After his first five NFL starts rookie quarterback Joe Burrow heads into Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) looking to prevent Colts wily veteran of a quarterback Philip Rivers from beating the Bengals in five different towns during his 17 NFL seasons of 50-50 balls with Cincinnati.
A re-count of Rivers' career, which switched course this offseason to Indianapolis, shows those victories in Cincinnati, San Diego and Los Angeles while compiling a 4-4 record against the Bengals. But there's also that 2004 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., when Rivers' MVP performance led the South to a victory over a North team coached by Marvin Lewis' Bengals staff.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable believes the Colts prevail Sunday if the 38-year-old Rivers can be asked to manage the game while allowing the league's top-ranked defense to force Burrow into 23-year-old rookie throws.
NBC's Peter King, the former Bengals beat reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer who covered a rookie quarterback named Boomer Esiason, thinks Indy's defense proves too much for this rookie. The Athletic's Stephen Holder, who also covered the Colts for The Indy Star, thinks Rivers gets a hand from a determined run game.
Locally, Tyler Dragon, one of King's heirs at The Enquirer, sees the Colts taking advantage of one too many turnovers. Jay Morrison of The Athletic predicts a low scoring "rock fight," that stones both offenses with the edge to the league's best defense.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first.
The Colts have done a really good job of stopping the run. They always want to do that, but it's of greater importance this week because they want to put the game in Burrow's hands. They feel like with their speed on defense and ability to cover, they can come out on top. You'll see them really beef up against the run, especially after last week where the Browns hit some big runs in the first half and hit another one in the fourth quarter to close the game out. The Colts weren't happy about that and it's a departure from what they've done this year.
So Bengals running back Joe Mixon is going to get a lot of attention, no question. They're built to do it. Colts tackle DeForest Buckner is a game wrecker. Grover Stewart at nose tackle is an underrated guy against the run.
The Colts offense knows if they get the running game going it really gives them an upper hand to get back to featuring the tight ends, which are really central to them. Long down-and-distances de-emphasize them and they want to get back to a short, intermediate passing game with some occasional play-action down the field and to do that you have to run successfully. Rookie running back Jonathan Taylor has been playing a lot with Marlon Mack out and he's starting to figure it out. They'll stick with it. If it's three yards a carry, they don't care. They'll keep running it until they hit some. So be ready.
THE EDGE: I think Burrow will make a play or two. The Colts defense has had a break down or two and it's up to you to see it. He's a smart kid, but they'll not consistently let you do that. No one has consistently moved the ball against this defense. If the defense plays well, the offense can function as intended and run the ball. COLTS, 24-14.
What's interesting to me is I thought the Colts would be a top five offense and who knows what is going to happen, but they're struggling. When I look at the Colts I look at a bunch of players we don't know that much about but who are playing really, really well. If you were to look at this team right now and why they're winning and playing such good defense, everybody would have looked at linebacker Darius Leonard, but they might have the defensive rookie of the year in safety Julian Blackmon, who America doesn't know anything about yet but will. And they're getting a total turnaround season from cornerback Xavier Rhodes and when Indianapolis signed him it was one of those things, well, I wouldn't necessarily expect very much.
On the surface you would say who are these guys? But end Justin Houston has rebounded. He's got (3.5) sacks. Tackle DeForest Buckner has played well in the middle of the line. I just read where the position Colts general manager Chris Ballard loves more than any other is defensive line. Not defensive ends or defensive tackles. Defensive line. Just give me all the best players you can on the line and we'll be good. They did a really, really smart thing in trading for Buckner.
Are the Bengals going to be able to keep Burrow clean enough to do anything big enough to win this game? What would worry me a little bit if I were Zac Taylor or Mike Brown is he's obviously incredibly precocious and this guy is going to be a really, really good player but he's in slight danger of being David Carr. A guy who could never be great because he was just beaten up early in his career. The difference is we don't know if Carr would have been great. But I have a feeling, it's amazing to me, that Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow are in the first month of their pro careers and I think we all think they're going to be really, really special. But you've got to keep the guy upright and that's the thing that would worry me the most right now.
THE EDGE: The Colts defense will overcome whatever mistakes their offense makes. I think it will be close. I think it will be good. I think it will be competitive. COLTS, 25-21
The Colts defense is ranked in the top three in every major category. I think they're going to give Joe Burrow and the Bengals offense problems in Indianapolis. I think it's going to be a low-scoring game. Indy's offense isn't that great, either. I think Philip Rivers is past his prime and his arm strength is a question. But he is accurate and the Colts offensive line is probably one of the strengths of their team.
The Colts defense is very opportunistic. I believe they have nine interceptions by seven different players, mostly in their secondary. I think they'll be able to force Burrow into an interception or two and the Bengals have been struggling with creating turnovers of their own.
THE EDGE: I think Indianapolis wins the turnover battle and presents some easy opportunities for them to score and they'll capitalize. COLTS, 24-16.
An old-fashioned rock fight. Maybe first one to 20 wins. The Colts defense is obviously really good. The Bengals defense is playing much better and the Colts offense is having its own problems. It doesn't feel like this is going to be a high-scoring game by any stretch of the imagination.
