielding 113.4 yards a game, but the Bengals managed only 32 rushing yards during their previous meeting. A few plays illustrate the failure of Cincinnati to get its ground game working. Here, the Bengals try a toss sweep, with their right guard and right tackle pulling around the right edge. Watch how outside linebacker Erik Walden (#93) just obliterates this play, starting with RT Andre Smith (#71) and then the ball carrier:
Rather than wait for Smith to come to him, Walden takes the initial punch to the RT. This contact sends Smith stumbling, and the OLB is able to peel away from contact and finish the play.
On this next play, the Bengals try and run Giovani Bernard on a stretch play to the right:
Again, Smith can’t handle his assignment, and the defensive end pushes into the backfield and slows down Bernard behind the line of scrimmage. This gives OLB Jonathan Newsome time to crack down the RB from the backside.
While no one roots for injuries, Smith was lost for the season in November with an elbow injury. Perhaps a bit of good news for Bengals’ fans heading into this contest.
But the problems were not isolated to the right tackle. On this next play the Bengals run Bernard off the left edge:
However, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center Russell Bodine cannot handle their defenders. The nose tackle and defensive end penetrate deep into the backfield, dragging Bernard down for a three-yard loss.
These offensive failures existed across the board for Cincinnati in Week 7. The offense needs to do a better job of execution on each snap, otherwise the Bengals will experience another letdown on the national stage.
As the saying goes, the film never lies. The footage from Week 7 portends disaster for the Bengals. Look for Luck and Hilton to have a huge afternoon as the Colts pull away early.
Indianapolis 41, Cincinnati 20
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.