The Colts face what is no doubt their toughest challenge of the season in this week 5 game, and they’ll do it in less than ideal circumstances. With a roster that is depleted by injuries and a defense that has played well below expectations, the Colts will travel to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that, even absent their best receiver, has been unstoppable on offense.
This Colts team struggled against the Chiefs in Arrowhead in the playoffs last year with Andrew Luck under center. It stands to reason that with Jacoby Brissett leading this offense and a defense that hasn’t been nearly as effective this season, this team shouldn’t stand a chance.
However, what I want to do here is put on a slightly rose-colored pair of glasses and view this situation through an optimistic lens. What would it take from this team to get a win, and how improbable is that to expect?
The Colts offense has actually been pretty solid through the first quarter of the season. Despite losing a top five quarterback and struggling with drops, they’ve still managed to rank 6th in the league in offensive DVOA. The balanced attack from this offense and Frank Reich’s master class of play calling so far this season has been one of the primary reasons for their success, and they rank 4th in offensive Drive Success Rate, just two spots behind the Chiefs. If you don’t know what that is or why it matters, it is spelled out wonderfully here.
If you watched the film of the Colts against the Raiders, you might be concerned about their ability to run the ball given some struggles on the interior of the offensive line with Ryan Kelly and Mark Glowinski. I talked about this on the most recent Stampede Radio episode, but I expect Kelly to bounce back in a big way this week. He is one of the best centers in football and had an awful game. That happens sometimes, and the guy was sick during the week leading up to the game. Clearly that impact was felt last Sunday.
The result was an inability to run the ball, which cost them dearly with T.Y. Hilton out. I don’t anticipate a repeat. This offense was stymied in Arrowhead last year, and given the mentality of the guys in that locker room, they won’t be okay with that happening again. Frank Reich will be ready with his game plan, and I expect this offense to move the ball effectively from the jump via the run.
There is a clear roadmap to win this game from the offensive side. If they are able to run the ball like they did in week 1, they’ll likely ride that as much as possible. It makes for long, grinding drives that wear down the defense, and it keeps Patrick Mahomes on the sideline. The Colts averaging 4-5 yards per carry and running the ball 35-40 times on Sunday night, is the best formula possible for a win on the road.
If they find that kind of success on the ground, it will open up options in the passing game and keep the playbook unpredictable. When Frank Reich consistently can work from short down and distance situations he is, in my opinion, the best offensive play caller in football. Those situations allow for easy reads for Jacoby Brissett and let the receivers make plays after the catch. Most importantly, they’ll need to end every offensive drive with points, and they’ll need to be aggressive about it from the very start.
There is a caveat to all this. Two very key players in this game on the offensive side of the ball are T.Y. Hilton and Marlon Mack. If both aren’t healthy enough to play and play at a high level, this offense is going to have virtually no shot to scrape out a win. Their availability is no sure thing, as so far neither has practiced this week. A win against a team this good on the road is tough enough, but without your two most significant offensive skill players? Not possible. All the Colts can do on that front is keep their fingers crossed.
The Colts defense on the whole wasn’t great in 2018. They gave up a lot of yards and were susceptible to long, agonizing drives when they faced quarterbacks capable of picking apart their zone coverage. As our own Zach Hicks noted, this team doesn’t really use its corners to get physical at the line of scrimmage. They don’t do much to disrupt the timing of receivers, and the results speak for themselves.
What was different last season from this one, is that the Colts weren’t giving up big plays. They were more than capable against the run, and clamped down on teams in the red zone. This year? Football Outsiders ranks them dead last against the run. They aren’t much better against the pass either, coming in at 24th. Worst of all, they rank 31st in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 75% of their opponents’ trips there. That isn’t winning football.
Their weakness against the run isn’t of the highest concern, because the Chiefs simply don’t need to rely on being balanced. That isn’t to say they can’t run the ball at all, but their passing attack is so prolific that they can pretty much find ways to decimate their opponents without using the run all that much.
Despite missing Tyreek Hill, the passing attack hasn’t missed a beat. Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce, and Demarcus Robinson are all on pace for 1000-yard receiving seasons and have 7 touchdowns between the three of them. Rookie Mecole Hardman has added another 2 and offers a similar type of threat that Hill did.
The long and short here is that we should expect the Chiefs to score points. Their worst performance so far this season saw them put up 28, and they did that all in one quarter. So what chance does this defense have?
First, Matt Eberflus has to be aggressive. They have to get to Patrick Mahomes early and often. The good news there is they should have Jabaal Sheard back as healthy as he’s been all season, which is no small thing. They’ll need Denico Autry to be the best version of himself, and Justin Houston going on a tear would be great as well. Every quarterback, even one as good as Patrick Mahomes, plays worse with pressure in their face.
Next, they need far better play from their linebackers. That is another area of good news, because Darius Leonard seems to be progressing through concussion protocol and should return to play. They can’t give up huge plays over the middle in the passing game, or let Lesean McCoy and Damien Williams get going in the running game. Preventing that starts up front but how the linebackers play will make a big difference there too.
In the defensive backfield is the biggest test of all. This is a team that will eat them alive if they depend on playing soft zone coverage, or off-man. The corners will need to be physical with the receivers, and they need to be aggressive. In those situations where they have to make a decision about whether to go for the pass breakup or go for the pick, the decision has to be to try for the takeaway. If they enter this game with the mentality that they’re going to take the ball away, it gives them their best chance at a win.
If I am Frank Reich, I enter this game with punting removed from my play sheet. With the exception of possibly having the ball in your own red zone and in a 4th and more than 10 situation, I’m not sure it makes sense to punt the ball at all. In the event that they do have to punt, they need to cover perfectly, and Rigoberto Sanchez has to be excellent. To have any kind of chance at all, special teams has to be flawless.
Adam Vinatieri needs to be perfect as well. He looked good in his return to Lucas Oil Stadium after a dreadful start to the season, but he won’t be getting any standing ovations at Arrowhead, and the pressure will be on him. As with punting, kicking field goals should pretty much be ruled out in this game. The Colts need to score touchdowns to hang with the Chiefs. That doesn’t let Vinny off the hook though. They’ll need him to hit his extra points, a thing that was once a lock.
So how probable is all this? Obviously not very. The Chiefs have a very good offense, and the Colts defense hasn’t proven able to stop good quarterbacks. While they have been efficient on offense, there is no guarantee that T.Y. Hilton or Marlon Mack will be able to play Sunday. Without Hilton, Mack, or Darius Leonard on defense, this team’s chances are simply too slim to realistically expect a win.
However, this is the NFL. It is a game of inches.
Frank Reich isn’t afraid of this Chiefs team. He will have his team prepared to go on Sunday night. They will have a chance to make a statement to the league in prime time, and prove they are a team to be reckoned with. With excellent execution and a whole lot of luck, maybe, just maybe, they come out of Arrowhead with a win.