Today, the Indianapolis Colts embark on leg one of a two week road trip to Washington, D.C. to face the Redskins. Both teams have undergone some big changes during the off-season, including new faces at quarterback. Indianapolis now has Ryan Grant, who just had the most productive year of his career in Washington. The Redskins replaced Grant by grabbing Paul Richardson, formerly in Seattle and also picked up linebacker Pernell McPhee.
A week ago, the Colts dropped their home opener to the Bengals in a game they should have won. It felt eerily similar to the second half collapses that plagued the team in 2017. One key difference was franchise quarterback Andrew Luck who had fans believing they were about to witness a last minute game-winning drive.
On the other side of the country, Washington beat up an over-matched Cardinals team. Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson combined 161 rushing yards. Thompson added 6 receptions for 63 receiving yards and a touchdown. Their defense held Sam Bradford, Larry Fitgerald, and David Johnson to 6 total points.
With this back-drop, we take a look at some of the keys to the outcome of today’s game.
Find a Way to Limit Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson
The Achilles heel for the Tampa 2 defense if giving up size for speed. Teams that lack size on defense tend to give up the advantage on the ground. In Week 1, the Colts allowed Joe Mixon to run all over them and had no answers when he caught the ball in space. He is certainly a talented prospect who looks to have taken a big second-year leap but there is very little support behind him.
The Redskins have future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson to punish weaknesses between the tackles, and a very talented change-of-pace back in Chris Thompson who could very easily be Alex Smith’s favorite target for a second straight game. If the Colts hope to see the speed approach pay off, they will have to find a way to disrupt Peterson’s vertical running style and cover the field laterally to contain Thompson.
This will not be an easy task and failure could see this game get out of hand quickly.
Create Pressure on Alex Smith
As NFL quarterbacks go, Alex Smith isn’t anything particularly special. He reminds me a bit of Chad Pennington. He is able to do enough of the right things throughout the game to generate solid numbers on offense and give you a chance to win every week. He is also able to limit mistakes and unforced errors enough to not put his defense in a difficult situation.
The best way to combat his game is to force him to be something he isn’t. If the defense can harass and force him to be heroic or play above his talent-level, they can capitalize on mistakes. Don’t get confused, Smith is a solid NFL quarterback — if the Jacksonville Jaguars had Alex Smith at quarterback they might be favored to get to and win the Super Bowl. However, you can turn Smith into Blake Bortles if you can force him to try to take over a game.
Limit Jordan Reed
Paul Richardson and Jamison Crowder are both respectable NFL receivers. They’ve both shown the ability to be highly productive and play a big role in winning football games. That said, neither player is anything close to A.J. Green, so the secondary certainly has an easier assignment on the outside this week.
Where the defense will be tested most is in how it addresses Jordan Reed. When healthy, Reed may very well be the most dangerous pass-catching tight end in the NFL. He is often injured, so a lot of fans may not be fully aware of his talent, but he will take the field this week and cannot be overlooked.
Matt Eberflus and Chris Ballard’s move to speed and athleticism, particularly at linebacker, was all about helping to improve coverage over the middle of the field. For that plan to work out, Indy must see returns against tight ends like Jordan Reed. If he gets going and the linebackers are lost, Alex Smith will churn out yards and put points on the board.
Establish a more Consistent Running Game
While the Indianapolis Colts are certainly best served when Andrew Luck is picking defenses apart, they must find a way to keep the pass rush at bay with the running game. Starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo will not be playing so Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni need to find ways to help the offensive line against a defensive front that includes Matt Ioannidis, Ryan Kerrigan and Pernell McPhee. A young and upcoming group of former Alabama defenders are also worth monitoring — Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, and Shaun Dion Hamilton.
This defensive front is not quite as strong as the Bengals and Indianapolis must find a way to exploit it. A key to doing that is getting Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, and Jordan Wilkins rolling on the ground. If they can be productive and force the edge defenders to hesitate, Andrew Luck will have more room in the pocket to make magic happen.
As Colts fans know, if Luck has time, there is a good chance magic will happen.
Make Big Offensive Plays
Frank Reich has protected Andrew Luck and not asked him to his shoulder by throwing the ball vertically a lot throughout the preseason. It helps that Reich’s offense is predicated on more short and intermediate routes designed to get the ball out of Luck’s hand quickly. This offense requires establishing tempo and tiring out the defense. While the approach can be highly effective, it will really open up if a couple of hay makers also land.
The nature of the offense is to act like a coil. These short plays are designed to get the defense to cheat closer and closer to the line of scrimmage as the short zones get picked apart. When this happens, the offense is like a loading spring. When the time is right, the spring needs to unload deep, over the top of a defense that has started to lose discipline. To be effective, the big plays have to hit.
Last week, T.Y. Hilton dropped a pass that would have gone for a long gain. Jack Doyle fumbled away the team’s chance at completing the game-winning touchdown drive.
This week, players have to haul in those big plays and protect the ball. If this offense can force the defense to spread out because it is worried about both short and long plays, everything will start working. If it doesn’t, shrinking defenses mean fewer running and passing lanes.
Big plays have to be there for everything to work as intended.
1pm PM ET on Sunday September 16, 2018
FedEx Field - Landover, Maryland
CBS - Spero Dedes (play-by-play), Adam Archuleta (color analyst)
WFNI (107.5FM/1070 The Fan) and WLHK (Country 97.1 Hank FM)
Mostly cloudy with scattered showers. Winds gusting up to 15 mph. - Per Accuweather