The start of the 2018 NFL season for the Indianapolis Colts is officially here. For the second week in a row Frank Reich will lead his team against the Cincinnati Bengals but this time the outcome will actually count. As we prepare to kickoff today, we will take a look at some keys to the game.
Colts Tight Ends vs. Bengals Linebackers and Secondary
Perhaps the most talented offensive position group on the team is tight end. Jack Doyle has become a reliable check-down option for Andrew Luck and finds a way to get into position to make plays. Eric Ebron has been scarcely utilized by Frank Reich during preseason action. This is almost certainly because he will have an active role in the offense in the regular season and there wasn’t a great deal of motivation to tip off regular season opponents any earlier than absolutely necessary. Even Erik Swoope showed signs of becoming a match-up nightmare as a pass-catcher when he was last healthy in 2016.
While the Bengals are certainly talented in the trenches and showed off some chops at generating pressure on quarterbacks over the course of the preseason, one of their most glaring weaknesses could be found in the short-middle areas of the field. Last year, Indianapolis utilized Jack Doyle to abuse a weak group of linebackers and generate a considerable portion of the offense. If this group can get going early, it could help put the Bengals on their heels.
Colts Offensive Line vs. Bengals Pass Rush
Rookie Quenton Nelson is carrying a great deal of hype into his NFL debut and will immediately face a multifaceted and multi-talented defensive line. Anthony Castonzo, Denzelle Good, and Le’Raven Clark are all inactive and they may represent the top three tackles on the roster. Who steps up in their collective absence?
This Bengals defensive line features power and quickness inside with Geno Atkins, to go along with speed on the edges. If the Colts are planning to put together a deep rotation of defensive linemen who they can keep fresh throughout the game, they could use how the Bengals have constructed their own defensive line for a proper blueprint. If the offensive line can keep this talented group at bay, it will bode well for the rest of the season.
The Colts head into the regular season with more question-marks in their backfield than answers.
Which running back will end up carrying much of the load in 2018? Robert Turbin is clearly the most proven player in the group but he will be unavailable until Week 5. Marlon Mack is the presumed starter when he is healthy but he has been battling a hamstring injury and will not play. Nyheim Hines was brought in to move all over the field and allow Frank Reich to run an up-tempo, no-huddle style of offense but he has yet to provide fans with a reason to feel confident that he can be a big factor early in his rookie season.
Perhaps the most promising player in the backfield throughout the preseason was fifth round pick Jordan Wilkins. He consistently showed a knack for gaining positive yards, even after taking contact in the backfield, and showed excellent vision and patience as a runner. For many fans he is the obvious choice to take on the bulk of the backfield load until Mack is healthy and Turbin returns from suspension.
Of course, all of these observations could be thrown out of the window because veteran Christine Michael is on the roster and may have the trust of coaches more than any of the youngsters.
It will be interesting to see how Reich utilizes each of these players and how he intends to establish a rotation throughout the season.
Can Matt Eberflus Manufacture Pressure on Andy Dalton?
Indianapolis lacks a marquee pass rusher. Jabaal Sheard played excellent football in the second half of the 2017 season but was quiet this preseason. John Simon showed the ability to generate pressure but was cut because he is “not a scheme fit.” Ryan Delaire did more with less than any other player on the Colts preseason roster but still couldn’t stick around after waiver claims.
Second round rookie Kemoko Turay was limited for much of training camp and preseason. Second-year pass rusher Tarell Basham failed to take the second-year leap fans hoped he would with a move back to his more natural 4-3 defensive end position. Al-Quadin Muhammad just joined the roster and could need time work into the rotation.
Oh yeah, the best interior pass rusher this preseason, Hassan Ridgeway, is inactive.
For those keeping score that means that last year’s best defensive end has been quiet, the best pass rushers in preseason have been cut or are inactive, and the young players are either unproven or have failed to show signs of development.
Let’s hope Matt Eberflus has some voodoo in the game plan today to keep Dalton uncomfortable. Otherwise, A.J. Green could have a career day.
Opportunism on Defense
If you’ve been a fan of the Colts for awhile, at least through the Peyton Manning era, you will be entirely familiar with the bend but don’t break defensive mantra. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has resurrected the Tampa 2 defense in Indianapolis and if preseason football is any indication, this group will give up yards between the twenties. It is likely that this unit will be soft up the middle against the run and that it will allow cushions on the outside for short passes. Expect to see the Bengals efficiently move the ball for much of the afternoon.
This weakness tends to disappear in the red zone. This is due to shrinking zones and tighter windows making life far more difficult. It means that defenders are in a position to make plays on the ball and can create soul crushing turnovers just when it seems like there is no hope to stop an impending touchdown.
This is where the Colts secondary, led by rangy ball-hawking safety Malik Hooker, will have to do their work. Winning the turnover battle means extra possessions for Andrew Luck. Extra possessions for Luck means a much better chance to win the game.
1pm PM ET on Sunday September 8, 2018
Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Indiana
CBS - Andrew Catalon (Play-By-Play),James Lofton (Color Commentator), and Jane Slater (Sideline)
WFNI (107.5FM/1070 The Fan) and WLHK (Country 97.1 Hank FM)