The Indianapolis Colts kick off the second half of the 2018 NFL season with a home divisional game against the rival Jacksonville Jaguars. Both teams are in different situations heading into this game than they were heading into Lucas Oil Stadium a year ago.
Last season, Jacoby Brissett led an injury depleted roster against a 3-3 Jaguars team who was fighting to stay on top of the AFC South. This year, the two teams are fighting it out to determine who will stand alone in last place in the division.
Last year, the Colts were shutout at home and gave up 10 sacks to a nasty Jaguars front seven. Indianapolis lost first round rookie safety Malik Hooker for the season to a nasty knee injury — the team also lost Rashaan Melvin and John Simon for the game in the first half.
The Jaguars offense had its way in both phases of the game with T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory having success on the ground — 26 carries for 169 yards and 2 touchdowns, good for 6.5 yards per carry. Blake Bortles found Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee and Keelan Cole for 11 completions and 237 yards — over 21 yards per reception to his receivers. This game led the Jaguars into their bye week and helped propel the Jags on to a second half run that culminated in an AFC Championship showdown with the New England Patriots.
Jaguars fans have grasped tightly to this road shutout win as proof of their dominance over the Colts. Nevermind that Indianapolis has won the division 9 times in 16 years — Jacksonville has won the division once (last year). The Colts lead the division with 12 playoff berths and Jacksonville is last in the division with three trips over the last 16 seasons. Indianapolis has two AFC Championships and a Super Bowl victory, while the Jaguars have none. Oh yeah, Indianapolis leads the series all-time 22-12.
Luck didn’t play in three of the Jaguars victories since 2012. In games Luck has played, he is 6-2 and has only lost once since his rookie season — the third game of his career.
This year, Indianapolis has an offensive line that is starting to gain league-wide attention. The team is coming off of back-to-back 200+ rushing yard games. Andrew Luck is having one of the most productive and efficient seasons of his career. The offense is 7th in the NFL in scoring, averaging 28.9 points per game. Jacksonville’s offense is averaging 16.8 points per game. The Colts have the 12th ranked rushing offense in the NFL on the season, but the top rushing offense in the NFL since Marlon Mack returned to the starting lineup. The Jaguars have the 24th ranked rushing defense in the league, surrendering an average of 123.2 yard per game.
The Colts have been starting to put things together, while the Jaguars have drastically under-performed expectations. The momentum is entirely in the Colts favor heading into this one. This is a must-win for both teams. Let’s take a look at the keys to the game.
KEEP THE JAGS DEFENSE ON THE FIELD
Sometimes teams will attempt to dominate time of possession to keep the ball out of the hands of a dominant opposing offense, that isn’t the case today. The reason the Colts want to keep the Jaguars defense on the field is to force the unit to face fatigue. The no huddle nature of the offense should limit substitutions and can severely hamper a defense filled with high draft picks. The more the defense wears down, the more effective the Colts can be running the ball. The more effective they are running the ball, the more effective play-action passing will be against a dangerous secondary.
In years past, Indianapolis had to throw into the teeth of Jacksonville’s defense and had to put Andrew Luck and other Colts signal callers in the difficult position of carrying the team to a win. The offensive line faced a front seven with a green light to attack, generating a ton of pressure and placing hits on the quarterback. It was a situation that favored the Jaguars.
If the Colts can grind out drives and keep running the ball effectively, the script will turn heavily in Indy’s favor.
PRESSURE BLAKE BORTLES
Blake Bortles has had an up and down career. He spent much of the back half of the 2017 season looking like a reasonably sound signal caller. He didn’t do things that cost Jacksonville games in the playoffs and did a fine job in the AFC Championship overall.
This season, he looks like bad Blake. He is 32nd in the NFL in QB rating and completion percentage. He is 22nd in the NFL in passing yards per game. He has taken 8 more sacks in 52 fewer attempts than Andrew Luck. He has a weaker group of pass catchers than Andrew Luck. His running game is 24th in the NFL, averaging only 95 yards per game.
If the Colts can force Bortles into feeling that he has to carry the offensive load, they should have opportunities to generate pressure. If they can knock him around and get pressure in his face, he will make mistakes.
TIGHTEN UP IN THE SECONDARY
Early in the season, the Colts surprised everyone by being one of the best teams at generating pressure. The defense primarily utilized a four man rush to get the job done and is near the bottom of the NFL in the use of blitz packages to get to the quarterback. Much of the early season production has disappeared.
While injuries along the defensive line have played a role in this drop-off, a leaky secondary hasn’t helped. The Colts have a long history of allowing sub-par quarterbacks look like future Hall of Famers. They can’t allow that to happen this week. The Jaguars do not have the personnel in the receiving game to excuse another disastrous performance.
If the secondary will play aggressively, the defensive line will have opportunities to land hits on Bortles. If they stay back in soft coverage and suffer from poor communication on the back end, they will allow Jacksonville to embarrass them at home for a second straight season.
KEEP LUCK’S POCKET CLEAN
No matter how much the Colts coaching staff and players need to respect the Jaguars defense, the unit is as susceptible as any other to losing the battle against a good offense if Andrew Luck has time. The worst case scenario for Jacksonville is to see Indianapolis maintain the kind of offensive balance it has shown over the last three weeks. If Luck has the chance to be picky about when to take his shots, he will have the advantage.
This is a big challenge for the Colts young offensive line. Limiting hits and sacks on Luck against this front seven will remove all doubt that this unit is one of the best in the league. The other option is to lose the battle in the trenches and increase the chance that Jacksonville’s defense will create turnovers and score points to bail out a weak offense.
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
Jacksonville’s offense is not built to win in a shootout. The Jags have to hope that they can limit the Colts to only a couple of touchdowns in order to stay in a position to win. The likelihood to achieve that goal is heightened considerably if they can steal possessions away the Colts offense.
On the other hand, if Indianapolis can manage to take the ball away from a Jacksonville offense that will already be challenged, it could seal an important home victory. Division games are almost always closer than either fan base wants to think and that makes the value of turnovers more important in these games than at any other time in the season.