The Indianapolis Colts head into Sunday’s game against the New York Giants with its back against the wall in a late-season push for the playoffs. The Los Angeles Chargers fell flat against the Baltimore Ravens, leaving the Colts on the outside looking in and with no choice but to win the next two games.
While the 2018 New York Giants are not the same team as the one who shocked the New England Patriots, ruining the team’s bid for a perfect season in 2007, the franchise knows how to play spoiler. The Giants Super Bowl win prompted the first and only NFL merchandise purchase I’ve ever made for another team. Eli Manning hasn’t had the same mojo for awhile and he will be without Odell Beckham Jr., but rookie sensation Saquon Barkley has likely locked up the Offensive Rookie of the Year bid by doing what draft experts thought he would do all season.
The Colts cannot afford to come out flat like they did in Jacksonville a few weeks ago. They have to keep their foot on the gas and continue playing full games. If Indianapolis can manage to make the playoffs, it could be the most dangerous wild card team in the NFL. The only way to get there and the only way to do damage is to stay consistent, continue playing with something to prove, and to not allow press clippings and interviews to change the fact that the Colts are still in the process of building a franchise.
Perhaps the biggest threat for the Colts defense is that Al Woods, Anthony Walker and Clayton Geathers are big-time contributors defending the run. All are out of today’s game (Woods for the season). Someone will have to step up and step in to make life challenging for Barkley and force Eli Manning to win the game.
Here are the keys to the game.
KEEP BARKLEY PEDESTRIAN
A week ago, the Colts were able to keep Ezekiel Elliott from taking over the game by hitting him early and often. His biggest play went for a little over twenty yards and Indianapolis was able to build a lead that forced Dallas to pass the ball. This week, a similar strategy should work well.
Saquon Barkley is likely going to get a lot of opportunities. Given that New York is not playing for anything, don’t expect the Giants to go away from the run just because they are behind. The Colts defense will have to stay honest and do its best to limit chunk yard plays and long touchdown runs.
If Barkley is held to 100 or so yards and a touchdown, the Colts should be in great shape. If Barkley channels Maurice Jones Drew and runs for over 200 yards with multiple touchdowns, it could be a very frustrating day.
One of the benefits for the Colts’ new defensive scheme is that the play of the front seven doesn’t change significantly on run or pass downs. Personnel might change but the concept of penetrating the line of scrimmage and getting through gaps remains the same. This means that the defensive line should be able to work into running lanes to stop Barkley and keep moving into Eli Manning’s face if he keep the ball.
As mentioned earlier, the 2018 version of Eli Manning isn’t the same as the one a decade ago. It has been years since he has been one of the league’s top signal callers and the rumble from fans to move on to someone knew has grown louder over the last two or three years. Other than Saquon Barkley, Manning will have Evan Engram and Sterling Shepherd to keep the ball moving through the air. Neither are as dangerous as Amari Cooper or DeAndrew Hopkins, who the Colts secondary effectively shut down in the last two weeks.
Get pressure in Manning’s face and continue to shut things down in the secondary and the Giants will be in trouble.
Earlier this season, the Colts lost football games due to tipped ball interceptions, fumbles, and unnecessarily rushed passes. These self-inflicted wounds and mistakes now have the Colts facing elimination. The difference between talent levels on NFL franchises is too close to regularly make up for unforced errors. A single turnover or untimely mistake can turn the outcome of a game.
Andrew Luck needs to make calm decisions with the football, needs to not force the ball to his targets, and needs to do the best he can to keep the ball on target to reduce the likelihood that the ball will be tipped into the air. Lucks’ receivers need to concentrate on making the catch before doing anything else. Eric Ebron was recently named to his first Pro Bowl but the last two or three weeks have seen his nasty habit of dropping easy passes flare up. One of those ridiculous drops will cost the Colts a game by ending a key drive.
Finally, the coaching staff needs to be smart about how it uses the running back committee. There is no reason to run Marlon Mack into the ground late in a game. This means that Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins need to be ready to have their number called and not give the coaching staff a reason to regret it.
Eliminate costly offensive mistakes and turnovers and the Giants will struggle to keep pace.
GOOD MANIAC NEEDS TO STAY GOOD
Darius Leonard should be seriously considered for Defensive Player of the Year. He should be the front runner for Rookie Defensive Player of the Year. These things ought to make it pretty obvious that he should have been named to the 2018 Pro Bowl.
One has to wonder just how much disappointment Leonard will have to face this year with voters making it extraordinarily clear that they do not 1) follow the league closely enough, 2) have the intellectual or moral fortitude it takes to not fall into hometown bias, or 3) have the football acumen to do, say, or vote in a manner that is befitting of the NFL or reflective of the effort of individual players who deserve league-wide recognition.
For a young man who has gone through so much to get to this point, it is devastating that any voting member, or any NFL related institution, would be stupid enough to honestly vote for Leighton Vander Esch as the defensive rookie of the year, or as the best rookie linebacker. The egg on the faces of those people and groups is so thick and reeks so badly that any one of those people or institutions doesn’t deserve the faith of NFL fans.
Colts fans know this. The coaching staff and front office knows it. Darius Leonard should definitely know it.
The thing is, knowing it isn’t enough. Leonard has been seeking recognition for years. Some people need it for the wrong reasons. Some need it because they have to be in the spotlight. Some have personalities that demand it. Some are annoying if they don’t get it. Leonard needs it because he’s deserved it for so long and has worked so hard and come so far that it would help validate everything he has been through.
This creates a perfect storm that could result in a two game stretch that puts Leonard into NFL record books. It also could cause Leonard to make rookie mistakes by pushing too hard. He has not shown this trait yet. He has stayed disciplined and made the right choices and big plays. He needs to breath in all of the frustration and breath it right back out.
Leonard is deserving of recognition and individual honors and the best way for him to eventually get it is to NOT CHANGE A THING. Let’s hope he can do that today.
SOMEONE NEEDS TO STEP UP
The NFL has a demanding season. 16 regular season games follow four preseason games and months filled with training camp, off-season training activities, mini camps, and individual workouts. The best players almost always are the most active in the off-season, working to develop physically and stay at the top of their respective games.
Late in the season, attrition is unavoidable. Consider the pieces Indianapolis has lost to injury and the impact they might have had on the season, or the impact they could make in this late season push.
Rookie wide receiver Deon Cain was playing his way into a likely starting spot. He went down in preseason. Tight end Jack Doyle is one of the most important offensive weapons on the team and does everything well. Safety Matthias Farley is perhaps the most underappreciated member of the Colts secondary. Clayton Geathers is missing the game today and Farley would have been a tremendous fill-in. He is no longer available.
Tight end Ross Travis ended the 2017 season showing flashes of what he can do as a receiver. He didn’t even make it to the opener. Defensive tackle Al Woods is one of the most important pieces to the Colts run defense and he won’t be available the rest of the way. Even rotational defensive lineman Jihad Ward had come on as a disruptive member in the rotation. In only 6 games, Ward collected 3 sacks and six quarterback hits in limited snaps.
Will Grover Stewart step up to replace Woods? Will Hassan Ridgeway get a chance? Which linebacker will take over for Walker? Will Zaire Franklin step in? Which safety takes over for Geathers? Is Mike Mitchell healthy enough to fill his role or will George Odum be asked to play heavy minutes?
New faces will have to step into the spotlight as key contributors down the stretch if the Colts hope to make the final push to the playoffs. Our eye will be on which new player or players stands out at home against the Giants.