Hitchhiker’s Guide to Colts at Lions, NFL Week 13

As they had done twice before, the Colts rebounded from a blowout loss with a win on their home field. Now, coming off of their 20-13 victory over the Buffalo Bills, they head to Detroit to face a Lions team that has been all-but-eliminated from the playoffs and is looking to prove that it's better than its record. Will the Colts be able to attack a suspect Lions secondary and contain Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, and the Lions offense to pick up the rare road win and move to 8-4? Or will NT Ndamukong Suh and the Lions DL punish Luck, stymie the Colts offense, and send the Colts packing with a 7-5 record?

We'll look at the key stats, match-ups, and injuries, as well as Sunday's announcing and officiating crews, in this week's Hitchhiker's Guide to Colts at Lions!

Tale of the tape

How do the Colts and Lions measure up against each other on offense and defense? Let us take a look. NFL.com conventional rankings are listed first, with FootballOutsiders.com advanced stats (DVOA) in parenthesis.  

 

Indianapolis Colts

   

Detroit Lions

 
  Offense Defense   Offense Defense
Passing 7th (18th) 19th (31st)   1st (7th) 12th (20th)
Rushing 17th (14th) 20th (32nd)   24th (8th) 21st (18th)
Total 5th (16th) 20th (32nd)   2nd (4th) 13th (25th)

   

When the Colts have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Offense Detroit Lions Defense
87 WR R. Wayne 92 DE C. Avril
80 TE C. Fleener 99 DT C. Williams
74 LT A. Castonzo 90 DT N. Suh
76 LG J. Reitz 93 DE K. Vanden Bosch
64  C S. Satele 52 OLB J. Durant
75 RG M. McGlynn 55 MLB S. Tulloch
69 RT W. Justice 54 OLB D. Levy
83 TE D. Allen 23 CB C. Houston
11 WR D. Avery 24 FS E. Coleman
12 QB A. Luck 26 SS L. Delmas
33 RB V. Ballard 21 CB J. Lacey

Last week, we expected the Colts to find plenty of success while attacking the porous Buffalo Bills defense. Instead, the Bills were able to limit Luck and the offense's ability to move the ball and score points by controlling the line of scrimmage with their defensive line. This week's opponents, the Detroit Lions, will offer a similar challenge. While the Lions are saddled of the worst secondaries in the NFL, they are also blessed with one of the most talented, athletically gifted defensive lines in the league. The success of the Colts offense, and perhaps the entire team, will come down to their ability to prevent Detroit's DTs Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley from taking over the game.

Look for the Colts to attack the Lions with their 2-TE set, which will be bolstered by the return of TE Coby Fleener. With Fleener back in the mix, the Colts will be able to effectively attack the Lions both through the air and on the ground with this formation, as Fleener provides better size and blocking in the running game than a 3rd WR, and enough speed and athleticism to exploit match-ups against linebackers.

In the passing game, look for the Colts to hit the big play. The Lions are surrendering a meager 2.3 red zone trips-per-game (4th-best in the NFL) but are giving up 25.5 points-per-game (23rd in the NFL). How does this work? The Lions defense is giving up .401 points-per-PLAY (26th in the NFL, Oakland is 32nd with .512points-per-play). In other words, the Lions give up a lot of big touchdown plays. Given the Colts love of the deep pass, this could be a match-up made in heaven.

On the ground, the Colts will be able to find success in the running game if they are willing to be patient and pick their spots. The most obvious favorable match-up for the Colts will come on short-yardage and goal line situations, where the Colts rank #2 in short-yardage success and the Lions are 32nd (last in the league) in short-yardage defense (numbers according to FootballOutsiders.com) – if the Colts are in a 3rd- or 4th-and-short to go, they should be able to convert first downs in the running game.

The second favorable running game match-up for the Colts will come in a "direction."  The Colts love to run the ball left, behind LT Anthony Castonzo (their best OL) and LG Anthony Reitz. When running around the left, the Colts running game ranks 7th in the NFL (again, according to FootballOutsiders.com). For runs not around the Left End, the Colts OL ranks 18th, 29th, 22nd, 28th. As luck (not Andrew) would have it, the Detroit defensive line is very good against the run – except for runs around the left end, where they rank as the 22nd-worst DL in the league.

So look for a heavy dose of Ballard and Brown behind Castonzo on Sunday, and once they've done their work, look for Luck to turn that into some big plays down field via the play-action pass. If the interior of the line holds up long enough, the Colts should be able to put enough points on the board to keep up with the Lions' offense, and maybe sneak out with a win very few people think they'll get.

When the Lions have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Defense Detroit Lions Offense
90 DE C. Redding 16 WR T. Young
99 NT A. Johnson 76 LT J. Backus
91 DE R. Matthews 67 LG R. Sims
98 OLB R. Mathis 51 C D. Raiola
53 ILB K. Conner 66 RG S. Peterman
50 ILB J. Freeman 77 RT G. Cherilus
93 OLB D. Freeney 87 TE B. Pettigrew
32 CB C. Vaughn 85 TE T. Scheffler
28 SS T. Zbikowski 81 WR C. Johnson
41 FS A. Bethea 9 QB M. Stafford
20 CB D. Butler 25 RB M. Leshoure

The Lions will present one of the toughest match-ups for the Colts defense this season. While they lack the "can-score-on-any-play" danger of New England, they are still an explosive, balanced offense, featuring a good quarterback and a physical freak of nature (I mean that in a good way!) capable of dominating any defensive back in the NFL. The success of the Colts defense will likely come down to three keys.

