Four Game-Shaping Matchups That Will Determine the Bengals' Fate in Indianapolis

Russ Heltman

Familiar foes battle this Sunday in a fresh edition of the I-74 rivalry between the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts. The two are separated by just 110 miles, which is the shortest distance between AFC teams. 

It's a quick trip for the Bengals who want to bury the taste of last week's blowout and beat the Colts for the fifth time in the past seven meetings. This contest is another shot for Zac Taylor to win his first road game. Taylor is 0-11 on the road. Five coaches in the Super Bowl era have started 0-12 in away games. Plenty of individual matchups will determine the victor—here are a few that stand out.

DeForest Buckner vs Bengals Interior

The Colts traded for DeForest Buckner in the offseason and he's living up to his new contract. Buckner ranks in the top seven among defensive linemen in sacks (four), solo tackles (14), assists (nine), and quarterback hits (13). The game wrecker is also tied for eighth in pressures (with Joey Bosa) with 15 according to Sports Info Solutions.

Buckner is a monster. His impact doesn't always show up on the stat sheet, but he's a big reason why the Colts have intercepted nine passes, two more than any other team. 

The Bengals are rolling with arguably the worst guard pairing in the league. Alex Redmond and Michael Jordan are sporting 51.7 and 53.8 overall grades according to Pro Football Focus. If Trey Hopkins succumbs to the Buckner wave alongside his running mates, Joe Burrow is in for another long day under center.

Jessie Bates vs Philip Rivers

Jessie Bates has been the best safety in football this season and it hasn't been close. Bates' 89.0 overall PFF grade is over ten points higher than the next closest safety—Buffalo's Jordan Poyer (78.2).

Bates is second in the NFL with seven passes defended. He's one of two players in the top six without an interception. That could change against Phillip Rivers and the Colts.

The wily veteran has loosened his handle on the ball over the past few seasons. Rivers has thrown more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (four) this year. Rivers' 28 turnovers since the start of last season are the third-most in the league behind Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (35) and Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (31). 

Bates has a great chance to continue his strong season against Rivers and the Colts. 

William Jackson III vs T.Y. Hilton

After two seasons of uneven play, William Jackson III is making a strong case for a contract extension this offseason. He's been targeted the most of any Bengal defender, allowing 15 catches for 158 yards on 28 targets. That's good enough to slot him 15th in the NFL in yards allowed-per-snap. He's fourth among defensive backs with 23 points saved according to Sports Info Solutions. The Bengals needed their young corner to be a lockdown option on the outside and he's proving his mettle.

Jackson III gets another shot at a widely respected veteran receiver this weekend in T.Y. Hilton. It's the right time of the season to catch the veteran. He's off to the worst start of his nine-year career. Hilton is averaging 46.2 yards per game and hasn't scored a touchdown through five contests. At 30 years old, Hilton's athleticism is on the downslope and the afterburners are suffering. Hilton is averaging 2.7 yards after catch per reception this season, which is his lowest since 2016 (3.8 yards). One player is ascending and the other is declining. Jackson III has all the skills to exacerbate Hilton's issues.

Justin Houston vs Jonah Williams

Saving the best for last, this is the only one of these matchups that will be a one-on-one battle nearly every snap. The Colts are committed to a rush four, drop seven mantra. Matt Eberflus' unit blitzes 14.5% of the time. Only the Chargers send extra rushers less frequently. 

The Colts are going to rely on their front four to get pressure and drop seven into coverage to confuse Burrow. That means Jonah Williams is going to see plenty of the veteran pass rusher. Justin Houston lines up on the right side 85% of the time.

Houston is tied with Carl Lawson for 11th in the NFL with 3.5 sacks. He has 93 career sacks and is still playing at a high level. Only J.J. Watt (98) has more sacks among active players.

Williams has been everything Bengals fans hoped for after being drafted in the first round. He leads all Bengals offensive linemen with a 70.7 overall PFF grade. He's allowed one sack in five games. One concern in this matchup is missed blocks. Williams leads the team in that category with 11 on the season, seven of which have come in pass sets. Williams has played well enough to be on an island with Houston. We'll find out if he's ready to handle the veteran.

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