The Indianapolis Colts fell to 6-4 after a 59-24 shellacking at the hands of the New England Patriots in week 11. Will they be able to bounce back, overcome the rookie wall, and their defensive deficiencies to defeat the Buffalo Bills and keep their playoff hopes alive? Or will the Bills dynamic ground attack overwhelm the Colts and deal them their first loss at Lucas Oil Stadium since week 3? We'll take a look a the game plans for each team, as well as the key stats, match-ups, and injuries that will help decide Sunday's game in this week's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Colts season.
Tale of the tape
How do the Colts and Bills 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.
|Passing||8th (16th)||15th (32nd)||23rd (19th)||18th (26th)|
|Rushing||14th (13th)||22nd (32nd)||7th (7th)||31st (31st)|
|Total||4th (14th)||18th (32nd)||16th (18th)||27th (29th)|
When the Colts have the ball
|Indianapolis Colts Offense||Buffalo Bills Defense|
|87 WR R. Wayne||94 DE M. Williams|
|13 WR TY Hilton||99 DT M. Dareus|
|74 LT A. Castonzo||95 DT K. Williams|
|76 LG J. Reitz||93 DE M. Anderson|
|64 C S. Satele||53 OLB N. Bradham|
|75 RG M. McGlynn||55 MLB K. Sheppard|
|69 RT W. Justice||50 OLB N. Barnett|
|83 TE D. Allen||27 CB S. Gilmore|
|11 WR D. Avery||31 FS J. Byrd|
|12 QB A. Luck||37 SS G. Wilson|
|31 RB D. Brown||23 CB A. William|
If the game against New England marked the stiffest test for the Colts offense, Sunday against Buffalo may be one of its – er, what's a good, family-friendly antonym for stiff? – easiest, yes, easiest. The Bills defense ranks at or near the bottom of most statistical categories: 29th in overall defensive DVOA and 27th in yards-per-game, and has rarely provided much resistance to opposing offenses.
Look for Luck and the Colts offense to start out by establishing the run with the RB tandem of Vick Ballard and Donald Brown. Buffalo is 31st against the run in DVOA and surrenders over 153ypc on the ground, and should afford the Colts running backs plenty of room to run on Sunday. Though we would prefer the Colts give the bulk of the carries to Brown – he's more elusive and dynamic at this point than Ballard – the Colts seem happy with Ballard as the starter and the primary ball carrier, and he should be more than good enough to make decisive moves, hit the holes, and get into the Buffalo secondary on multiple occasions.
Once the Colts have established the run, look for them to utilize Luck's play-action passing to hit plays down the field. The Colts have one of the most vertical passing games in the league, and Luck will be looking deep early and often. He should find some success in this area, as the Bills are surrendering 7.4ypa to opposing QBs (22nd in the NFL) and are ranked 26th in pass defense DVOA.
In recent weeks, we've harped on the Colts woes in the offensive red zone. Well, this could be the week they fix those woes. The Bills are surrendering 3.4 red zone trips per game (24th in the NFL) and are giving up a touchdown on a staggering 76.47% (by far the worst % in the NFL). If the Colts can't get their red zone offense right against Buffalo, they may not get it right at all this season.
The Colts have repeatedly shown this year that they'll go only as far as Andrew Luck and the Colts offense can carry them. Against the Bills, they should have the opportunity to carry them to a lot of points and a 7-4 record. If they fail to do so, they'll have no one to blame but themselves.
When the Bills have the ball
|Indianapolis Colts Defense||Buffalo Bills Offense|
|90 DE C. Redding||13 WR S. Johnson|
|99 DT A. Johnson||77 LT C. Glenn|
|95 DE F. Moala||67 LG A. Levitre|
|98 OLB R. Mathis||70 C E. Wood|
|53 ILB K. Conner||60 RG K. Urbik|
|50 ILB J. Freeman||75 LT C. Hairston|
|93 OLB D. Freeney||84 TE S. Chandler|
|32 CB C. Vaughn||19 WR D. Jones|
|28 SS T. Zbikowski||14 QB R. Fitzpatrick|
|41 FS A. Bethea||28 RB CJ Spiller|
|20 CB D. Butler||38 FB C. McIntyre|
I'm not normally a "run the ball, stop the run" kind of guy, but I always try to keep my options open. So against the Bills, I'm going to suggest that the Colts do whatever they have to do to stop CJ Spiller, Fred Jackson, and the Bills rushing attack.
