The 2019 Indianapolis Colts have out-performed early season expectations by winning close football games. Last week, in Pittsburgh, self-inflicted wounds were too big to overcome. A missed extra point and possible game-winning field goal, a pick-six thrown by backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, costly penalties, and a horrible showing by the offensive line were all controllable.
If that wasn’t enough, the injuries at wide receiver have been challenging to overcome. If Zach Pascal wasn’t on the team, things would be an unmitigated disaster. Even with him, the team is missing the assumed 1 and 2 receivers in Hilton and Funchess and 2019 second round pick Parris Campbell will be out for weeks dealing with a fracture in his hand. Center Ryan Kelly went down during the game, which forced the offensive line to play with a different lineup for the first time this season. Top cornerback Pierre Desir missed the game and will likely miss this one.
Let’s face it, every team has to deal with injuries and overcome adversity. It is situations like this that force general managers to earn their paycheck. The good news? Chris Ballard continues to look like one of the top talent evaluators and roster builders in the NFL. Consider that the team has relatively few glaring weaknesses, even with the injuries (wide receiver being an obvious one under the circumstances). More importantly, the number of young players who are making a big impact in games is astonishing — particularly on defense.
Rookies and second-year defensive players who are key contributors and/or have shown signs of real development include: Darius Leonard, George Odum, Kemoko Turay, Rock Ya-Sin, Khari WIllis, Bobby Okereke, Ben Banogu, and Marvell Tell III. These players carry a grand total 2019 cap hit of $7.9 million and have years left on their rookie deals. This is a healthy position to be in as a football team long-term.
It will take contributions from many of these young players on defense, and an efficient game on offense to put the Dolphins away at home. Here are my keys to the game.
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
The Colts have a clear advantage in this game in terms of overall talent. They have home field advantage, a veteran backup quarterback under center, and their offensive line should be back together.
As with a week ago, limiting self-inflict wounds will go a long way to making this game the kind of lopsided event it should be. If Hoyer is careless with the ball in his first start with the Colts or ball carriers expose the ball to defenders, the Dolphins can take advantage.
On the other hand, Ryan Fitzpatrick is one of the most aggressive passers in the game. He will try to fit throws into tight windows and will put the ball up for grabs at times. Can the young defense capitalize? If so, the offense could be given short field and extra scoring chances. This would bode well for Indianapolis and be difficult to overcome for Miami.
DO NOT THROW AWAY SCORING CHANCES
Last week, the Colts had a chance to score a touchdown on their first offensive drive, with Deon Cain clearly open in the end zone but Jacoby Brissett held onto the ball and took a sack instead. Brian Hoyer directed the offense into scoring territory in the first half but threw a costly pick-six that could have otherwise been points for Indianapolis. Adam Viniatieri had a line-drive extra point blocked and missed a likely game winner.
There are plenty of reasons these things can happen. Vinatieri and the special teams units may have to figure out things collectively. No matter the reason though, the Colts can’t afford to leave points on the field and expect to win games — especially not in the fashion that they should win against inferior opponents.
CLEAN UP THE PENALTIES
Early in the season, the Colts were among the least penalized teams in the NFL. Over the last couple of weeks, things have started to come apart at the seams. Unnecessary roughness penalties, defensive holding and pass interference, and holding penalties on the offensive line and tight ends have all created difficult circumstances and awarded opponents with extra yards or extra chances.
It is time to see this football team get back to the discipline that defined it early in the season. If the Colts play a clean game, their chances of winning are very high.
BLOCK THE DAMN DEFENSE
The Colts offensive line has been a highlight this season and has earned respect and recognition around the league. While it’s nice to get recognized, that will do nothing for you on game day. This unit has looked vulnerable recently and it has had an impact on games.
If Brian Hoyer has shown anything in limited snaps, he has shown that he is capable of generating yards in the passing game. However, he is not particularly well suited to handle pressure in the pocket, is unlikely to pull himself through arm tackles like Jacoby Brissett, and can be forced into make bad decisions (something Brissett is careful to avoid). The line needs to keep him clean and give him time. If he can sit in the pocket and go through his reads, I think he has a favorable match-up against the Dolphins defense — even with a depleted receiving corps.
In terms of the run game, this is another huge opportunity. The Dolphins aren’t particularly gifted stopping the run and the Colts should have a clear advantage in the trenches. Can the unit stay healthy? Will Frank Reich stick with it? A healthy ground game can make things easier on the passing game.
The Dolphins offensive line includes two players who were unable to stick on the regular season roster at final cuts this season. In theory, this suggests that Miami is starting some weak offensive linemen — including at left tackle. Can Ben Banogu take another step forward in his development? Will Justin Houston feast on J’Marcus Webb?
Keep an eye on the Colts pass rush today. If things are clicking, the Dolphins offense could get pretty frustrated.