We're headed into the 4th quarter of the 2014 season (already?!), and the Colts sit at a comfortable 8-4 atop the AFC South, with their "magic number" at 2. One thing they have been missing so far this season, however, is a win against a team with a winning record on the road. Sure, you can count Houston if you want, who currently sit at 6-6, but they've been so up-and-down this year it's hard to put that moniker on them. This week the Colts travel to Cleveland to take on the 7-5 Browns in a critical AFC match-up, more so for the Browns than the Colts, but an important game for the Colts nonetheless.
Last week the Browns got pantsed by the Bills 26-10, but they made national headlines by giving Johnny Manziel his first real playing time of his career at the end of that game. He led them to a scoring drive, had a fumble in the end zone overturned by replay, and did pretty much what you'd expect him to have done: only went to his first read, and if he wasn't open he took off, made some guys miss while scrambling, and scored from 10 yards away where he ran 60. This wasn't enough for Browns Head Coach Mike Pettine to name his the starter, however, as he placed that back on Brian Hoyer Wednesday. I am by no means an expert on the Browns, but I know they are partially in the position they're in today at 7-5 because of Hoyer, and I don't think they need to make a desperate move right now, which they would be if they started Manziel. In this case, it's better to go with what you know than what you don't, even if the floor/ceilings for both are vastly different.
Hoyer will also get one of his receiving weapons back this week in TE Jordan Cameron, who is returning after missing five weeks with a concussion, and I just heard all of you Colts fans groan. The Colts have really struggled covering Tight Ends all season, and Cameron is one of the better pass catchers in the league. I expect to see him targeting heavily, and it could spell bad news for the Colts. The other big injury news on the Colts side is the status of Vontae Davis, also dealing with the after-affects of a concussion. Josh Gordon has been targeted over 30 times in the two games since his return, and there isn't anyone on the Colts roster other than Davis than can cover him. Gordon is phenomenal. We saw what Antonio Brown did to the rest of the secondary once Davis went out of that game, and you could flip a coin to determine which WR is better. Let's all hope Davis is good to go on Sunday.
A major sub-plot to this game is the number of high-ish profile Colts players (and coach) that came from Cleveland, including D'Qwell Jackson, Josh Cribbs, Trent Richardson, and Rob Chudzinski. Jackson cut by the Browns in February and signed a couple weeks later in Indianapolis, and Cribbs was just signed a couple weeks ago after multiple tries to get back in the Browns organization, so those guys definitely have something to prove, as they were let go with nothing in return. Richardson is a different animal though. The Browns sold extremely high on him (good for them, awful for the Colts) and he's clearly not the player anyone thought he'd be after being taken #3 overall in the draft. I'm sure he wants to prove something Sunday as well, but there's been nothing in the 20+ games as a Colt that tells me he'll be able to "turn it on" against his former team. Maybe he'll prove me wrong, but then we'll all have to wonder why it took playing against his former team to actually be a productive back. He should want to do that every week. I'm also interested to see how much Chudzinski can help the Offense against the Browns Defense, as he won't be too familiar with their scheme, but will certainly know the personnel. Nice to have any advantage you can get.
The recent history between the Colts and Browns has been one of few points (you can say good defense but I think it was mostly bad Offense, even with Peyton Manning). The last two meetings between these teams in Cleveland have resulted in a total of zero Offensive TDs, and the only TD scored in either game was by Robert Mathis back in 2008, a 4th quarter strip-sack-scoop-and-score that gave the Colts the lead. The other game was in Week 1 of 2003, a 9-6 Colts win. These two teams last played in 2012, a 17-13 Colts win that was a lot closer than it should have been, thanks to some bad Defensive play making Brandon Weeden look like a competent passer. Overall since moving to Indianapolis the Colts hold a 10-6 record against the Browns, and have won six of the last seven meetings.
How do these two teams match-up numbers wise? Let's find out and pick out some keys to the game.
