The Indianapolis Colts kick off the 2020 NFL season with a trip to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars in an early AFC South showdown. On paper, the Colts should have the advantage here, with the Jags losing a ton of talent over the offseason and Colts General Manager Chris Ballard seemingly intent on building the roster to make a near-term, deep run into the playoffs.
For those who didn’t get the opportunity to watch the NFL season opener on Thursday, I suggest that you temper your early game expectations. A shortened offseason program, training camp, and lack of any preseason action could lead to sloppy football from both sidelines, and on both sides of the ball. With that in mind, and given that so little is yet known about this version of the Indianapolis Colts, the keys to the game will be pretty high level.
Veteran Philip Rivers takes over the reins for the Colts offense. Again, on paper, this represents a clear upgrade at the game’s most important position. Just two seasons ago Rivers was squarely in the early MVP conversation. After a rough statistical season a year ago, at least in terms of interceptions thrown, some are questioning whether he is squarely on the decline.
The biggest thing working in Rivers’ favor is a massive upgrade on the offensive line, assuming they’re all healthy enough to play at their best. He spent much of his career under distress with the Chargers and isn’t particularly mobile. If he has an extra second to get the ball out without pressure in his face, there’s reason to believe his decision-making and ball placement could improve.
What is working against Rivers is that he has had very little time to establish rapport with his receivers, a new set of pass-catchers out of the backfield, and a different set of athletes at the tight end position.
Which of these elements has the bigger impact in Sunday’s game? If Rivers can establish a rhythm relatively quickly, the Colts could get rolling and put the Jaguars on their heals. If not...
Gardner Minshew burst onto the scene in 2019, outperforming any reasonable expectations and giving the Jaguars enough confidence to let Nick Foles leave after very modest contributions to the franchise. He is not without his flaws and has had some ups and downs during the offseason to demonstrate them. However, he has a strong relationship with receiver D.J. Chark. If Minshew gets things going to Chark, it could put pressure on the Colts to figure things out quickly.
Rock Ya-Sin has showed signs that he could make a second-year leap and become a formidable and legitimate number one corner. Signs and in-game production are two different things. He could be matched up frequently with the Jaguars only offensive superstar, the aforementioned Chark, and could play an important role in frustrating Minshew throughout the game.
Xavier Rhodes has All Pro talent but hasn’t shown it for some time. Is it because his athletic ability has started to fade? Have offensive skill players gotten better? Was it a bad defensive scheme fit in Minnesota?
It was probably some mix of these reasons but he has a chance to play in a new scheme the Colts believe could be perfect for his skill-set. Does he look anything like his former All Pro self or is he an early liability that not only could cost the Colts the game, but throw into question the teams hopes for playoff run?
The most glaring issue on Thursday night was that neither team looked particularly prepared to tackle opponents. This offseason has not included preseason games and therefore no live, to the ground, full-go tackling. These are professional athletes who have played football for most of their lives so it’s not like they’ve forgotten how to tackle, but tackling is like any other skill on a football field it is a skill mastered primarily through muscle memory.
While it should seem obvious, the team who tackles best will have an advantage. It takes tackling to stop an offensive player and disrupt offensive momentum. Extended plays, broken tackles, bad angles, and a variety of other tackling related issues can quickly give a bad player or a bad team all they need to win a football game.
Colts win 27-17