Last week, the Colts suffered one of the most painful losses in their history, but there's no time to sit and mourn. The banged up Colts have to jump right back into action against their nearest geographical rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals. As the Colts and Bengals hook up in the Luke on Sunday be on the watch for:
1. Watch for the trap. For years now, the Colts have taken care of business against losing teams. They robotically take one week at a time, refusing to look ahead to the future. They'll need that focus this week, because with the Pats and Chargers looming, Indy can't afford to take the slumping Bengals lightly. Cincy is not a good football team, but they play lots of hard, close games. They'll be tired coming off a physical loss to the Steelers on Monday night, so the Colts ought to be able to put their foot down. Well coached team don't lose trap games.
2. Watch for the home field. Under Jim Caldwell, the Colts are 12-1 at home including the playoffs. The only loss was the lay down against the Jets last year. The Colts' defense in particular has been dominant at home allowing just 13.3 ppg (25.6 points on the road). In three home games, they've forced 6 turnovers. In five road games, they forced just 5. The Colts' are a dramatically better team at home this year, and very average on the road. Fortunately, this is a home game this week, so watch for the crowd at the Luke to provide a major lift.
3. Watch the twins. Chad "I'm not going to call him Ochocinco ever" Johnson and Reggie Wayne were taken within six picks of one another in the 2001 draft. Their careers are mirror images. Wayne has played 149 games, Johnson 145. Johnson has 10,425 yards; Wayne has 10,117. Wayne has 736 career catches and 66 TDs; Johnson has 724 catches and 64 TD. Wayne has been to four Pro Bowls and has six 1,000 yard seasons; Johnson has been to 6 with seven 1,000 yard seasons. For all intents and purposes they have statistically been the same receiver. This year however, Wayne is having a monster season and Johnson is on pace for just over 900 yards receiving.
4. Watch the secondary. Despite the Bengals losing record, the Colts secondary has no easy task lining up against Owens, Ochocinco, Shipley and tight end Jermaine Gresham. Owens is the star here hauling in 55 catches for 770 yards, but quarterback Carson Palmer does a good job spreading the ball around for an average of 263 yards a game. With the return of cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Justin Tryon, along side Kelvin Hayden and Jacob Lacey, look for there to finally be some cohesion amongst the defensive backs.
5. Watch the YPA. Through 8 games, Manning's yards per attempt is languishing at 7.1. That would be the second lowest total of his career if it held up for 16 games. Most troubling is that his YPA has been under 6 in three of the last four games. Simply put, the Colts are throwing more than they would like. Manning has been at or over 38 attempts in 7 of 8 games, and twice was over 50 attempts. It's hard to keep an effective yards per attempt when throwing that often. He's also been under 61% completions in 3 of the last four games. All the injuries to the running backs have forced Manning throw and throw and throw. The Colts need fewer, more effective throws.
6. Watch Garcon. The Colts simply need better production out of Pierre Garcon than what they are getting. DVOA calls him one of the worst wideouts in football, and it's hard to argue. His catch rate is worse than last year. He's on pace for roughly the exact same number of catches for fewer yards than in 2009. He has not improved at all, and in fact may have regressed some as teams are learning how to defense him. Garcon had one catch for a 57 yard TD against Washington. Aside from that catch, he has 250 yards receiving on the year for just 11.4 yards a catch. He's killing the Indy offense.
7. Watch James. Brandon James is finally getting his shot. The potentially dynamic return man showed some struggles with ball security in the preseason, but now he may well get a chance to run back kicks for the Colts. All we ask is that he not put the ball on the turf. The Colts have been slow to promote James, and it stands to reason that this is their fear. If he can hang on to the ball, he could be just the kind of spark the Colts need.
9. Watch for Steady Eddie. To stay on the linebacker theme, it's imperative the Colts keep a close eye on Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones. The former 6th round pick of the New York Giants seems to have found a nice home in Cincinnati. Since the 2007 season when he joined the Bengals, Jones has had at least 90 tackles every year. And this year is no different. Through eight games he has zero sacks and zero interceptions, but he does have a team high 60 tackles. Last Monday night against the Steelers Jones had a nose for the ball racking up nine tackles in the loss. He's not making dynamic plays, but he's making a lot of routine ones.
