Two weeks ago, the Colts were 5-2 and were being discussed as one of the most underrated AFC teams in 2019. National analysts were saying that no team in the AFC would want to see Indianapolis in the playoffs as they were good enough to upset anyone. Much of this reputation was built on the ability to win close games and to upset the Kansas City Chiefs and handle the Houston Texans at home.
At minimum, the Colts appeared to be the clear front runner in the AFC South.
Now, the Colts are entering a crucial game. Dropping two winnable games in a row has put them within reach of the rest of the division. The Jacksonville Jaguars are currently last in the division but a win today would raise them into a three-way tie behind the Houston Texans. Similarly, the Colts would fall into a three-way tie broken only by division record.
If the Colts win and the Texans lose to the Ravens, the Colts will move back into first place in the AFC South due to a superior division record and head-to-head record with the Houston Texans.
This is where we are through 11 Weeks of the season.
The home stretch is coming and the Colts face their own division opponents in 4 of the last 7 weeks of the season. Winning those games will help to retain a late season advantage and a playoff berth. Losing division games will allow outside outcomes to influence the team’s destiny.
What keys should the Colts focus on in the home match-up with the Jacksonville Jaguars today?
OFFENSIVE LINE MUST RECOVER
There is little denying the fact that the Colts offensive line set a high bar for itself over the last half of 2018 and the first half of 2019. The group started to receive recognition as possibly the best unit in the NFL and spread the “run the damn ball” mantra through a Colts fan base that has marveled at dominant passing games for the better part of two decades.
Minor injuries have started to take a toll this season. Ryan Kelly has been dinged up and missed some snaps. Quenton Nelson missed some practice time and perhaps still isn’t completely back to his dominant self. Anthony Castonzo and Braden Smith may not be hurt but they’ve struggling more with outside speed rushers at this point in the season than they had for quite some time.
If the Colts hope to recover their swagger and finish the season strong, they’ll need to help keep Jacoby Brissett clean in the pocket. They’ll need to begin opening up running lanes for Marlon Mack and other Colts rushers, especially when they need to do it. They cannot afford to allow opponents like the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Miami Dolphins to shut down their ground game and force Frank Reich to the air.
This offense is predicated on balance. The balance starts with establishing the run. The offensive line will be key to making that happen.
RUN THE DAMN BALL
Look, the Colts are running awfully thin in the passing game. Their starting quarterback is a little over a week removed from a knee strain that will likely bother him the rest of the season. Their best offensive weapon, T.Y. Hilton, has already been ruled out for another game due to a nagging hamstring injury.
Their second receiver, Devin Funchess, returned to practice this week but is not quite ready to return from the injured reserve. Second-year training camp darling Deon Cain not only failed to take advantage of some pretty heavy looks early this season, he also found himself on the Colts’ practice squad — and has been subsequently signed away to the Pittsburgh Steelers active roster.
Second-year training camp stud Daurice Fountain suffered a season-ending ankle injury just as camp was about to end. 2019 Second Round pick Parris Campbell fractured his hand two weeks ago and clearly has a ways to go before he will be ready to return. Former undrafted receivers Zach Pascal and Chester Rogers are the top options at receiver for Brissett.
With this back-drop and playing one of the league’s better pass rushing defenses, you have to be able to run the ball. Punish aggressive rush packages with draws and delayed hand-offs, or perhaps screen passes. This is only possible if key number one happens. The offensive line must get back to its dominant ways.
If Indy can’t get anything going on the ground today, the results could be very disappointing.
There have been costly mistakes in every one of the Colts losses this season. Adam Vinatieri was largely responsible for an opening week loss against the Los Angeles Chargers. Key defensive mistakes, namely penalties, and a missed game-winner by Vinatieri was largely responsible for a close road loss in Pittsburgh. Brian Hoyer’s interceptions and Adam Vinatieri’s missed opportunities were largely responsible for a disappointing home loss to the Miami Dolphins.
Only the loss to the Raiders feels like it was a team-wide let down where an opponent came into Lucas Oil Stadium and simply played better football. Too many big plays, and a lack of discipline on gadget plays, were largely responsible for that loss.
Today, the Colts need to return to the penalty-free football they played early in the season. They need to limit self-inflicted wounds including turnovers. They need to win in the trenches and have a game plan that will exploit Jacksonville’s weaknesses. They need to stop dropping passes that hit receivers in the hands and stop settling for field goal attempts in the red zone.
Football is a game affected quite a bit by continuity. The more players play together, the more they can come to know what to expect from one another. The more the roster fluctuates, this process has to start over.
Both teams will be impacted by this due to injuries but the Jaguars will start Nick Foles for only the second time since he joined the team in the off-season. If he manages to stay healthy today, it will be the first game he will have finished for the Jaguars. To say that this lack of continuity and communication with receivers can be exploited is an understatement.
Colts defenders should play aggressive football today. Keep Leonard Fournette in check on the ground and play the passing lanes through the air. There are reasons to believe that if the defense can be opportunistic, create some turnovers and steal some possessions, much of the Colts worries can be mitigated.
FRANK REICH NEEDS TO EARN HIS REPUTATION
Much has been made of Frank Reich’s aggressive mentality. He has been quick to go for four down conversions, even in his own territory. He has been known to speed things up in these situations or use trickery by calling a timeout after appearing to only attempt to draw an opponent off-sides.
Reich brought a dynamic, modern offense to Indianapolis. He has had to try to make lemonade this season with many of his weapons watching from the sidelines. Nothing about this is easy but one thing needs to happen today. Reich needs to remain balanced and take advantage of what the Jaguars are giving him. When Marlon Mack is gaining 3-5 yards running behind Quenton Nelson, he needs to feed the backfield. When his opponent over-commits to stop inside runs, he needs to pull big Q outside and punish opponents with outside runs.
Don’t misunderstand. Reich has done a nice job since he took over the reigns in Indianapolis. However, it is during times like this, with injuries piling up, that coaches make their money. Today is a big day for Frank Reich.