Statistical Comparison between the Colts and Browns (Adjusted):
|Orange Zone Eff||57.2%||11||57.7%||21||48.7%||27||53.2%||15|
|Avg Start Pos||30.4||12||26.7||1||29.5||19||30.4||21|
|3 and Outs||3.48||12||4.76||4||4.48||27||3.51||19|
|Penalty Yds / Play||0.767||11||0.815||17||0.800||16||0.643||29|
Keys to the Game:
- You can look at the chart above, make the sensible conclusion that the Browns are a much better defensive team than they are offensive (they are), but when they've played at home they've been much better Offensively, and a good bit worse Defensively. I'll try to point some of them out as we go along, but most of their Defensive success has come away from Cleveland.
- The best match-up of the game will be Andrew Luck and the Colts passing attack (hopefully with Dwayne Allen back), ranked 3rd overall, against the Browns Pass defense, ranked 2nd overall. You know how much emphasis I put on the passing game in terms of winning games, so this will be a huge deciding factor in the game. The Browns number at home though? 5.3 per Attempt, just the 16th best home number. A mini-break for the Colts, but it's still going to be fun to watch the Colts throw the ball.
- Another strength-on-strength is with Yards per Play, where the Colts lead the NFL and the Browns Defense is 9th. As Kyle Rodriguez of Colts Authority pointed out this morning, the number of big plays that happened with Donte Moncrief on the field was astounding, even when he wasn't catching the pass. 13.8 yards vs. 5.5?? That is insane. Obviously part of that was the horrendous Redskins secondary, but something to watch when he's on the field. The Colts are going to stretch the field, and if they have success they'll be in really good shape.
- I haven't mentioned Turnovers yet. The Colts do it a lot, and I don't see it changing, so let's just hope they don't turn into Defensive touchdowns and force the Browns Offense to do the scoring. It's sad it has come to this, but they turned it over three times last week against a team that never gets Turnovers.
- If Richardson wants to show what he can do, the Browns are actually a team he might be able to show something against, ranking 31st in RB Success Rate and 24th in Yards per Carry. Definitely a good thing for Boom Herron, who will also be playing in front of a stadium full of fans who once cheered for him.
- Even though Hoyer has had some Turnover issues the last two weeks (five INTs), overall they've thrown the ball pretty well and not turned it over that much, ranking 12th in the NFL in both categories, and improve them to 5th and 6th respectively while playing at home. The Colts Defense is league-average in both categories, and will be a strong indicator on how the game will go. We talked about the injury issues that'll play into these two things, and neither are good for the Colts.
- Why have the Browns not been better Offensively? Third/Fourth Downs have been atrocious, ranking 31st in the NFL. They do get slightly better at home, up to 34.7%, but it's still not very good. If they're converting a lot on 3rd down, it's bad news for the Colts.
- The Browns aren't that great converting scoring chances into points, ranking 27th in Orange Zone scoring and 25th in Red Zone scoring. However, the Colts Defense ranks right around the same, so this is an area to watch as well. This is where I'm afraid the Colts will be killed by Jordan Cameron.
- Cleveland jettisoned Ben Tate a couple weeks ago for complaining about playing time, but none of the running backs in Cleveland are setting the world on fire, ranking way down there in the NFL. We know about the Colts struggles to stop the run, so another thing to watch. Hopefully the Colts put them down early and it doesn't matter. That's the best way to stop the run in today's NFL.
Much like previous meetings between these two teams I think it'll be relatively low scoring and a grinder of a game. The Colts have only played a couple games like that this year (Baltimore for one), and they came out on top. I'll be less worried if Vontae Davis can play, but that would be a huge loss if he can't go. Regardless, I think the Colts find someway to win Sunday, putting them just one win away from the Playoffs.
Colts 23, Browns 21
Thursday Night Pick: Bears 27, Cowboys 25. SuperContest Pick on the Bears as well.