10. Watch for jumping Ship. And by Ship, of course I mean Bengals wide receiver Jordan Shipley. You might as well call the rookie out of Texas Brandon Stokley's little brother. With Terrell Owens on one side, and Chad Ochocinco on the other, Shipley lines up in the slot and is free to roam and find the open space. This season Shipley has hauled in 28 passes for 396 yards, averaging a very productive 14.1 yards a grab. With Powers and Hayden lining up over the Bengals mercurial stars, Jacob Lacey will have to cover Shipley. Lacey likes to jump routes, so watch him on Ship. Good ol' Ship.
11. Watch for the last resort. Indy might need a nice game out of Gijon Robinson. Did I really just say that? As I've mentioned earlier, if you're open, Peyton is chucking the ball your way. With our receiving corps in shambles, and tight ends Jacob Tamme and Brody Eldridge both spending time on the injury report, expect Robinson to step up. Not only does Robinson know the system, he seems to be a solid guy as well. Nick met him at training camp and he was more than polite to him and his wife and all the fans. Despite pouring sweat from every pore, he signed autographs for a lengthy time and is a player who seems to truly appreciate the fans. He's due for a good game. I predict 5-6 catches for about 60 yards.
12. Watch the glaring weakness. The Colts protection problems the last two weeks have stemmed largely from the substandard play of Charlie Johnson. CJ has been giving up too much pressure, and his run blocking has slipped as well. When you look at where the Colts run successfully, they are acceptable in every direction except left end. Johnson showed up on the injury report this week with a toe problem, which could partially explain why he's looked so bad the last couple of weeks. The Bengals have NO pass rush, so if CJ gives up a sack, it's time for the staff to start looking for a replacement.
13. Watch for Batman and Robin. Much like their namesakes Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens have an ambiguous relationship. Johnson spends most of his time with large groups of women, and T.O. likes to preen. They aren't exactly Ace and Gary, but I have to admit that I'm a bit uncomfortable at the thought of grown men who take flamboyant names, dress in cat stripes and wear skin tight pants. I'm not an evolved thinker. Sue me.
14. Watch for Brown out of the backfield. Indy ran effectively for the most part last week, but Don Brown's catches out of the backfield were especially valuable. Indy's offense is devastating when the wideouts can run deep routes, and the backs can release out of the backfield for healthy gains. I was encouraged by DB's efforts last week, and with every conceivable player hurt for the offense, the Colts desperately need to manufacture yardage. Brown breaking a catch for a long gain would really help.
15. Watch for the Jack Del Rio of the AFC North. Marvin Lewis's ability to not get fired is astounding. In 8 seasons, he's 58-61 (which passes for success in Cincinnati). He has taken the Bengals to the playoffs just twice without a win. He's mostly just good at keeping the Cats in the middle of the back, four times finishing 8-8 or 7-9. Two of his last three seasons have been difficult, however. The most interesting thing about this matchup is that no one cares that there are two black head coaches facing off tomorrow. It's exciting and encouraging to see that what would have been noticed less than 10 years ago is now not a story at all.
16. Watch the wannabe. Remember when Carson Palmer was threatening to become one of the best QBs in the league? That was a long time and a knee injury ago. In his second year as a starter, Palmer lit up the NFL for 32 TDs and a passer rating over 100. In his last four seasons however, Palmer's rating has been below 87 every time. This year, he's the king of garbage time, piling up huge numbers with the Bengals trailing. His accuracy has been a big hangup, regularly posting numbers below 60%. In 2005, he and Manning staged a scoreboard burning in Cincinnati, but that dynamic Palmer is long gone.
17. Listen to Lamey. I'm so bored by Gumball and Dierdorf that I can't even make fun of them anymore. Indy seems perpetually relegated to getting CBS's "B" crew. They aren't good, and I've made every joke possible. Turn down the sound and listen to Hockey Bob scream his guts out.
18. Watch for bragging rights. Indy is going to win this game. You get the feeling that underneath all the injuries, this is still an elite club. Players have already started to get healthy, and in another couple of weeks, the Colts could be back at close to full strength. This is the game that they have to win in order to be in good position to make a run in the second half. Manning won't let them down. Colts 38 Bengals 10.