NFL Week 7: Bengals, Texans, and Steelers looking for right trends

Cincinnati travels to Indianapolis to face Andrew Luck and the Colts, the Denver Broncos host the 49ers in an offense versus defense showdown, and Houston hits the road for Pittsburgh.

Paul Sancya/AP
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) lines up against the Carolina Panthers in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014, in Cincinnati.

Week 7 of the NFL season kicked off Thursday night with the Patriots narrowly edging out a feisty Jets team. Only two weeks ago, the media were pushing the narrative of the “end of an era” in Foxborough, but since then the Patriots have won two straight and sit atop the AFC East once again.

Fans and pundits alike all too easily fall into the trap of seeing the events of one game as an indicator of a trend. In reality, NFL teams will change identities several times in a season before a trend emerges. This week, the must-see matchups of the week feature some teams who seem to have solidified identities, some who seem to be trending in a different direction, and some who have yet to show any consistency thus far.

One team that seems to be trending in a different direction is the Cincinnati Bengals (3-1-1), who travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts (4-2) this Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern time on CBS. Only two weeks ago, the Bengals were being called the stingiest defense in the league, allowing only 11 points per game and stifling their opponent’s running game. Fast-forward two weeks and the Bengals cannot seem to stop the run at all, allowing 367 yards over their last two games en route to a loss and a tie while surrendering 40 points per contest. Asked about the defensive struggles in Week 6, Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap told Fox Sports reporters, "We weren't as sound as we have typically been the last two weeks. We've got a lot of corrections we've got to make and we're going to make them."

Andrew Luck and the Colts will be hopeful that the Bengals struggles on defense represent a trend and not an aberration. Luck and the Colts have established themselves as one of the league’s most potent passing offenses, and Luck finds himself at the top of the NFL in completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns. Delving deeper, Luck has excelled when it has mattered most, registering an 80.1 quarterback rating (QBR) and a 21.0% defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA). Two stats, which measure how the yards are accumulated, when, and what the situation was, have placed Luck second and fifth in the league respectively.

One player who has made a major impact in the Colts’ four game winning streak is wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Hilton, who featured prominently in the Colt offense last season, started this year with only 11 catches in his first two games. Since then, Hilton has hauled in 29 in four games. If Cincinnati is unable to regain some of their defensive form, look for Luck and Hilton to have big afternoons.

Possibly the only passing offense running smoother in the NFL than the Colt offense is that of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos (4-1), who host the San Francisco 49ers (4-2) at Mile High Stadium on "Sunday Night Football" at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on NBC.

The Broncos enter the game Sunday night as the league’s most efficient offense, 21.5% stronger than the league average and 57.2% more effective than the league average when passing. Quarterback Peyton Manning has everything to do with the offense’s efficiency, completing 66.5% of his passes and throwing 15 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions, not nearly as prolific as last season but just as effective as ever.

The 49ers hard-hitting defense will hope to slow Manning down enough to keep the game close. So far this year, the 49ers have been able to stop opposition quarterbacks, limiting them to just 207.3 passing yards per game on a 73.7 QBR. The issue for the 49ers will be trying to combat the abundance of mismatches the Broncos can create.

The biggest mismatch of all for Denver is tight end Julius Thomas in the red zone. Thomas has 29 catches this year, nine of which have been touchdowns. Manning thinks Thomas’s success has come from emulating wide receivers and not tight ends. “He’s worked on that aspect of his game and he spends time talking to Demaryius [Thomas],” Manning told reporters. “He comes down and does one-on-one with the receivers and we watch one-on-one together.” Using his athletic gifts to his full advantage, Thomas frequently exploits slower, shorter defenders in the red zone. The 49ers will have their hands full with the Denver offense. But if they can slow the Broncos down, they should be able to keep the game close.

Week 7 comes to a close as the Houston Texans (3-3) travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers (3-3) on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. Following disappointing losses in Week 6, both squads will try to rebound and stay on the right side of .500.

The Steelers have been especially disappointing this season, having not capitalized on a schedule that featured the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Cleveland Browns twice. While the Pittsburgh offense has been able to function at a fairly high level with Le’Veon Bell second in the league in rushing and Antonio Brown second in receiving yards, it has been mediocre defensively, especially against the pass, which has been their downfall.

The Steelers passing defense may only be giving up 226 yards per game, but opposing quarterbacks have posted a 90.3 QBR thus far, one of the highest marks in the league. Speaking to CBS, ex-Steelers coach Bill Cowher said his former defense “has gotten soft,” just before the comment, saying, “I never thought I’d say these words.”

The Texans come to town following narrow defeats two weeks in a row by a combined eight points. Their running game, led by Arian Foster, has been one of the strongest in the league. But the problem on offense has been the quarterback play of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick ranks 24th in the league in quarterback efficiency as measured by Football Outsiders and 30th in QBR. The team has avoided losses by playing tight defense in the red zone, limiting opponents to a 45.45% touchdown rate, and forcing 14 turnovers, most in the league.

All eyes this Monday will be on Houston linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the first pick in this year’s draft, who tries to return following knee surgery. As of press time, it's not known if Clowney will play. But if the South Carolina product does go, he could be a force lined up next to All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt. Fans will want to tune in to this "Monday Night Football" contest to watch these two teams, desperate to get their seasons going in the right direction, duke it out.

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