The Bills ground game is explosive, not only is it ranked 7th in both DVOA and yards-per-game, they pick up an astonishing 5.2-per-carry (2nd in the NFL). If you want to control and contain the Bills offense, it starts with controlling and containing its ground game.
To do that, they are going to have to utilize the same principles we discussed in our analysis for the Jaguars and Titans games: patience and gap-control. CJ Spiller is quick, elusive, and can change direction on a dime, and if you over pursue and give him the opportunity, he'll turn a 3-yard play into an 80-yard touchdown.
The biggest concern for DC Greg Manusky is that his unit will not be able to play smart and patient, and that he's forced to call a more aggressive game in an effort to stop Spiller and Jackson, making the defense susceptible to the play-action pass.
The Colts worries don't end there: both Spiller and Jackson are deadly in the passing game as well. While they don't get a high volume of targets – about 3.5 targets per game per running back – they are a threat to take any pass the distance.
To give you an idea of how Spiller and Jackson are used, I'll provide some stats: Spiller has caught 31 passes for 336 yards (10.8 yards per pass), and has 340 yards-after-catch. That's right, over 100% of Spiller's yards have come after the catch. The numbers for Jackson tell a similar story: 26 catches for 186 yards (7ypc) and 174-yards-after-catch. The Bills love to use the screen pass, and they are one of the best in the league at doing it.
When they aren't handing it off to Spiller and Jackson and they aren't throwing it to Spiller and Jackson… does it really matter? Okay, my editor is telling me it does matter. Guard WR Stevie Johnson – the 5th-year WR out of Kentucky is having a down year by his standards, but he's still an explosive big-play threat – and former Iowa TE Scott Chandler – a dangerous red zone threat.
Not giving up the big play to Johnson and Chandler will be nice, but honestly, the ability for the Colts defense to find success on Sunday will come down to a simple question: did they get beat by Spiller and Jackson? If the answer to that is no, they're likely 7-4 and partying like it's… 2008! (I think they were 7-4 in 2008)
Five key match-ups and a Thank you
1. Colts LBs vs. RBs CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson – In recent years, the Bills offense was known for a powerful passing attack. While QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and WR Stevie Johnson are still capable of producing the occasional big play, their biggest threat now comes out of the backfield, where RBs CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson do their work.
Jackson is a more traditional back: while he has nice speed and agility, he also has the power to go between the tackles. Spiller, on the other hand, is a dynamic, video-game back who can turn negative plays into gains, and small gains into touchdowns. While they have different running styles, both players are effective, and somewhat deadly, on screen plays. Together, Spiller and Jackson form a powerful RB duo.
If the Colts are going to win on Sunday, they are going to have to be successful in limiting the damage the Bills RBs do. They will get their yards, the Colts defense isn't going to shut anyone down on Sunday, but the Colts defenders must play fast, swarm to the ball, and display better tackling than they did against New England.
If they can limit the big play and force the Bills to lead long scoring drives – something they've failed to do on a consistent basis this year – the Colts should walk out with a "W" and a 7-4 record. If not? The Colts will find themselves in a dogfight for the 6th seed as they fall to 6-5.
2. OLBs Freeney and Mathis vs. OTs Glenn and Hairston – Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel: the Colts secondary is bad – they are 32nd in the league (out of 32 teams) in pass defense – and have made even the most mediocre of QBs look Pro Bowl worthy (though, to be fair, Matt Schaub, Vince Young, and David Garrard did represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl one year…).
With the possible exception of the return of Vontae Davis – who missed Wednesday's practice and is highly questionable – there is no help coming for the Colts secondary. With the trade deadline long gone and with the FA market picked bare, the Colts last hope for "fixing" their secondary will come from their pass rush.
