Bengals at Colts: 5 storylines to watch in today’s game

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Cincinnati Bengals played what now is the top-ranked scoring defense in the league last week. Now, they face the team allowing the fewest yards per game and second fewest points.

Cincinnati (1-3-1) travels to play the Indianapolis Colts (3-2) on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, despite a brief scare Friday when the Colts announced they had multiple positive tests for COVID-19. The re-tests came back negative and the game remains on track as scheduled.

Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow will be looking to get the offense back on track after his worst passing performance of the season, and both teams seek to bounce back from disappointing losses. Cincinnati fell 27-3 at Baltimore, and Indianapolis dropped a 32-23 decision against Cleveland.

Here are five storylines to what going into the game:

1. What makes Indy’s defense so good?

The Colts are surrendering a league-best 266.0 yards per game and just 17.6 points per game, which ranks second only behind Baltimore. They have allowed the opponent into the red-zone just 12 times, giving up seven touchdowns and four field goals.

“Well, I’d start with their run efficiency on first and second-down,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said when asked what makes the Colts defense so good. “And then third-down, just watching their third-down tape—they do a really good job there. They just win the third downs more times than not there. They’ve done a nice job not allowing those long drives. And you do see more drives on tape more than ever start inside the 20 for the opponents. So you see some long situations—teams faced with them. And again, that’s their offense being productive and their special teams unit pinning people down there.”

Nine interceptions for the Colts defense also helps. Indianapolis has the top-ranked pass defense (179.6 yards per game) and third-best run defense (105.8).

2. Green has even more to prove

A.J. Green is expected to play Sunday after experiencing some discomfort in his hamstring in the third quarter at Baltimore, and he’s got plenty to prove.

After vocalizing his frustrations on the sidelines, where he was seen in a negative light on camera, Green is motivated to make it up to his teammates. Green said he’s been talking to his parents and other mentors from around the league, and he finally feels like he is in a good place mentally.

Green has struggled shaking off the rust from not playing games for 20 months and figuring out how he fits into Zac Taylor’s system. He has 14 catches on 34 targets for 119 yards and no touchdowns and Sunday he noticeably quit on a ball that ended up intercepted.

“I just can’t let the frustration get to me,” Green said. “I’m a leader on this team. I feel like I let my teammates down. That’s the biggest thing. I felt disappointed in myself because that’s not who I am as a person and as a player. To go out there and loaf on the interception and freaking on the sideline talking, even though I wasn’t talking about that situation, I just can’t put that out there just for my teammates, being one of the captains. I just have to a better job handling my frustration.”

3. Tall task for the defensive line

Two more defensive linemen went on injured reserve this week with D.J. Reader lost for the season and Sam Hubbard out at least three weeks because of an elbow injury. That means the team could be leaning on newcomer Xavier Williams and fifth-round draft pick Khalid Kareem for significant reps Sunday, and they are facing one of the best offensive lines in the league.

Williams, a tackle who started the season with the Patriots and won the Super Bowl with Kansas City last year, was signed Tuesday and fills a need in the run defense especially.

“As a run stopper, that’s my main objective, just a guy to come in and hopefully help with the physicality of the line,” Williams said. “Over my career, I’ve been able to play a lot of positions, the three and the nose, the five and the six, so versatility, that’s what’s important. I’m good playing anywhere.”

It’s the pass rushers that could have the most trouble, trying to get to Philip Rivers, but Indianapolis could be missing left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who is questionable with a rib injury, and his backup, Chaz Green is out with a back injury. The Colts have allowed just five sacks this season, and it will be on Carl Lawson, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins to get some pressure on Rivers.

4. Starters coming back

Cornerback Mackensie Alexander is expected to return after sitting out the last two weeks because of a hamstring injury, and Atkins should see more snaps after limited action in his first game back last week.

Darius Phillips has been filling in at nickel corner in Alexander’s absence and remains with the first team defense at an outside cornerback role on the depth chart updated Tuesday in the team’s weekly news release, despite LeShaun Sims getting the start there last week.

Alexander, a free agent pickup to replace Darqueze Dennard this offseason, is listed as questionable on the injury report but Taylor said he expects him to be ready to go, as only wide receiver Auden Tate is doubtful with a shoulder injury.

Rivers, in his first season with the Colts, has struggled with turnovers, including five interceptions, so it could be a chance for the back end of the defense to pounce.

Atkins has been working back from a shoulder injury that occurred in practice Sept. 3 and sidelined him the first four games.

“I’m not going to make any declarations on the snap count—how it will play out because each team is different that you face, but certainly he’s getting healthier as he goes,” Taylor said.

5. Burrow seeks bounce-back performance

Burrow became the first rookie to throw for 300 yards in three straight games when he led the Bengals to a win over Jacksonville in Week 4, but last week that streak came to an end when he threw for just 183 yards and no touchdowns.

The No. 1 overall draft pick will be looking to bounce back, after he was unable to get things going against the Ravens' blitz schemes that accounted for seven sacks.

“For any rookie, you’re going to learn things from every single game—good and bad,” Taylor said. “And often times you’re going to learn a lot more from the adversity that the team faces than you are from the success that you had. Every game is equally as important, whether you beat Jacksonville or lose to Baltimore. He’s self-motivated. He wants to improve every single week. He’ll continue to get better with every single game and every rep.”

TODAY’S GAME

Bengals at Colts, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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