The Indianapolis Colts head to Las Vegas in a tie for first place in the AFC South. Their home loss two weeks ago to the Tennessee Titans reduces hopes of winning the division and makes their mission down the stretch as simple as it has always been.
They need to win games.
What makes this game particularly important is that it has direct wild card playoff implications. The Colts have a one-game lead on the Raiders, who are right in the wild card playoff hunt. A win today will boost Indy’s odds of earning a playoff berth considerably. A loss would give the Colts and Raiders the same record and put even greater pressure on Indianapolis down the stretch.
This franchise needs to grasp firmly to control of its own destiny. Winning this game goes a long way to achieving that goal. Losing it creates a ridiculous set of new circumstances, most of them outside of the team’s control.
Limit Josh Jacobs
Jon Gruden loves old school, smashmouth football. Every one of his idioms covering the game as an analyst been smothered in his desire for football to get back to the bygone days of hard-nosed, run game-heavy football that is won or lost in the muddy and bloody trenches. If Chuck Pagano is jettisoned by the Bears, it’s fun to imagine pairing him with Gruden. One can only imagine the conversations these coaches would have, planning to reverse the course of the modern NFL game. They would surely take it back to the iron sharpens iron, man sharpens man game they know and love so well.
While Derek Carr has had a good year, Gruden will want to impose a running game to make his job easier and, when healthy, Jacobs is one of the most impactful backs in the NFL. The issue for Jacobs is that the Colts have been one of the stingiest run defenses in the NFL and DeForest Buckner is coming off his best game of the year. Running on this team will be difficult and don’t forget the Denico Autry likely has reasons for a little extra motivation playing against his old team.
If the Colts can take Jacobs away, both through defensive play and by getting an early lead, it will make Gruden look to the air. Yes, Carr is having a good year. No, Carr isn’t a player who can be regularly relied upon to absolutely take over a football game. The Colts should try to put him into a position to have to do just that.
Take away Darren Waller
Much of the receiving room in Vegas is either inexperienced or not particularly dangerous. The most well-known receiver on the team is Nelson Agholor, who is in his sixth season. The most feared receiver could be speedster Henry Ruggs III who hasn’t put it all together just yet and may not have the best quarterback to really utilize his talents.
The Raiders do have Darren Waller though, and he is one of a very small group of tight ends — in the same conversation as a Travis Kelce or a George Kittle — who can take over a football game. The bad news for Las Vegas is that the Colts have been very stingy with opponent tight ends and second-year linebacker Bobby Okereke is a big reason why. With Okereke likely to return to the lineup, the Colts have a good chance to slow Waller down.
With Waller under wraps, Carr will have an even more difficult time playing the hero.
Run the Damn Ball
This Raiders defense is not particularly strong. Football Outsiders ranks them 24th in overall DVOA and 31st in run defense. Rookie running back Jonathan Taylor has really looked like he is putting everything together by eclipsing 90 or more rushing yards in his last two games to go along with at least three receptions. He has averaged over five yards per carry and started to reinsert himself as the lead back in a talented rotation.
If Anthony Castonzo does take the field in Vegas, Taylor will have all of his starting offensive linemen at his disposal. If Taylor gets going, the Raiders could be in trouble. This will open up the play-action passing game and allow Philip Rivers to pick apart a franchise he has seen regularly from his years in the AFC West.
Fast defensive start
The Colts defense has had a nasty habit of sleepwalking into games. Whether it is the players or limitations for Matt Eberflus and his defense, Indianapolis must find a way to figure it out. One can only conclude that these struggles are primarily showing up when the opponent is going through their scripted playbook. It could suggest that offenses are able to identify Colts’ defensive tendencies and weaknesses and scheme their way to success.
The defense improves once the script is over. By that time, it’s a chess match between coordinators, and the players are so fired up that the second half this season has been very impressive. For reference, the team has allowed 13 total second-half points in the last four games, and that includes shutouts on the road in Nashville and in Houston. The Green Bay Packers scored three second-half points in a losing effort in Week 11. The only exception to this dominant scoring defense was allowing 10 second-half points at home to the Titans and that was without DeForest Buckner, Denico Autry, and Bobby Okereke — thanks COVID-19.
If the Colts want to make a push for the playoffs and position themselves to advance, the defense must find a way to impose its will earlier in the game. It’s difficult to imagine any opponent feeling good about going into half-time against the Colts without a lead or without a good first-half showing.