It has been a long time since fans in Indianapolis have watched a team that relies so heavily on contributions from players in their first two professional seasons.
The upside? Young players will have a real opportunity to develop and build the identity Chris Ballard needs before he starts handing out big contracts in free agency. The downside? Young players are inconsistent. They make mistakes. As the season goes on, it is fair to expect that their weaknesses will be exposed, and opponents will have more film to draw from to take advantage.
Last week, a Colts team that has played well enough to threaten in every game this season put it all together. The offense was highly efficient and delivered the kind of balance Frank Reich has wanted to establish all year. It is rare to see the Colts go with a run heavy script, particularly with Andrew Luck under center, but that finally happened in a blowout win against the Bills.
The defense? The opportunism Matt Eberflus hoped to bring with him from Dallas played a big role in the outcome. Veteran safety Mike Mitchell has been incredible in his first two weeks in this system, Darius Leonard is a serious contender for defensive rookie of the year, and rookie Kemoko Turay was finally able to emulate Colts pass rushing legend Robert Mathis with an impressive strip sack.
What does all of this mean? What should fans expect?
Indianapolis desperately needs to put together a winning streak and establish some momentum. Outside of the AFC South, any hopes of winning the division would be so outlandish it wouldn’t be worth discussing. In this division, a Houston Texans team that isn’t particularly impressive sits at the top. A win today and losses by the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars could push the Colts to second in the division heading into their bye week.
While some fans are tired of hearing about the late-game decision to throw away a tie, the reality is that the decision could very well cost the Colts a playoff berth. If it does, the costs far outweigh any obscure thought about inspiring a “play to win” mentality. The confidence a playoff berth would give to this young team as it continues building would make a smart football decision to take a tie against a divisional opponent at home a distant memory.
Indianapolis has a favorable second half schedule but they have to finish out the first half strong. The Oakland Raiders have been an absolute dumpster fire since Jon Gruden took the reins. Their best player, Khalil Mack, was dealt to the Chicago Bears — who are suddenly competitors. The Raiders? They are desperately trying to find a pass rush — ironic. One of their best offensive players, Amari Cooper, was just dealt to the Dallas Cowboys. Is Derek Carr next?
Gruden is collecting draft picks and clearly selling his best assets for a wide scale reset. One has to wonder if the stigma of taking Tony Dungy’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win in 2003 is really digging at him. He has “10 years” and all of the control he could ever want with the Raiders. They’re about to move to Las Vegas and Gruden has a chance to fill his team full of grinders? And hoagies? And Italian beef?
Maybe he is targeting a Portillo’s franchise deal?
Point is, the Colts season is effectively on the brink. It will stay there from now to Week 17. Ballard and coach Frank Reich cannot afford to lose more than a game or two the rest of the way and can ill afford to lose more than one division game. Perhaps no opponent provides a more desirable situation than Gruden’s Grinders™.
What are the keys to a Colts win?
KEEP CATCHING THE DAMN BALL
The Colts entered the season with T.Y. Hilton as the only sure-thing at wide receiver. Veteran Ryan Grant has been a reliable chain-mover in his NFL career but is not a threat to break a big play. Chester Rogers has shown ability in fits and starts but has not put it all together. Behind them? Zach Pascal is been getting his first real opportunity to make an impact and veteran Dontrelle Inman was recently signed to replace second-year receiver Marcus Johnson — Inman wasn’t targeted once against Buffalo, even though he ran more routes than any other player on the roster.
Through the first six weeks of the season, the drops were an epidemic. Rogers and Pascal were the primary culprits and some of the drops were back breakers. Eric Ebron has had his own drop issues but has made up for them with a pace of production that would demolish his season bests in every category. Last week, drops were significantly reduced. Luck was incredibly efficient.
If receivers can build on this theme, the offense will keep racking up yards and scoring touchdowns. Hitting on all cylinders, it is doubtful that Carr and the Raiders can keep up.
DIAL UP THE PRESSURE
The Raiders offense is on life support. Marshawn Lynch is out, Amari Cooper is gone, and Derek Carr has looked uncomfortable playing in Gruden’s system. Nothing that has happened since the season started has improved the outlook for for Derek Carr. His best target is a tight end. The Colts could certainly scheme to take 31 year old Jared Cook out of the game. If they do, where will Carr turn?
I’m not sure he even knows the answer to that. You can only check down to Jalen Richard so many times and the speed of the Colts defense isn’t particularly favorable for that game plan.
The lack of weapons should mean that Carr has to hold onto the ball a little longer than he would like. If so, the Colts need to capitalize. Pressure, quarterback hits, sacks, Eberflus should have a chance to rack these up. If they do, the defense can remain opportunistic.
The last six quarters have seen Marlon Mack and the Colts run offense come to life. Even rookies Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins have been highly successful running behind an offensive line that finally has veteran Anthony Castonzo back at left tackle and rookie Braden Smith at right tackle. Even right guard Mark Glowinski has been excellent in his first two games as a starter in Indianapolis.
Look, if the Colts can continue creating big plays on the ground, Luck will feast. Play-action passing in Luck’s career has been more of a strategic necessity than an actual threat. If the running game starts to create legitimate defensive hesitation, look out. National sports writers who have been asking questions about Luck’s deep ball will sheepishly recede into the hole they came out of if the run game creates second and short situations where Reich can dial up downfield shots.
The key to all of this is for the backfield to continue producing.
Injuries have been a theme for so long in Indianapolis that it is getting boring bringing it up... or depressing. A number of players who will take the field against the Raiders have been dealing with nagging injuries.
Adam Vinatieri was clearly affected by a groin injury against the Bills. He missed two extra point attempts. Even his makes looked horrible. While it is hard to believe that he is actually healthy after noticeably grimacing in pain a week ago, he could be playing for the all-time scoring record before determining his long-term plan over the bye week. Missing kicks can turn a game, so his health will be important.
Former Raider Denico Autry may take the field and give the Colts a healthy defensive interior for the first time in weeks. Paired with Margus Hunt, the line was generating a lot of pressure. Without both on the field healthy, a lot more was required of Turay and Jabaal Sheard. With the starting unit back on the field healthy, can they pick up where they left off? Maybe, but they need to stay healthy today to make the possible.
Marlon Mack has struggled through injury every week since he arrived in the NFL. He broke out for his best game last week, the first full workload since 2017. He was limited in practice on Wednesday and sat out on Thursday. Full participation on Friday is encouraging but the team needs him to find a way to get and stay healthy. Losing would almost certainly hurt the team’s offensive balance.
SET THE TONE EARLY
Heading into the half last week, the Colts were clearly in the driver’s seat. The game was well in hand and the play book was wide open on both sides of the ball. Defenders could stay aggressive at every level and the offense could do whatever it wanted. How about that nice reverse to Nyheim Hines?
It seems so obvious that you need the lead to win football games but establishing a lead early can change everything. The closer the game stays, the more competitive it is, the more limited you feel you can be in terms of taking risks. The more “conservative” you will tend to play on both sides of the ball. In a game where momentum can be so important, the longer your opponent feels that they’re in it, the more challenging it is to play the game.
Break your opponent’s will early. Open it up and have fun.
4:05 pm ET Sunday October 28th, 2018
Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum – Oakland, California
CBS — Andrew Catalon (play-by-play) and James Lofton (color)
WFNI (1070 The Fan) and WLHK (HANK FM) — Matt Taylor (play-by-play), Jim Sorgi (color) and Caroline Cann (sideline)