Colts vs. Bengals: Watch to watch for in Sunday’s opener

Branden Oliver #40 of the Indianapolis Colts runs the ball and is stopped by Trayvon Henderson #41 and Brandon Wilson #40 of the Cincinnati Bengals during a preseason game at Paul Brown Stadium on August 30, 2018. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest as the Indianapolis Colts open the season against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium—here’s where we remind you they’ve lost four straight season openers and started 0-2 in each of the last four seasons:

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4
  • 12 under center: The calendar tells us 616 days will have passed since Andrew Luck last played in a regular season game. It was Jan. 1, 2017.
    Andrew Luck tells us he’s ready.
    “I feel really good and I am really excited,’’ he said. “I feel like I am in shape. I feel like I can make all the throws that I need to.’’
    Now, go play. At his best and pre-surgery, Luck was aggressive – some might say a bit reckless at times – and productive. He lifted the play of his supporting cast. It’s easy to forget he has engineered 18 game-winning drives in regulation and overtime, including the one against Jacksonville in his last appearance.
    Luck seemed to make steady progress during the preseason and ended on a high note: 8-of-10, 90 yards, one touchdown week 3 against San Francisco. But let’s keep in mind coach Frank Reich used a limited playbook during the preseason and Luck rarely went downfield with his throws.
    Sunday, everything is on the table and everything counts.
    First-time coordinator Nick Sirianna has witnessed Luck’s steady progress since early April, and is convinced Luck is back.
    “We’ve had obviously not a ton of game experience together,’’ he said, “but there’s nothing in my mind that says I’m not seeing a guy that I used to watch on tape week-in and week-out with a common opponent. There’s nothing in my mind that says that’s not going to be the same guy.
    “We understand what he is and how good of a player he is, so we are excited to let it rip for four quarters and not have to take him out after three drives. It’s exciting.’’
    So, Luck is far down your list of concerns heading into the opener?
    “Yeah, really good players usually are,’’ Sirianni said. “Elite players usually are.’’
  • O-line issues: Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but the Colts have serious issues with their offensive line. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo might miss his first opener since being selected in the first round of the 2011 draft with a hamstring injury. That could result in starting right tackle Joe Haeg filling Castonzo’s vacancy on the left side and J’Marcus Webb stepping in at right tackle. Haeg has started 29 games at three positions, but none at left tackle. Webb has 64 career starts, but was out of the league in 2017.
    Yikes.
    If nothing else, fans should be used to an unsettled offensive line. Since Luck’s arrival in 2012, the Colts have used 47 different starting combinations in 96 regular-season games. Luck has played behind 35 combinations in his 70 regular-season starts.
    Castonzo’s absence seemingly would make things more difficult for rookie left guard Quenton Nelson, although Nelson has practiced sparingly alongside Castonzo since training camp opened.
    And let’s not kid ourselves. The Colts’ offensive game plan without Castonzo might be tapered down a bit for protection purposes. There might be frequent tight end help for Webb, which would limit Luck’s options in the passing game.
    The iffy nature of the Colts’ offensive line is magnified by the Bengals’ defensive front. It features potential game-wreckers in Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Andrew Billings and Michael Johnson.
  • What of the D?: Not only is there a new defense in town – see ya, 3-4, hello 4-3 – there’s a batch of new faces. OK, that’s to be expected as general manager Chris Ballard attempts to make his personnel fit the new scheme. Even so, of the top 22 players, eight are in their first year with the team. That includes projected starters Denico Autry, Darius Leonard and Najee Goode, and perhaps Skai Moore and Kemoko Turay. Leonard, Moore and Turay are rookies.
    First-time coordinator Matt Eberflus hardly tipped his hand during the preseason, but there’s every reason to wonder if the Colts will be able to deal with the run and generate a steady pass rush without relying too heavily on blitzes.
    Eberflus conceded the Colts’ pass rush remains “a work in progress.’’ It’s imperative for Turay and Tarell Basham to step up and lead that pass rush.
    A subplot as we monitor the progress of the defense: safeties Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers will be on the field at the same time for the first time in a game that counts. Each played last season, but rehabs and injuries kept their availabilities from overlapping.
  • And the winner is: Colts 20, Bengals 17. We envision Adam Vinatieri knocking down a 42-something-yard field goal in the closing seconds and the Colts snapping their streak of season-opening losses at four. It’s a totally selfish prediction. If the Colts can’t find a way to beat the Bengals at home in their opener, why should we believe they can make much out of what’s to come? Lose this one, and anything approaching a .500 record seems unreachable.

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