CINCINNATI — No NFL team has scored more points than the Indianapolis Colts have so far this season. No offense has gained more yards than the Colts and no quarterback has thrown for more yards or touchdowns than Andrew Luck.
The best defense for the Bengals Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium could very well be their offense.
Keeping the ball out of the hands of Luck and the Colts’ offense and putting touchdowns on the board would seem to be a sound strategy as the Bengals try to pull themselves out of a two-game funk in which they’ve gone from being at the top of everyone’s power rankings to a collective question mark of doubt. Giving up 80 points in two games will have that effect.
The Bengals opened last week’s game against Carolina with double-digit play counts on three of their first four drives (Giovani Bernard’s 89-yard touchdown run accounted for the fourth drive). They got one touchdown, one field and were heading for another score on the first drive of the third quarter when Andy Dalton had a pass intercepted after his arm was hit while throwing.
Dalton completed the first seven third-down passes he attempted against the Panthers for 84 yards and six successful conversions. He had a 34-yard pass to Mohamed Sanu wiped out by a penalty. He and Sanu connected on the replayed down for a first down.
That’s the kind of efficiency Dalton and his teammates will need to play with against an Indianapolis defense that has allowed an NFL-best 29.7 third-down conversions.
"They’ve done a good job of making guys drop underneath, making tackles," said Dalton. "It’s an area where we were better last week than we had been in the last couple of games. We’ve got to keep doing that, keep trying find ways to move the chains, and keep drives alive, especially against this team. They can score, and they can score quickly, so you’ve got to keep the ball in your possession and keep drives going."
The Bengals lead the NFL with an average of 7.05 yards gained on first down. Even taking out Bernard’s long touchdown run against the Panthers the Bengals would still be averaging 6.48 yards on first downs, which would be good enough for second in the league. The Colts are allowing an average of 6.35 yards on first downs defensively — only Cleveland’s 6.77-yard average is worse — which is a surprising number considering their success on third down.
They’ve compensated with 17 sacks even without defensive end Robert Mathis, who has 111 career sacks, including 19½ last season but is out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. The Bengals, by comparison, have just eight sacks on defense. Dalton has been sacked just twice this season.
"They’re kind of similar to Baltimore and Houston, some of these 3-4 teams that are real aggressive and bring a lot of pressures and blitzes," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "It’s important in different games to have different strategies and I think with a team like that can score so quickly, and Andrew has proven he can keep a team in a game no matter what the score is, so every possession needs to be a drive, a sustained drive that’s moving the football and getting first downs and being able to keep the ball out of their hands.
"Some of those opportunities we’ve had where we’ve gotten down there and only gotten three points, that’s not going to be good enough."
The Bengals did exactly that against the Colts last season in a 42-28 win at Paul Brown Stadium. They converted 6 of 12 third-down chances and had the ball for 37 minutes, 45 seconds of the clock. They didn’t commit any turnovers and didn’t allow Dalton to be sacked as he completed 24 of 35 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns.
Yet they still were still in the position of having to keep scoring because of Luck. The Bengals twice led by 21 points (21-0 and 35-14) but Luck threw four touchdowns in the second half while becoming one of just two quarterbacks to have a 300-yard passing game against the Bengals last season.
Luck is just in his third season after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft but he already has 11 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. He had seven of them last season, including the playoffs when the Colts rallied from a 28-point deficit in the third quarter.
The Bengals offense hasn’t been so shabby this season. They’re No. 5 in the league in yards per game (397.0) and tied for No. 9 in points (26.8). Dalton’s 98.4 passer rating is ninth overall in the NFL, just behind Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer (99.5) and just ahead of Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (97.8). Dalton’s fourth quarter passer rating of 147.9 leads the league.