The Colts don't blitz a lot and Joe has been really good against the blitz to this point. Baltimore was a little more exotic and the Ravens took advantage of a rookie. I don't think that's going to be the issue. I think the bigger issue is we haven't seen him make really dangerous throws. Two of his interceptions were kind of flukes. That's what you worry about here with the Colts only rushing four and it's a solid four that can get pressure without the blitz. So if he's throwing into seven-man drops, the bigger concern this week is the interceptions, and the Colts lead the league, as opposed to the beating he might take.
With Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader out, nobody really knows what this defensive is going to look like without that big piece in the middle. The Colts haven't been able to run much. The rookie Jonathan Taylor had 100 yards in week two, but they haven't really leaned much on him. We'll see if the veteran running back, Jordan Wilkins (questionable with a calf injury) plays. We've seen this in the past where these rookies like the old Priest Holmes, guys you've never heard of, have great games against the Bengals. We'll see what happens if Taylor gets a featured role.
THE EDGE: Five field goals to four. A defensive struggle. I can't imagine there won't be a touchdown, but it just feels like it's going to be that kind of grind-it game. COLTS, 15-12.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The NFL is like Cincinnati weather. If you don't like what's going on, wait 15 minutes.
Like we said Friday, here goes Burrow from Baltimore's hot-as-Hades blitz to the Ice Station Zebra fundamentals of Indy's No. 1 defense.
The Colts' blitz percentage is next to last in the league but reigns over the top three in every major defensive category with a bruising quick front, a fleet secondary holding seven of Indy's NFL-leading nine interceptions and a no-frills scheme that emphasizes hustle and speed over everything else.
Last week he had to worry about the sack-and-strip. Now he has to worry about the pick-six. Burrow has shouldered so much of the burden and now it's time for those veteran wide receivers to bail him out. If the Colts are going to give him time with the four-man rush they favor, his receivers need to find holes in Indy's signature zones.
The Colts can man up with long and physical press cornerbacks such as Xavier Rhodes and Rock Ya-Sin (the Bears' Allen Robinson still got 101 yards when they did that), but they'll probably go zone first and all eyes are turned to A.J. Green after Thursday's mea culpa. He's caught just 42 percent of his targets, a number nearer the bottom of the league than the top. Plus, a week after grinding for 42 yards and four catches against Pro Bowler Marlon Humphrey, slot receiver Tyler Boyd draws a second straight top cornerback in the Colts' Kenny Moore II, ranked ninth among profootballfocus.com's slot cornerbacks.
It will be interesting to see how much the Bengals use wide receiver John Ross' speed. He's been inactive the last three games, but with head coach Zac Taylor not sure Auden Tate (shoulder) can play, Ross is most likely be active in Tate's place.
The other decisive matchups (and this game is on the Bengals offense) consist of containing the Colts' talented defensive line. Center Trey Hopkins and guards Michael Jordan and Alex Redmond have to be plastered to Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. Buckner mauled the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, the Colts knew that's what they needed when they traded a first-rounder to the 49ers for him and he hasn't missed a beat as a dominant force. Hopkins' charge is to keep the young guys aware of the stunts and games the Colts use to free up Buckner inside.
And on the left side is a classic veteran-kid matchup. In his sixth NFL start, Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams faces 10-year end Justin Houston, A.J. Green's buddy and old Georgia teammate. Houston is sixth on the active list with 93 career sacks and already has 3.5 this season and while he no longer is the speedy pursuer that racked up 22 sacks for the 2014 Chiefs, Houston has transitioned to be a savvy bull rusher.
Meanwhile, Williams, last year's first-rounder, is quietly moving up the PFF rankings among tackles and is ranked 29th in the NFL in pass protection by tackles, ahead of the Bills' Daryl Williams, the Seahawks' Brandon Shell and the Chiefs' Eric Fisher. Williams is only two slots behind Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo, expected to play after missing last week's game.
Speaking of the Colts' O-line, and, in the end, this may be what decides it, they are bound and determined to run the ball. After running to the top of the NFL charts last season behind running back Marlon Mack, they are mired at 20th in the league. Mack is hurt, but they are still steamed at being next to last in yards per carry. Rivers, they think, is no longer the guy that threw for 239 yards and three touchdowns on 16 of 22 bullets in the second half he turned a 28-7 half-time deficit into a 49-41 win over the Bengals in a 2006 Paul Brown Stadium game. They prefer him to use a big running game as the astute check-down game manager that went back to The Paul for the 2013 Wild Card game and beat the Bengals on 12 of 16 for 128 yards.
If the Bengals can keep Indy in its run funk and make Rivers one-dimensional, well that's what Cleveland did last week when Rivers threw two picks and one of them went for a 47-yard return.
For the second straight week the Bengals face a rookie leading the NFL in kick returns and a top special teams unit. Last week the Ravens were ranked first by Football Outsiders. This week the Colts are ranked second largely because nickel back Isaiah Rodgers, a sixth-rounder from Massachusetts, went 101 yards last week for a touchdown and has a 38.3-yard average. The Bengals' Brandon Wilson is still at 30.3 and no longer has enough returns to qualify.
The Bengals, ranked ninth by Outsiders, also have to keep an eye on punt returner Nyheim Hines, ranked fourth in the NFL in a category where the Bengals are 21st.
It's weird, but a game between two excellent quarterbacks may come down to who doesn't have to throw it as much.