One sure sign the Bengals have gone from the top of the power rankings to the top of the NFL's question marks in 14 brief days emerges from the latest meeting of the Bengals.com Media Roundtable. The honorable group has made the Colts the unanimous choice Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Indianapolis just a week after making the Bengals unanimous over the Panthers.
Mike Chappell, the Indy sportswriter who has covered the Colts since they moved from Baltimore 30 years ago and now scribes for TheIndyChannel.com, gives the nod to their Colts because of the versatile power of the NFL's No. 1 defense.
Paul Dehner Jr., The Cincinnati Enquirer beat man who was in preschool when the trucks moved that night in '84, has gone to school on the last two weeks and surmises the Bengals' four-man pass rush isn't up to stopping the league's hottest passer.
Jeff Darlington of the NFL Network and NFL.com spent the week in the I-74 corridor and has come away impressed with how dominant Luck has become. After watching the Bengals defense buffaloed the last two weeks by play-action, tight ends, and last week's first sack-less game in eight weeks, everything comes up Luck.
Let's go around The Table:
A lot of people up here are wondering what type of Bengals team they going to see Sunday. The one that went 3-0 and gave up 33 points, or the one that has given up 80 the last two games. I think they think the Bengals are one of the top teams in the AFC, but we're just not sure. I'm guessing they won't have A.J. Green, so they're coming in with a lot uncertainty. But I think everyone knows that without Green the Bengals are going to try and exploit running back Giovani Bernard because he's an impact player.
People keep asking me what Luck is doing differently this year because he's playing at such a high level. I really don't think he's done anything differently. I think they've just improved the people around him. Not only that, but they've gotten people back. People forget, but they played most of last year without tight end Dwayne Allen. They lost wide receiver Reggie Wayne for half the season. You exchange Darius Heyward-Bey for Hakeem Nicks and Nicks is a better player. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw missed a lot last year with a neck injury, so they're healthy. The offensive line is playing well and is healthy. They aren't throwing up bogus numbers.
It's been kind of strange. It's a ball control offense that leads the league in time of possession and scoring and total yards. They've got a lot of good players he can go to. Luck is spreading the ball around. In two games he's used nine different receivers. Luck is playing well but it's because they have a healthy team around him.
If you don't get to him on the blitz right away, he'll side step it and very effectively dump the ball off to a receiver. Bradshaw already has five touchdown catches and he had three prior to this. The tight ends are strong as far good ones with ability to go downfield well. Teams have had some success blitzing Luck, but he's kind of like Peyton Manning. Sometimes he's better when you blitz him.
The Colts decided they've had to blitz without end Robert Mathis. They just weren't able to get there with a four-man rush. So they're bringing everybody. It's not one guy. They've got 10 players with a sack and three have three sacks. They're finally getting something from rush end Bjoern Werner, their first-round pick from a year ago. He's gotten on track with a sack in each of the least three games. They move Werner inside in nickel looking for good matchups, which is how they do it across the board. They think they can get their big free-agent acquisition ready for this week, defensive tackle Arthur Jones, out the last four weeks, so they're getting healthy at the right time.
THE EDGE: Colts, 34-24. I don't trust the defense, but it's playing really well right now. One stat that jumps off the page: In the last three weeks their third down percentage is 3-for 28. That's ridiculous. And the offense has been putting up points with the yards.
I don't know of any teams that have been able to stop the Colts offense to this point. Andrew Luck has been unbelievable. If you look at how the Bengals have stopped good quarterbacks in the past, it's been with the front four. That's the way they beat all those guys last year. They've got to find a way to get pressure. For whatever reason, they just haven't been able to do it. If they can't, Luck is going to stand in there all day and it's going to be just like what you've seen the last couple of weeks. They have to figure out something up front. Blitzing has proven not to work against Luck. He's been too smart for it. He's torn up teams that have brought too many people. If the front four can get in his face and harass him all day, they've got a good chance. If they can.
Everybody said pretty clearly last week it felt like a loss even thought it was a tie and after what happened in New England there are a lot of people that are antsy in the building to see them be that team they looked like in the first three weeks. I don't think the stuff with Vontaze Burfict and Marvin Lewis this week is affecting them. That's outside the building stuff. They've been pretty good at that. They don't really care about what goes on outside. I don't see that as a huge issue.
To me, this is a Paul Guenther week. I thought one of the biggest storylines in the offseason and training camp was not how good will Paul Guenther be as their new defensive coordinator, because I think he'll be good and it won't be an issue. The issue is when adversity strikes this defense, will everybody stay on board and will Paulie be able to right the ship? Mike Zimmer was a master at that. The guys in there are so loyal to Zim. What happens when there is some rough terrain? Do they hold their loyalty to Paulie and stay invested with what he's selling and not try to free-lance, which we've seen the last couple of weeks? I think guys sticking to the plan and believing what Paulie is telling them and staying on board is a key.