Freeney and Mathis looked decent against the Patriots, but the play calling and Tom Brady's quick release acted as the great neutralizer. Thankfully, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Curtis Modkins aren't Tom Brady and Bill Belichick (thankfully for the Colts defense and for all of humanity) so Mathis and Freeney should have their opportunities to create some havoc in the backfield.
If they can pressure Fitzpatrick, history suggests that he'll struggle: for this season, on plays in which Fitzpatrick was pressured, he is 15/40 (37.5%) for 126 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs, 17 sacks, and a 31.9 qbrating. But be warned, if you blitz Fitzpatrick and don't get to him, he's deadly: on plays where the opposing team blitzed, but failed to pressure Fitzpatrick, the QB was 56 of 86 (65.1%) for 544 yards, 6 TDs, 0 INTs, and a 106.0 rating. In other words, if the Colts are unable to pressure Fitzpatrick, he'll go down in history with such hallowed names as Sanchez, Weeden, Hasselbeck, and Tannehill, Hall of Famers for a day against the Colts defense.
3. LT Anthony Castonzo vs. DE Mario Williams - As we saw on Sunday, while Andrew Luck is very good, and well on his way to becoming great, he's not immune to making mistakes when pressured. The Patriots did a great job of preventing Luck from rolling out of the pocket and squeezing him towards the line of scrimmage, where they were able to sack, hit, and/or disrupt his throwing motion. This week, that task of attacking and disrupting Luck will fall on the shoulders of a familiar foe, Mario Williams. Williams spent the first 6 years of his career in Houston, where he was drafted to put an end to Peyton Manning's reign of terror. While Williams was never able to help the Texans get over the Manning hump, he was able to develop into a dominating force on the defensive line.
Williams didn't get off to a great start in Buffalo, recording only 3 sacks in his first 7 games, but following a procedure to repair his ailing wrist during the Buffalo BYE week, Williams has recorded 3 sacks, 14 tackles, and 2 "stuffs" in 3 games. The job of blocking Williams will be assigned to LT Anthony Castonzo, who has been one of the better Indianapolis players this year. A consistent, healthy anchor on their offensive line, Castonzo has been better in the running game, but has been more than adequate in pass protection.
If there's one skill set that has given Castonzo trouble this year, it's speed defensive ends. While Mario Williams will never be as fast as a younger Dwight Freeney, he's still very quick and armed with a dangerous array of counter moves to punish tackles who attempt to cheat on his quickness. If Castonzo is unable to block Williams, the Colts best hope of winning this game – their deep passing attack – will be neutralized. This is the type of game where Castonzo will earn his pay and justify his draft position.
4. The Colts coverage units vs the Bills return units – We saw against the Patriots: the Colts special teams units are still an issue. If Pat McAfee isn't forcing touchbacks on kick-offs and putting up booming punts, the Colts are vulnerable to big returns. That's bad news against the Bills, who feature one of the best return games in the NFL.
Leodis McKelvin and Brad Smith have provided the Bills with a return game that is ranked 2nd in DVOA on punt returns and 1st in DVOA on kick-off returns, picking up 21.9 and 26.2 yards-per-return in those respective areas. On paper, the Colts and Bills are pretty evenly matched – good offenses, bad defenses, and both Bruce Arians and Chan Gailey have little-to-no-hair – special teams can often be the deciding factor in those games.
Arians has cited injuries as a cause for the special teams slip ups. Others would suggest – through no real fault of the front office – that poor special teams play is often a result of a lack of roster depth (with or without injuries). I've often heard ex-players say that special teams play comes down to effort and determination. So injuries, depth, whatever the case may be, the Colts are coming face-to-face with their playoff fates, it's time to put forth that effort and determination, shut down the Bills return game, and give your team a chance to win the game.
5. The Colts Rookies vs. "The Rookie Wall" - Bruce Arians talked about this in his Monday Press Conference: while November and December are when playoff teams play their hardest, they are also the months when most college kids are taking a break from their paying jobs to skip class and chase women. For the Colts, whose roster is approximately 152% rookies, this is a cause for concern. Can they overcome the physical, and, more importantly, mental hurdles they'll experience in the coming weeks and months?
