Five keys for Cincinnati Bengals against Indianapolis Colts

After a disappointing loss to the Cowboys in the third preseason game of 2013, the Cincinnati Bengals have a lot of improvements to make in the final rehearsal game before the regular season starts. Overall, the Bengals have been okay, but the preseason isn’t what gets teams to the playoffs. However, the last two games host a large portion of the starting players and regular playbooks, and if the Bengals want to finish the season at the top of the AFC north, Thursday in Indianapolis is a good place to start.

1. Turnovers

It could easily be a toss up between offense, defense and any specific aspect of football, but turnovers and scoring early are the two biggest denominators is determining who wins the game. As of Saturday’s loss to the Cowboys, the Bengals are -4 in turnover margin, and a small sample but big impact in that was an Andy Dalton interception on a deep pass.

The Bengals’ defense is going to cause turnovers at some point in the season; whether that is fumbles from sacks, tackles in the backfield, or interceptions, this team’s defense will do its part. The Dalton deep pass to Mohamed Sanu in Saturday’s loss was nostalgia for Bengals’ fans as the team’s worst attribute last season – the deep ball.

Like this preseason thus far, Andy Dalton has been clutch in the shorter passing game, but the deep ball that reports said Dalton was working on a lot this preseason hasn’t shown up much in games, and when it has it’s come up short.

If the Bengals want to go anywhere past a ticket to the postseason, Dalton is going to have to find a rhythm and “stretch the field” as the scouts like to say, or else safeties will eat him up.

2. Defense

Behind the negative turnover ratio is the Bengals’ defense line unable to generate the pressure on the opposing quarterback that was so effective last season. Last year, the Bengals’ defensive line ranked 5th overall, and the results this preseason are one game away from becoming alarming to Bengals’ fans. If the defensive ends can’t get to the quarterback while Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins is seeing double teams, then it’s going to be a long season.

The linebacking corps is doing well, and the secondary is still conducting tryouts and both are putting up similar numbers to last season, so it is up to the line to carry the load.

The Cincinnati Bengals need improvement from the offensive line; namely Kevin Zeitler (68) in his second season.

The Cincinnati Bengals need improvement from the offensive line; namely Kevin Zeitler (68) in his second season.

3. Offensive line

The line has done a good job a protecting whichever quarterback is behind them, and the passing protection has held up, but the running game is struggling. With the edition of Giovanni Bernard as a quick, agile third-down running back, the team was looking to create a more opposing threat in the backfield.

However, the 79 yards between Bernard and Green-Ellis – granted Green-Ellis only has 3 carries for 14 yards – is meager for the starting running backs for 2013. Compared with 2012, this year’s running game is lackluster.

A lot of the running games’ struggles are due to the lanes the blocking game is producing. Green-Ellis is the ground-and-pound running back for the team, and his limited use has been showing. Bernard is best suited for third downs and outside runs, with a lot of his preseason touches going between the tackles, his shortcomings as an every down back are very apparent, especially if he is needed to break tackles in the hole. The openings for the running backs thus far are worm holes and the discipline isn’t much better.

Kyle Cook and Kevin Zeitler have both drawn flags for false starts and illegal use of hands. The line was good enough last year, especially with the injuries that were experienced, but the penalties were a work in progress, and thus far it hasn’t improved.

4. Receiving

Marvin Jones’ lost fumble at the Cowboys 4-yard line was a big step back for the receiving corps that has done well this preseason. The backups, Brandon Tate, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones have made things more interesting before cuts are made to get to the final roster. With A.J. Green coming off his injury this week and making 3 catches for 43 yards against Dallas, the Bengals’ air game will improve drastically.

However, there still needs to be improvement from Dalton to his other receivers – and what happened to getting rookie TE Tyler Eifert into the action? After Thursday’s matchup against Indianapolis, there will be better evidence to assume if the offense will be better than last season or not.

Bengals' defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer (right) needs his defense to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks

Bengals’ defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer (right) needs his defense to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks

5. Mike Zimmer

Bengals’ defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is known for having zero tolerance for non-physical play and especially for mental errors. There’s a good chance the defense will play the best game this coming Thursday and that precedence will be taken on getting to Andrew Luck or any backup quarterback for the Colts.

The secondary has been very average, and has shown little improvement from last season. Dre Kirkpatrick had his worst game as a Bengal, committing two interference penalties and giving up a touchdown to Cowboys’ veteran wideout Dez Bryant. Zimmer might give the second-year cornerback another shot in Indy, but if there is any indication of below average play, look for veteran Terence Newman to take over a majority of the snaps.