THE EDGE: Colts, 34-27. I just don't see them stopping Andrew Luck with enough turnovers. They're not going to get enough pass rush and Luck's not going to give it to them and that's probably the difference.
Coming off the last game, the Bengals defense has to make sure it's a little more disciplined. Especially against a guy like Andrew Luck if you're not staying within your scheme. That's going to be the key for Marvin this week. Getting his guys to stay within their roles.
Andy has been really smart with the ball and patient, it seems to me, and I think that's a big reason why he's been successful. It's probably been a little settling for him that the wide receivers were able to play well this past week without A.J. and some of these other injuries, but I think his patience has been pretty good and this is definitely a test for him.
I know last Sunday the 37-37 tie against Carolina is not exactly how they wanted it to go down, but I think you saw an offense where guys were stepping up and proven with Mohamed Sanu and Jermaine Gresham. The cream in the league is still rising and that will continue to be the case. We're not even at the midway point and everyone is alive. Especially in the AFC North.
I'm still not a big believer in Colts running back Trent Richardson despite some flashes. I think that defense is getting a lot of pressure. Andy just has to stay within his game. He just has to stay smart. There's a difference between being decisive and making smart decisions. He has to do the latter.
THE EDGE: Colts, 21-17. Andrew Luck at home. He's coming to the point where he's gone beyond just being a really good quarterback. I feel like he's on the brink of greatness and becoming one of those guys that is a top five player in the league. I don't know what that list looks like right now, but he's at the point where literally he could have that much impact on the game. It goes back to the Bengals defense. If Marvin can get them to stick to their assignments, they've got a chance, but outside of that, Luck is too good to survive a defense not on point.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Bengals are 3-1-1 and yet outside the building it seems like they just went through a sky-is-falling 1-3-1 week, complete with some of those old-fashioned national controversies they haven't had in the Green-Dalton Era as Burfict and Lewis had tough weeks in the spotlight.
And the Colts shockingly diverse offense that is No. 1 in the league is not exactly a what-the-doctor-ordered opponent for a Bengals defense that lost its way the last two weeks.
Last Sunday's missed field goal has put them in this predicament, but it also overshadowed the good things that happened in Paul Brown Stadium last week. They came out of the New England coma to play a slugfest they should have won at moment in the second half with a touchdown or a three-and-out. They are this close to 4-1 and the controversy stuff slides of their back compared to the days of whine and Ocho.
But they are also this close to falling out of first place in the AFC North with wins by the red-hot Ravens and Browns this week. Sunday may not be a referendum on Guenther, but it is a challenge for Lewis to stem the two-week slide. They haven't gone more than two weeks without a victory since the 2012 four-game losing streak from Oct. 7-Nov. 4 and needed a 7-1 finish to make the playoffs. With five out of the last seven games on the road, this season isn't designed for a big finish.
We know why the Bengals defense is struggling. They haven't been able to stop the run well enough to set up favorable pass-rush situations (allowing a worrisome 4.8 yards per) and when they do get it, they don't get there (25th in sacks per pass) in allowing numbers that haven't been seen around here in years.
But we don't know why the Bengals defense is struggling. Sure, Geno Atkins isn't Geno Atkins. But forget the fact they finished third in in NFL defense last year even though they didn't have him for the last two months last year. In the first three weeks of this year they allowed virtually nothing before getting lit by Tom Brady and Cam Newton.
Luck has been lighting everybody by throwing the ball to everybody. The tight ends and running backs have caught more TD passes than the Bengals wide receivers and he'll put tremendous pressure on a Bengals linebacker corps that is down two starters in nickel backer Emmanuel Lamur and middle backer Rey Maualuga. The backers have had their struggles, but it's intriguing to see how backups Vincent Rey and Taylor Mays help. They came off the bench last year and played well in the nickel package.
They figure to be in nickel all day against Luck, but the Colts are diverse enough to hit you with power just enough. The Bengals best defense on this day is going to be their best offense. The Colts lead the league in time of possession and Cincinnati has to clock them with a running game that has been sporadic at best. Take away running back Giovani Bernard's 89-yard TD last week, and they're averaging 3.6 yards per. That translates into too many snaps against Luck.
It's a nice matchup vs. the Colts' blitzes that have racked up 17 sacks from ten different players and a Bengals offense that has allowed just two sacks. The running game is the best way to beat it, along with a variety of screens, a play the Bengals run well to Bernard, Sanu and Gresham.
But it may be decided by special teams. The Colts possesses the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month in torrid punter Pat McAfee and three maddening successful on-side kicks. The Bengals counter with the NFL's unofficial leading punt returner in Adam Jones. And after he returned a kick 97 yards to give the Bengals life last week, Indy may decide on-side is the way to go if he's back there.
But you can talk about the running game and special teams all you want, they mean nothing without a defensive stand. The Bengals defense hasn't allowed three straight games of at least 30 points since 1999. It's a proud group that had not given up a combined 80 points in back-to-back games in the Lewis era and they need one of those bounce-back games they perfected under Mike Zimmer.