This will fall on the shoulders of the veteran players, those who experienced their own rookie wall, and the coaches, who have dealt with this their entire careers. There is hope that the Colts should be OK here, especially at QB: Bruce Arians dealt with Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger during their rookie campaigns, and should have a good idea of how to help Luck make it through his.
6. Humanity vs. HAPPY THANKSGIVING! – Warning: Very little football content to follow!
For those of you who have read and listened to me for the past couple of years, you know that I'm an American living in Canada. For those of you who haven't read and listened to me for the past couple of years, you now know: I'm an American living in Canada. As a kid, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. The two (or was it three back then? I'm too old for this) days off from school were nice. Having the family visit – even if you didn't like them all that much – filled the house with the chatter and laughter that every house should have once in a while. The food was good (turkey is a bit too dry, but Thanksgiving sides are by far the best). And, of course there's the all-day football, the perfect ending to any day.
I don't get those days anymore: shockingly, all of my American friends and family live in, well, America. So my Thanksgivings include nothing but the football, and I watch that in the context of a normal day – work, school, etc… It's a little sad, not having the hustle and bustle of the family around. Knowing that I won't be able to wake up late on Friday morning to an empty house, everyone out, stuck in the mall for hours, trying to get the best deals on Christmas gifts. But just because I won't be celebrating with Thanksgiving tomorrow doesn't mean I can't be thankful. So here's what I'm thankful for this Holiday Season.
I'm thankful for the Indianapolis Colts. They've given me enough sports pain and heartache to last a few lifetimes, but they've managed to squeeze in just enough highs to make it worthwhile. This year is certainly one of those highs: underdogs, rookies, castoffs, and a sick coach, they've managed to band together in a common vision and put together one of the most remarkable seasons in recent memory. Whether they complete the journey and make the playoffs, or their youth, inexperience and injuries catch up to them and they fall just short, the 2012 season has been an amazing journey, and I wouldn't trade it for anything (assuming Pagano beats the hell of out Leukemia, that is).
I'm thankful for the Colts community. Colts fans are some of the nicest, most intelligent fans out there. Not a day goes by where I'm not entertained and enlightened, on twitter, in comments, in email, or on the our radio shows, by you guys. You're the reason we do what we do: your compliments, your questions, your interaction, it's our "salary."
While every member of the Colts community is a rock star, I've formed special friendships with some of you, friendships that I hold as near and dear as any I've made in my life: Rohan, Joe, Nathan, Jason S., Jason C., Jeff, Erin, Marcus, MJ, Marco, Kendra, Josh, Ryan, Heath, Kyle and Laura, thank you guys for being my friends! (I feel like I've forgot at least 50 people, and I'm going to feel horrible tomorrow. I'm sorry)
I want to give a special individual thank you to a specific Colts fan. Meagan has not only been my friend, she's become my "pocket editor", the person who has critiqued every story I've written, and has been my sounding board when I need an idea or two, writing became fun again, and a big part of that is because of you. So, thanks and stuff.
I'm thankful for Derek Schultz, who has been a supporter of "the little guy" since day one, and has provided me with invaluable advice, help, and support. He's so awesome I'm even willing to forgive him for being a Yankees fan.
I'm thankful for Colts Authority: the greatest Colts Blog and Community on the internet (it must be true, our tag line says so). I'm not prone to hyperbole and exaggerating, so please, take this serious: we have the best writing staff anywhere on the entire planet. I wish more people read their work. From stats and analysis, to opinions, to humor, our writers are hardworking, dedicated, and all-around awesome. Thank you, guys. You're great.
I'm thankful for Stampede Blue. Brad Wells has always put together some of the finest writing staffs out there: our own Laura Calaway, Brett Mock, and Joe Baker cut their teeth there, and Matt Grecco is one of the nicest, most intelligent people you'll find on earth, internet or otherwise. His stat work in particular is intelligent and innovative, and everyone should read it.
On a personal level, I'm thankful for my parents. I won't be able to see them this Thanksgiving – unless something skype related happens – but I'll be thinking about them all day. A guy couldn't have asked for a better parental unit: they worked their butts off – long hours, weekends, sometimes 2, 3 jobs at a time, to make sure we had a roof over our heads and I had everything I needed to succeed in life. They never missed an academic challenge despite those long hours. They were supportive and encouraging of every life choice I made, regardless of how idiotic or harebrained it was.
