With the Colts facing the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson talked with Cincy Jungle's Scott Bantel about the Bengals and this Sunday's matchup. The questions are in bold and then Scott's responses follow.
1. The last time the Colts played the Bengals was really before Jeremy Hill had emerged. How has his success changed the Bengals' offense and what they do on that side of the football?
Jeremy Hill will be one of the next top backs in the league. He is a big powerful back (6'1" 238 pounds) that can not only run over defenders, but has the quick elusive speed to run around defenders as well. He size and style of play is very similar to Le'Veon Bell, and like Bell, he is very good receiving out of the backfield - especially for a big guy. However, the Bengals don't use him as much as a receiver because of Giovani Bernard.
When these two teams met in Week 7, Jeremy Hill had begun to show promise, but wasn't getting consistent touches because the offense was running through Dalton and Green. Coming into the game, Hill had just 36 carries and 155 yards (4.3 YPC), but with AJ Green, Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert still out, most thought Hill would get a lot of carries in that first game. However, Hue Jackson showed up in Indianapolis with one of the worst game plans I have ever seen as a Bengals fan - and as a Bengals fan that remembers the 1990's and early 2000's, I have seen some bad ones. Hill ended up with just four carries and 15 yards in that game. It is safe to say Hill will get more than four carries this Sunday.
Despite not being the main back until Week 15, Hill ended the season with 1,124 yards (5.1 YPC) and 9 touchdowns. The offense now runs through Hill - literally. In the three games since being named the starter, the Bengals are 2-1 and Hill has averaged 23 carries and 132 YPG (5.6 YPC), including 147 yards (6.7 YPC) against the 2nd ranked Broncos run defense and 100 yards (4.3) against the 6th ranked Steelers run defense. In fact, in the last 9 games, Hill has five 100+ yard games and four games of 147+ yards. The success of Hill, especially the early success of Hill, will be crucial to the Bengals success for two reasons: 1) it keeps the ball out of Dalton's hands and limits mistakes, and 2) it keeps Andrew Luck on the sidelines.
2. The last time the Colts played the Bengals, Cincy had Vontaze Burfict on the defensive side of the football, but he's on injured reserve. He only played five games this season, however, so how big of an impact has it been with him out?
Vontaze Burfict is the quarterback of the Bengals defense, calls the plays, gets the defense lined up and is the Bengals best and most explosive defensive player. He is also in the discussion for best linebacker in the NFL, so losing a player of that caliber is tough and cannot be understated.
With that said, Burfict only played 10 minutes in their first matchup and the game was just 3-0 before he knocked himself out (literally). As you mentioned though, Burfict only played in five games this year because of a slew of injuries (concussions, neck injuries and a knee injury). In fact, Burfict did not start and finish a single game in 2014 and his absence is certainly a reason the Bengals defense took a step back in 2014. However, the Bengals are used to playing without him, and since Rey Maualuga (MLB) and Brandon Thompson (DT) returned in Week 11, the Bengals defense has been significantly improved - especially the run defense. In the seven games since their return, the Bengals have held their opponent to under 85 yards rushing in six of their seven games (5-2), including just 29 yards on 18 carries (1.6 YPC) last week in Pittsburgh.
3. I hate to bring this up to you, but the Bengals haven't won a playoff game in a long time (since 1990). If they were to lose this game, would you expect any major changes to be made (particularly with head coach Marvin Lewis)?
Oh, thanks for rubbing salt in the wound! No worries, it is all that is talked about around here, and as a Bengals fan, all one can think about.
If the Bengals would lose this Sunday, Marvin Lewis would tie Jim Mora, Sr. with the most post season appearances without a win (0-6) and the only coach to pull off that impressive feat with one team. As such, one would think that would put him on the hotseat. However, this is a franchise that does not like change and is very comfortable with Marvin Lewis and what he has done.
If they lose, do I believe he should be fired? Yes. Do I think he will be fired? Not a chance, and here is why. When the Bengals original owner (Paul Brown) died in 1991, the Bengals were a very successful team that had been to two Super Bowls in 1980's. In 1991, Paul's son, Mike, took over as owner and GM and quickly turned the Bengals into the laughing stock of the league.
In his first 12 seasons at the helm, Mike oversaw a franchise that had 11 losing seasons (and one 8-8 season), a .286 winning percentage (55-137) and was the losingest franchise of the 1990's. Mike Brown went through four coaches in those 12 seasons before hiring Lewis. Since Lewis was hired, the Bengals have gone 100-90-2, won 3 division titles, have been to the playoffs 6 times in 12 years - including 5 of the last 6 years - and has actually become one of the more stable franchises. Despite his success, the fans want postseason success and while the fans would like to see him fired, I don't see management firing him after what he has done for the franchise.
So, my long winded answer is, no, I think Lewis will be back, win or lose on Sunday.
4. Knowing what you do about the Bengals, how would you expect them to attack the Colts on Sunday - particularly what you expect them to do differently than last time?
Run, run, run and then run. As we discussed above, the Bengals are a much different team than the team that travelled to Indianapolis in Week 7. In their first matchup, AJ Green was out with a toe injury and Greg Little was getting playing time...and dropping passes, of course. In that matchup, the Bengals only had 11 designed runs and only four went to Hill. While they had little success in those 11 carries (32 yards), the Bengals line is playing much better now and Jeremy Hill is the type of back that gets better as the game goes on.
In my research this week, I noticed the Colts are 2-5 when the opponent runs 25+ times and have been outscored 230-154 in those seven games. I am sure this has not gone unnoticed by the Bengals staff and I would expect the Bengals to run it 30+ times on Sunday - at least 20+ to Hill. In their last three games (2-1), the Bengals have averaged 37 rushes per game and 23 by Hill alone. In fact, the Bengals are 8-2 when Hill has 10+ carries.
With Green questionable (concussion) and Dalton's propensity to turn the ball over in big games, the Bengals best plan of attack would be to run early and run often - plus it keeps Luck and his 40 touchdowns off the field.
5. How would you expect the Colts to attack the Bengals on Sunday?
In their first matchup, the Colts found success on the ground - to the tune of 34 carries for 171 yards (5.0 YPC). However, in Week 7 the Colts still had Bradshaw, Richardson was running decent and the Bengals were missing arguably their best run stuffing defensive tackle (Brandon Thompson) and all three starting linebackers (once Burfict left 10 minutes into the game). With Bradshaw out and Richardson not running well, combined with the Bengals recent health and success against the run, I don't expect the Colts to find much success on the ground.
Therefore, I would rely on Luck - and as you know, that isn't a bad plan! The Bengals defensive strength is their secondary, however, the Bengals were dead last in sacks (20), so Andrew Luck should find plenty of time to throw. If the Andrew Luck from the first 9 games (or the 2nd half of the 2013 WC game) shows up, he can find opportunities down field and will make life very difficult for the Bengals. The Bengals also struggle covering tight ends, so if I were the Colts, I would look to get Fleener and Allen involved and anytime they can get Rey Maualuga in coverage, I would throw that way.
Thanks again to Scott Bantel of Cincy Jungle for taking the time to answer these questions!
Editor's Note: FanDuel is hosting a $1,000 fantasy football league for SBNation for the Wildcard round. It's $5 to join and first place wins $100. League starts Saturday 4:30 PM ET. Here's the link.