The first key will be pressuring Lions QB Matt Stafford. Normally this would fall primarily on the shoulders of OLBs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis – who are both coming on strong as of late – but the data suggests that the Colts may want to blitz Stafford whenever convenient. Here are Staffords total passing numbers for 2012: 296 of 488 (60.7), for 3429 yards, 14TDs, 10 INTs, 25 sacks, and a 83.0 qbrating.  Against the blitz: 51 of 85 (60.0%), 624 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 5 sacks, 72.9 qbrating. When pressured: 16 of 51 (31.4%) for 189 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 24 sacks, and a 33.9 qbrating. And on plays he's knocked down: 9 of 30 (30%) for 98 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 12.9 qbrating.

The message is clear: get to Stafford and he'll make mistakes. Though the Lions OL is good at protecting Stafford – they've given up 25 sacks, but when you adjust for the sheer volume of throws (Stafford is 1st in NFL in attempts), they are 6th in the league in sack rate – recent game film give me hope that the Colts will be successful at harassing Stafford. In both the loss to the Patriots and the victory over the Bills, the Colts defense deployed a number of different coverages and pressure packages, and were successful at disguising them. While Tom Brady was still able to pick them apart, these packages clearly confused Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, and allowed them to aggressively shutdown the Bills passing game. Stafford is better than Fitzpatrick, but he's no Brady, and the Colts should be able to confuse him, hit him, and force him into these mistakes.

Even if the Colts are successful in attacking Stafford, it won't be on every play, which leads us to our second key to the game:  containing WR Calvin Johnson. Johnson will get his catches, he's too big, strong, and fast to be shut down by any NFL defense, let alone the Colts, but the Colts must limit the damage from each reception by making quick tackles. And while we mentioned that Johnson would be too big to be shut down, the Colts may consider getting physical with him: Johnson has 2 fumbles on the year and, though it's a hard stat to track/find, he's near the top of the NFL's leaders in drops with 7 on the year. Though they lack the presence of Bob Sanders (or even Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson, for that matter) one or two big hits on Johnson may make him think twice about hanging on to the tough catches.

The final key for the Colts defense on Sunday will be shutting down RB Mikel Leshoure. The emergence of the 2nd year back out of Illinois has added another dimension to this Lions offense that had lacked a consistent threat out of the backfield (note: here's hoping Jahvid Best can recover from his concussions to lead a long, healthy life). Leshoure isn't nearly as explosive as the two backs the Colts just faced – Spiller and Jackson – but he is good, and the Colts will want to prevent him from ripping off 5+ yards per carry, which may open up the play-action passing game, allowing Stafford and Johnson to hit a couple of big plays.

The Lions offense is good: they are top-5 in the league according to just about every stat out there, conventional, advanced, or otherwise, but the Colts defense will have opportunities to attack it. If DC Manusky can call a smart, aggressive game, and continue to disguise his coverages and blitzes just enough to confuse Matt Stafford, well, it may be just enough to help the Colts get to 8-4 and all but assure them of a spot in the post season.

Key Match-ups

1. Colts OL vs Detriots DL - The Detroit Lions have 25 sacks on the season, 23 of those have come from their DL, and 20 of those have come from their starting 4. While OTs Castonzo and Justice will have their hands full with DEs Vanden Bosch and Avril, those are match-ups I expect the Colts to win more often than not. The real danger comes from the interior of Detroit's line, where Suh and Fairley are able to use their strength and quickness to harass opposing guards and centers. Given the recent struggles of OG Mike McGlynn and C Samson Satele, this is an especially concerning match-up.

Look for the Colts to slide their protections in a way that allows them to double team one, or both, of Fairley and Suh on most plays. When doing so, they'll likely be asking rookie TE Dwayne Allen to block on eof those previously mentioned DEs one-on-one. While this might sound like a daunting task for a rookie, Allen has proven all year that he's up to the task. If the Colts can neutralize and contain the Lions DL, they will likely be able to frustrate them and force them into some boneheaded penalties. Not only that, but if you can get around their pass rush, their defense is all growl, no bite.

Xs and Os aside, the biggest concern, in my mind, is Suh's lack of self-control, and proclivity for stupidity. I often "joke" about this Colts OL getting Andrew Luck hurt – well, it's no laughing matter this week. The Colts OL – and the refs – will need to keep Suh in check, and Luck upright. And Luck may want to wear a cup.

2. OLBs Freeney and Mathis vs. OTs Backus and Cherilus - We've already given you the numbers, but the overall point is worth repeating: if you can pressure QB Matthew Stafford, he'll make mistakes. While we suggested the Colts blitz Stafford liberally, they will still need dominating performances from Mathis and Freeney if those blitzes are going to succeed.

