The Indianapolis Colts come out of their bye week with a 4-2 record and sit one game back in the AFC South. Their horrific start in Week 6 against the Cincinnati Bengals forced Frank Reich and Philip Rivers to open things up and the results were encouraging. The question the team faces now is, which version of themselves do they want to be?
Consider that the defense has gotten off to numerous slow starts this season, despite still being widely considered as one of the best unit’s in the NFL. These slow starts have put the offense in difficult positions and against quality opponents, could put Indy in holes that it can’t crawl back out of. Second half adjustments have been huge but one could fairly ask whether or not the defense should be more aggressive from the beginning of the game. Arguably the team has enough talent at each level to dictate the game from the first kickoff.
Consider that the offense was supposed to be a run-heavy juggernaut but has been unable to really get things going. This has forced Philip Rivers to establish a rapport with a very injured group of receivers and left Frank Reich to look rather vanilla. Still, the Bengals game should be a reminder that the veteran quarterback can read defenses and make good adjustments. The no-huddle was particularly effective. If the Colts can establish a balanced threat on offense, both phases of the game should show real signs of improvement.
The Detroit Lions enter the contest 3-3 with a marquee win on the road against the Arizona Cardinals. Their biggest blowout came at the hands of the Green Bay Packers. Only two opponents have scored more than 30 on their defense. Detroit’s biggest defensive and offensive weaknesses are on the ground.
Let’s take a look at the keys to the game.
RUN THE DAMN BALL
This is the last game the Colts will have again an arguably weaker opponent until Week 13. The next slate includes the Ravens, Packers, and two huge division games against the Titans. These will require the Colts to be hitting on all cylinders if they want any hope to take over the top spot in the AFC South.
In order to make this happen, Indy has to figure out how to get the ground game going. Whether there are blocking issues, vision issues, balance issues, or simply play-calling — getting a strong ground game going will put pressure on opponents. Rivers needs to know that checking down to a run or handling the ball of to one of his backs will put him in a favorable position and make his job easier.
If the Colts can run the ball on a team that has be susceptible to giving up yards on the ground, it should keep the defense fresh and allow them to be aggressive. If the Colts can run but the Lions can’t, the game shifts heavily in Indy’s favor.
STAY UP-TEMPO ON OFFENSE
The Colts are not yet at full strength offensively. Getting Michael Pittman Jr. back at receiver will help but Parris Campbell has not returned and Jack Doyle hasn’t looked like himself. This has led to a rather sloppy and unpredictable start to the season on offense. While neither is the kind of description fans hope for, there is a way to capitalize on it.
It’s difficult to determine which of Indy’s offensive skill players is the primary focus. Taylor could be considered the most consistently active but Rivers has spread the ball around and injuries have given opponents new looks every week. This is a great time to use an up tempo offensive style.
This style will allow Philip Rivers to use his incredible experience to put the offense in a good position. The more he can get the defense to show something early and can audible to plays that give the Colts an advantage, the better the results will likely be.
PRESSURE STAFFORD EARLY AND OFTEN
The biggest defensive weakness in Indianapolis is a lack of a consistent pass rush threat. DeForest Buckner will likely get multiple hits and hurries, and possibly a sack. Justin Houston may or may not pick up a sack of his own. However, Grover Stewart is rarely going to be in a spot to get one and there hasn’t been consistent production opposite Houston at defensive end this year.
If the Colts hope to win in this stretch of games, if they want to get into the playoffs, they need to figure out the pass rush. The good news is that Kemoko Turay returned to the practice field this week and could be only a week or two away from getting back onto the field. He represents the best player option to fix the early season issues.
However, Matt Eberflus and Brian Baker need to find a way to generate pressure outside of individual performance or effort. Whether that includes more blitzing by Kenny Moore or the linebackers or a more active rotation on the defensive line to give opponents new looks, they need to figure something out. If they can get pressure on Stafford early and frustrate him, they could gain confidence at an important crossroads in their season.