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Colts vs Bengals: 5 key matchups to watch in week one

San Francisco 49ers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In years past, the Colts have not gotten off to great starts on their schedule. In fact, the last time this team won their week one contest was back in 2013 and it was the only week one win during Andrew Luck’s time with the team. Hosting the Bengals on Sunday, this team will try to make it two.

In order to get a win against a talented Bengals team, it will mean winning individual player battles. Let’s take a look at some of the critical matchups ahead of the Colts’ season opener.

Quenton Nelson vs Geno Atkins

We start out with the heavyweights. Quenton Nelson isn’t getting an easy introduction to the NFL with his first contest. He’ll be going against an All-Pro defensive tackle in Geno Atkins. Atkins is a disruptive force that has a non-stop motor and the ability to quickly read and react to the offense. While a smaller framed player, Atkins knows how to use excellent leverage to his advantage, and he will be a major challenge for Nelson.

This is unlikely to be a battle the Colts ask Nelson to take on alone, as it is unwise to do this even with the most experienced guards in the game. Atkins will likely face double teams to help minimize his damage. It will also be important for the Colts to scheme ways to get the ball out of Andrew Luck’s hands early so that it minimizes the time Nelson needs to hold up Atkins in the passing game. This is the first major test of the Colts’ first round pick, and how he does may not be very sexy, but it’ll likely determine how effective this Colts offense will be in this game.

Darius Leonard vs Tyler Eifert

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

When healthy, Tyler Eifert has been a deadly weapon for this Bengals team. He is a mismatch in coverage and is a constant threat to score. Unfortunately for the Colts, he looks to be healthy heading into week one. That means they’ll have to deal with a dynamic playmaker who compliments the already dangerous A.J. Green in the passing game. Stopping Eifert will be a key to getting out of this game with a win.

That job will likely fall, at least a good portion of the time, to rookie linebacker Darius Leonard. Leonard has looked like the kind of linebacker the Colts haven’t had in my memory. However, the real test is now, as he’ll face a very talented receiving threat in a game that matters. If he is able to rise to the challenge and win that battle, it will be a big deal. While this team will likely be able to move the ball well on the ground, limiting their passing attack over the middle will be a big step for them. This all depends, of course, on Leonard being healthy and able to play, which is still not a certainty.

T.Y. Hilton vs William Jackson III

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

I don’t know if Jackson III will follow Hilton around the field, so maybe this is better listed as Hilton vs the Bengals secondary. However, it is critical that Hilton win his one-on-one battles. Short of Andrew Luck’s presence, there is nothing that has been as influential on this team’s success as Hilton’s performance. When he struggles, the team struggles.

Jackson III is a stellar defender, as Chris Shepherd points out in his defensive scouting report. He believes that whoever is covered by him will need to be schemed open. Thankfully, Reich knows how to make that happen, and I expect he will make every effort to get Hilton in positions to get the ball from Luck. Their chemistry is strong and building from that connection early in the season will help give Luck confidence. I don’t think Hilton has to have a ridiculous game, but he needs to be a significant part of the offense, especially early.

Eric Ebron vs the Bengals Linebackers

San Francisco 49ers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

One of the more exciting players brought on by the Colts this offseason was tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron has flashed a ton of potential and a great rapport with Luck throughout camp, and it is time to see that pay off when it counts. Jack Doyle will be a reliable target to get yards, and makes plays when the Colts need him, but Ebron offers the ability to stretch the field and make big plays from the tight end position in a way that Doyle doesn’t.

For the Bengals’ part, their linebacker corps is the weakest area of the defense, and one that we fully expect Luck and the Colts to capitalize on. The tight ends are a strength of the Colts, and the middle of the field will almost certainly be exploited, using guys like Ebron, as well as the running backs, to stretch the field horizontally and use their speed advantages against the linebackers. Ebron is looking to shed the image of a guy who drops the ball a lot, and Andrew Luck needs another reliable target, so we need to see him win his one-on-ones here.

Malik Hooker vs Andy Dalton

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Andy Dalton is the definition of average where quarterbacking is concerned. The Around the NFL podcast uses the “Dalton Scale” as the equator of sorts. In other words, if your quarterback is better, you’ve got a franchise passer, if they’re worse, you need to get one. Dalton is right there in limbo, only as good as the players around him, but also not likely to kill you in critical moments. He’ll be surrounded by some real playmakers in Tyler Eiffert, A.J. Green, Gio Bernard and Joe Mixon.

That means the Colts need their star defensive playmaker to step up and make some big plays. Malik Hooker is the kind of player who can lift a defense with his rangy playmaking ability. Getting a couple takeaways can change the entire flow of a game, and the Colts will need Hooker to do just that for them all season long. He looked good in his limited snaps during the preseason, and seems to be inexplicably back to normal, despite less than a year passing since his torn ACL.

If Hooker can make some plays on the ball and help the cornerbacks minimize the big plays and the red zone effectiveness of the Bengals, it will go a long way toward getting the Colts a win this Sunday.

What matchup are you keeping an eye on?