I'm thankful for my sons – I won't mention their names here, because INTERNET! – 4 and 7 years old. Their smiles, big and gorgeous, could light up the darkest room. Their eyes, wide and brown, could convince me to do the 40-yard dash over broken glass. Their intelligence and warm hearts make me proud as a father, and hopeful for our future. Whenever Colts fans wonder "why is our team always injured"… well, it's probably my fault. Some sort of karmic payment had to be taken in exchange for the gifts I received in my two boys.
Last in this list, but first in my heart: I'm thankful for my wife. The kindest, gentlest soul on the planet, she's supported my weird hours, goofy ideas, and odd life choices. Without her I'd be lost – literally, most likely – or found dead under a pile of dirty clothes and empty Sunkist cans. Though I'm often terrible at showing it, I'm still as in love with her now as I was the day we met. Thank you, "Wife", for everything.
And thank you, dear reader, for allowing me to spend 1 or 2 sentences off-topic. We now return you to your regularly scheduled football talk.
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.
|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)|
|WR Donnie Avery||CONCUSSION (PROBABLE)|
|S Antoine Bethea||ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)|
|DE Cory Redding||HIP (QUESTIONABLE)|
|CB Teddy Williams||HAMSTRING (PROBABLE)|
|NT JOSH CHAPMAN||TOO MUCH AWESOME (PROBABLY?)|
|Player Name||Injury (STATUS)|
|DE Mark Anderson||KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)|
|CB Ron Brooks||TEETH (seriously) (QUESTIONABLE)|
|FS Jarius Byrd||BACK (PROBABLE)|
|DT Marcell Dareus||SHOULDER (PROBABLE)|
|LT Chris Hairston||KNEE (PROBABLE)|
|RB Fred Jackson||CONCUSSION (PROBABLE)|
|DE Spencer Johnson||ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)|
|DE Chris Kelsay||NECK (QUESTIONABLE)|
|LG Andy Levitre||KNEE (PROBABLE)|
|FB Core McIntyre||KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)|
|CB Leodis McKelvin||GROIN (PROBABLE)|
|DE Shawne Merriman||GROIN (PROBABLE)|
|CB Justin Rogers||HAMSTRING (PROBABLE)|
|SS Da'Norris Searcy||HAND (PROBABLE)|
|ILB Kelvin Sheppard||BACK (PROBABLE)|
|QB/WR/KR/PR Brad Smith||HAMSTRING (QUESTIONABLE)|
|RB CJ Spiller||SHOULDER (PROBABLE)|
|DE Mario Williams||WRIST/ANKLE (PROBABLE)|
|DT Kyle Williams||ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)|
|CB Aaron Williams||KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)|
|C Eric Wood||KNEE (PROBABLE)|
- Note that these are regular season stats!
- The Colts have played the Bills 66 times in the regular season, and have a 30-35-1 record in those games.
- Once again, Colts rookies Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard, TY Hilton, and/or LaVon Brazill have yet to face the Bills, so there are no series stats for those players.
- WR Reggie Wayne has faced the Bills 4 times in his career. He has 15 catches for 160 yards and 1 TD in those games.
- DE/OLB Dwight Freeney has 2 sacks in 2 career games against the Bills. Robert Mathis has 2 sacks in 1 games against Buffalo.
- QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has completed 34 of 51 passes for 325 yards, 3 TDs, and 2 INTs in 2 games against the Colts.
- RBs CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson and WR Stevie Johnson have not played enough snaps to compile significant stats against the Colts. I'm guessing this changes by 4:30pm Sunday.
- DE Mario Williams faced the Colts 8 times when he was with the Houston Texans, and notched 8 sacks in those games.
Identifying the coverage
Who(Visually): Marv Alberts and Rich Gannon
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: Ed Hochuli (The NFL is just waiting for the right moment to spring Coleman/Winter on us. IT'S A TRAP)
Colts – 35, Bills – 31