In the NFL, there are important individual matchups that help to decide each and every game. Whether it’s a position group against another position group, an individual against a position group, or an individual against an individual, these matchups can determine winners and losers. Every week throughout the season, I break down at least two matchups for both the Bengals’ offense and defense against their opponents.
Bengals Offensive Line vs. Colts Defensive Line
The Bengals will be starting an offensive line with only one returning starter from 2017. Upgrades were needed all over from the group that held the team back with putrid blocking. Left guard Clint Boling is the only returning starter. First-round rookie Billy Price will fill in at center, with third-year veteran Alex Redmond at guard. Trade acquisition Cordy Glenn and free agent signee Bobby Hart will be the left and right tackles, respectively.
The Colts switched to the 4-3 defensive front after spending the last few seasons in a 3-4 scheme. Jabaal Sheard is the leader on their new-look defensive line and should be better for the scheme change. Al Woods will line up as the run-stuffing 1-technique tackle with Denico Autry playing the pass-rushing 3-technique. Bengals alumni Margus Hunt is slated to start at the end spot across from Sheard. Keep an eye out for 2018 second-round pick Kemoko Turay and 2017 third-round pick Tarell Basham rotating in to keep the edge defense fresh.
Glenn and Boling should handle their business on the left side, it’ll be the right side that bears watching. Price had some issues handling snaps in camp – keeping that straight will obviously be important. How he blocks Woods and Autry – who couldn’t be any more different as interior defenders – will also be worth seeing. Redmond could be in trouble if he doesn’t kick his preseason habit of committing penalties. Hart might be a guy that the Colts build their defensive strategy around exploiting – they have a budding crew of edge rushers for the job and few other favorable matchups.
Joe Mixon vs. Colts Linebackers
Joe Mixon is a star in the making – he brings power, speed, and receiving ability to the Bengals’ backfield. A poor offensive line and hesitation behind it kept him from having a huge rookie year in 2017. He needs to start trusting the men blocking in front of him and use the vision he displayed in college. With an improved line and a full offseason of practice, Mixon is primed for a dominant 2018 debut.
The linebackers in Indy have been very, very bad in recent years. All three listed starters are extremely young this year. 2017 fifth-round pick Anthony Walker is the starter at middle linebacker after playing quite a bit last year. He didn’t look inspiring in 2017 but is the only passable option at middle linebacker. Najee Goode is just another guy at strongside linebacker and should probably be a backup. 2018 second-round pick Darius Leonard is started on the weak side. He’s a good athlete and should excel in coverage, but he didn’t take on blocks well in the ground game in college.
With his new line in front of him, Mixon should finally have clear holes to run through. If he can get to the second level, he can take advantage of the Colts’ weak group of linebackers. I don’t think their unit can keep up with Mixon in space or handle his physical running in the box. If he has a big game, Cincinnati’s entire offense opens up.
Geno Atkins vs. Quenton Nelson
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is an elite player. There’s no question about him dominating offensive linemen on a weekly basis. Opposing offenses need to build game plans around keeping him off of their quarterbacks and runners. He’s strong enough to drive linemen into the backfield – it’s not uncommon to see him throw 300-pound men around like nothing. His elite quickness allows him to blow right past those same players.
2018 first-round, sixth-overall pick Quenton Nelson is going to be a star in the NFL. At 6’5″ and 330 pounds, Nelson is an absolute mauler in the run game. He also moves uncommonly well for a man of his size, and his pass protection skills are extremely refined. He’s also, as a starting guard for the Colts, likely to see time lined up across from Atkins.
This is the matchup I am most excited to see. Atkins is an established star in the NFL and Nelson is the best guard prospect the league’s seen in years. Atkins should ultimately win most of the reps, but don’t be surprised if Nelson adds some clips to his highlight reel.
Andrew Luck vs. Bengals Pass Rush
Andrew Luck is the player to watch in this game in general. Colts fans should be watching to see if their franchise savior has truly returned; Bengals fans should be watching to see if he is going to carve them up or be afraid to try. Luck hasn’t played in the regular season since 2016 due to a shoulder injury, and it’ll be interesting to see how quickly he returns to form (if ever). I’ll be watching to see if he hesitates to throw the ball down the field and how he handles getting hit.
The Bengals have one of the best and deepest edge units in the NFL. Carlos Dunlap is a consistent force off the edge and Michael Johnson is a serviceable veteran that can kick inside. Jordan Willis is a young, athletic player that will see a large number of reps as a rotational piece. 2018 third-round pick Sam Hubbard is a technician that flashed in the preseason while rushing from the inside as well as the edge. Carl Lawson is a rising star after notching 8.5 sacks in 2017 – the highest mark among rookies.
The Colts need to keep Luck clean. While it might be good for him to get hit and see that he can get back up, they don’t want him to take a beating. Their offensive line is improved, but it may or may not be enough to hold off the Bengals’ stable of pass rushers. Luck needs to prove that he can stand tall in the pocket and not panic in the face of them.