Against the Bills, both players were able to harass QB Fitzgerald to the point that the "I don't want to be here" face made an appearance, the first such face from an opposing QB in years. With the injuries to Powers, Nevis, and Moala, and the general lack of talent in certain areas of the defense, the Colts need Mathis and Freeney to party like it's 2006 and dominate opposing OTs and QBs.

Worth noting: Detroit's starting LT Jeff Backus is dealing with a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the Lions' Thanksgiving game against the Texans. If he suits up this week, and we won't be sure until the full practice reports come out, he'll likely be less than 100%, and a hamstring injury should mean limited mobility, and a match-up for Freeney to feast on.

3. Colts Secondary vs. WR Calvin Johnson Calvin Johnson leads the league in receiving yards. He leads the "high-volume" receivers (65 or more receptions through 11 games) with 17.2 yards-per-catch. He scored 16 TDs in 2011. He's faster than a speeding bullet. He can leap tall buildings. He can stomach Phil Simms announcing. He takes time off to star in Michael Bay films.

In short, Calvin Johnson is awesome. He has the ability to dominate any defense. This is the one match-up that DC Greg Manusky is losing sleep over. The Colts have said they'll approach this game as any other, that they'll cover Johnson by "playing their positions" (which is a fine strategy, but not one that Tom Zbikowski and Cassius Vaughn have proven they can execute). Whatever strategy they employ, they must not allow Johnson to run wild: play him tight, play him aggressive, hit him, and, after he makes the catch, tackle him.

I'm making it sound easy, trust me, it won't be, but the Colts are on track to make the playoffs, and that's how playoff teams attack #1 receivers. The return of CB Vontae Davis should help – he has the size, speed, and play-making ability to make a real difference in a secondary otherwise devoid of "special," but his snaps will be limited – containing Calvin Johnson must be a team effort.

And thus ends our look at the key match-ups. Only 3. No talk of coaches, rookie walls, holidays, injuries, or special teams. Protect the quarterback and pass the ball, and attack the opposing quarterback and stop the pass. That's what Sunday's game is about. Do it, get to 8-4, and make the hunt for the playoffs a sit com, not a drama.

The injury reports

NOTE: This guide comes out Thursdays, official injury statuses are not released until Friday, the Probable or Questionable designation in these reports is based on Wed/Thur participation only.

Indianapolis Colts

Player Name Injury (STATUS)
TE Coby Fleener SHOULDER (QUESTIONABLE)
CB Vontae Davis KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
RB Donald Brown KNEE (PROBABLE)
QB Andrew Luck KNEE (PROBABLE)
OLB Dwight Freeney REST(PROBABLE)
OT Tony Hills CHEST (QUESTIONABLE)
S Joe Lefeged TOE (PROBABLE)
NT Martin Tevaseu HEAD/SHOULDER (KNEE&TOE) (Q)
S Tom Zbikowski KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
My Heart after Chapman to IR BROKEN (DOUBTFUL)

Detroit Lions


Player Name Injury (STATUS)
DE Cliff Avril BACK (QUESTIONABLE)
T Jeff Backus HAMSTRING (QUESTIONABLE)
S Louis Delmas KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
CB Jonte Green ILLNESS (QUESTIONABLE)
RB Mikel Leshoure ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)
DT Corey Williams KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
CB Chris Houston ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)
WR Calvin Johnson THUMB (QUESTIONABLE)
CB Jacob Lacey FOOT/KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)
LB Ashlee Palmer THUMB (QUESTIONABLE)
G Rob Sims HAMSTRING (QUESTIONABLE)


 

Series notes

– Note that these are regular season stats! :)
– The Colts have played the Lions have faced off 40 times in the regular seson, with the Colts holding a 20-18-2 edge in the match-up.
– Once again, Colts rookies Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard, TY Hilton, and/or LaVon Brazill have yet to face the Lions, so there are no series stats for those players.
– WR Reggie Wayne has faced the Lions twice, and has 10 catches for 141 yards in those games.
– OLB Dwight Freeney has never faced the Lions, OLB Robert Mathis has played them once, and had .5 sacks in the game.
– QB Matthew Stafford, TE Brandon Pettigrew, and RB Mikel Leshoure have never played the Colts. No games, no stats. Thems the rules.
– WR Calvin Johnson has faced the Colts one time in his career, he had 9 catches for 110 yards and a TD.
– DE Kyle VandenBosch faced the Colts 3 times during his stint in Tennessee. He recorded one sack in those games.


 

Identifying the coverage

Where(Visually): CBS

Who(Visually): Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts

Where(Audio): 1070 AM The Fan WFNI and 97.1 HANK FM

Who(Audio): Bob Lamey and Will Wolford 

Is the Game on in your area? Good question! The people at The506 will be able to tell you.

Officiating Crew:  Walt…… ANDERSON! Hah, you thought I was gonna say Coleman, suckers! The Colts dodge that bullet (matrix style) yet again.

Prediction

Lions – 28, Colts – 27

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