If the Indianapolis Colts want to keep hope alive for the 2018 regular season, the team must find a way to win in the Meadowlands. Frankly, the team needs to reel off a convincing win and play a full game on both sides of the ball. It isn’t enough for fans to realize that the team is better than its record. Ultimately, a team’s record will define what they can do and determine any hope of making it into the playoffs.
The good news for Colts fans is that the AFC South is a mess. The Jaguars chose to keep Blake Bortles under center and he continues to make it difficult to win NFL football games. The Titans have been a train wreck and Marcus Mariota can’t stay healthy. The Houston Texans are a mess in their own right and certainly aren’t going to run away with an impressive record this season. All of these things mean that the Colts could remain in striking distance for the division if they get hot.
The time to get hot is now. The next three games are all against opponents who are as suspect or more than Indianapolis has been to start the season. If Andrew Luck can help the team get to the halfway point with a 4-4 record, the team could be in good shape with AFC South match-ups in the second half of the season.
All of this is made more difficult by an injury cloud that has loomed over W. 56th St. for many years. It has been so long since the Colts had a relatively healthy season that there isn’t a season that sticks out in my memory. There is a lot to overcome and Indianapolis finds itself in a deep hole but each week has to be treated like its own Super Bowl if Frank Reich and Chris Ballard hope to make progress.
On the other hand, if the Colts lose to the Jets today, it’s time to start positioning for 2019. Activity at the trade deadline becomes even more likely at that point and contract extensions or discussions have to become more of a priority for Ballard, his scouts, and coaching staff. Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that point only six weeks into the season.
Let’s get to the keys of the game:
CATCH THE DAMN BALL
The Colts have been without key contributors on offense for weeks. T.Y. Hilton will miss another game, Jack Doyle is still out, and the cupboard is pretty bare for exciting talent. This means that depth receivers must not only become a bigger part of the offense, they have to make the most of their opportunities. Andrew Luck has shown signs of playing at elite levels and his ball placement and accuracy has been incredible. All of that doesn’t matter if the receivers don’t bring the ball down.
It will be interesting to see what role Nyheim Hines continues to play on offense with Marlon Mack’s return. Both backs are particularly dangerous in space so it wouldn’t be surprising to have both on the field a lot in this game.
Rookie quarterbacks have a long history of making mistakes when they feel pressure. To this point in the season, the Colts have done a nice job of getting relatively consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Today, doing so could have a much bigger impact on the outcome of the game.
If Darnold is forced to release passes early and if he attempts to push the ball down the field, the Colts secondary could feast. This defense is made to keep plays in front of them and to punish most downfield attempts. Second-year safety Malik Hooker has been begging for an opponent to meaningfully test his side of the field in the passing game. To this point, offensive coordinators have chose to stay away.
Will Darnold make the same wise choice today or will pressure lead to bad decisions?
SHUT DOWN CROWELL AND POWELL
The Jets have leaned heavily on their two-headed backfield to generate a ton of offense. This has allowed them to tire out and slow down defenses who want to get after Darnold. If the Colts can continue having a respectable showing on the ground, even with Denico Autry and Margus Hunt out today, it can make life far more difficult for the Jets.
While rookie quarterbacks are already notorious for making mistakes, offensive coordinators are just as susceptible if they’re forced to get out of their comfort zone. If the front seven can use its speed and Darius Leonard can get back to his maniacal tackling ways, New York will have to switch its focus and ask more of Darnold. This would be a good thing for Indianapolis. A shootout between Luck and Darnold favors the Colts.
OFFENSIVE LINE COMMUNICATION
Every year, the Colts and NFL teams preach the importance of continuity on the offensive line. The more a group of players plays together, the more effective they become as a unit. Unfortunately for the Colts, continuity is invariably broken by a slew of injuries and a game of musical chairs at each starting position.
Today, starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo is slated to make his first start of the season. He will be next to rookie Quenton Nelson and will form what could be a formidable team on the left side of the line. Center Ryan Kelly is also a strong player and the three of them could team up to do real damage — assuming Kelly is fully recovered from the injuries that slowed him throughout the week.
The right side of the line will have a new player, Mark Glowinski will take over for Matt Slauson at right guard and rookie Braden Smith will get his second consecutive start at right tackle. While Smith had an impressive showing in his first game in New England, how he and Glowinski work together is yet to be seen. This is the first time since summer workouts that a player other than Slauson has been slated in for regular starting reps at right guard.
NO DRIVE-KILLING MISTAKES
Indianapolis has consistently found ways to either blow big play opportunities or allows silly turnovers at the worst possible times. While Jordan Wilkins may have been down by contact in Foxborough, allowing the ball to be ripped out for a turnover at a key point in the game was a back-breaker. Luck had the offense moving again and hit Zach Pascal with a pass that only he could catch and he managed to awkwardly bat the ball up in the air for an interception. Chester Rogers wasted an opportunity for a monster play on a perfectly thrown ball by Luck that could have put the Colts quickly into great field position and could have put the Patriots defense on its heels.
T.Y. Hilton dropped a pass on a big-play opportunity earlier in the season. Jack Doyle fumbled the ball away on what could have been the game-winning drive against the Bengals. Even the 4th and 4 call in overtime was mishandled against the Texans that led to a divisional loss.
This must not happen today. Clean up these mistakes and the Colts can have a different outcome.
1pm ET Sunday October 14th, 2018
MetLife Stadium – East Rutherford, New Jersey
CBS - Greg Gumble, Trent Green, Bruce Arians
WFNI (1070 The Fan) and WLHK (HANK FM) — Matt Taylor (play-by-play), Jim Sorgi (color) and Caroline Cann (sideline)