INDIANAPOLIS — At least the football gods have retained a sense of humor during the pandemic.
A week punctuated in Indianapolis by the sounding of alarms over the decline of quarterback Philip Rivers will be capped by a visit from one of the best young quarterbacks in the league — Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Sunday’s matchup is a study in contrasts.
The concerns surrounding the 38-year-old Rivers are born out of a belief his deteriorating arm strength and inconsistent decision making are pulling down a roster with Super Bowl aspirations. One national commentator — ESPN’s Mike Greenberg — even went so far as to suggest the Colts (3-2) should immediately trade for Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
“If Matt Ryan was on the Indianapolis Colts by the end of this season, they’d look like a Super Bowl team,” Greenberg said Tuesday on Get Up. “They’re missing one piece, and that one piece is the quarterback of the Falcons right now.”
For any number of reasons, that move isn’t happening. But the outcry over Rivers’ two interceptions and costly safety during last week’s 32-23 loss against the Cleveland Browns was loud enough Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich was asked this week whether he is considering a quarterback change. (For the record, he answered emphatically to the contrary.)
The Bengals (1-3-1) have the opposite issue.
The 23-year-old Burrow — the No. 1 overall pick, Heisman Trophy winner and national champion from LSU — has been sensational, throwing for at least 300 yards in three straight games at one point and extending plays with his creativity and athleticism. But a Cincinnati team that won just two games in 2019 is perceived to have done little to help him.
“(We’re) going up against a team with a really good young quarterback who is just growing and learning every week,” Reich said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Joe and what he’s accomplished already. You can just see why he was the No. 1 pick in the draft already on tape. He sees the field real well, just an accurate passer who can make all the throws.”
The gulf between the quarterback situations makes for a compelling narrative, and the teams’ ability to overcome that narrative could determine the winner.
Burrow has been under fire all season. He’s been sacked 22 times, including seven last week in a 27-3 loss against the Baltimore Ravens. That’s the only game this year in which Cincinnati has failed to be competitive, and Indianapolis has made no secret of its intention to attempt to rattle the young QB.
To do that successfully, the Colts must disguise their looks on the back end and be disciplined in their rush up front. That will speed up Burrow’s decision making and not allow him to find a rhythm.
“Usually with the younger quarterbacks, pressure really gets to them, obviously — especially coming to this league — so pressure and tight coverage really gets after them,” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “You try to do that with any quarterback you play, but especially with the young ones. The pressure really gets to them. You’ve seen it over the course of the past couple games. We watch it on film.
“Obviously, pressure really gets to them. You just need to do a good job up front dominating rushing. Whether it’s with four with five with six, we just have to make sure we’re affecting him and getting him on the ground.”
At the same time, Indianapolis has to do what it can offensively to take some of the load off Rivers’ shoulders.
The veteran quarterback was supposed to play a complementary role to a dominant running game. Instead, opponents have loaded up against the run, and the Colts haven’t gotten the ground game rolling.
Indianapolis is 31st in the league with an average of 3.6 yards per carry, and that has contributed to struggles across the board.
The Colts rank 27th in the NFL with a 34.9% success rate on third down, and they’re 29th with a 42.1% touchdown rate in the red zone.
Add in the four interceptions Rivers has thrown in the team’s two losses, and it’s too much to overcome.
The solution doesn’t lie with any one player.
“There is no doubt we need to be better in the red zone and third down,” offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “I’m confident that we will get there. I’m confident in our players and our offensive line and our skill positions and our quarterback that we can get where we need to get because we know that if we ultimately want to be where we want to be, then the next couple weeks and moving forward, that we’re going to have to fix those areas.
“That’s how we’re going to have to beat good teams coming up.”