Hitchhiker’s Guide to Colts vs Browns, Week 7

The Indianapolis Colts (2-3) followed their emotional come-from-behind victory against Green Bay with an embarrassing 35-9 loss at the hands of the New York Jets. Despite the loss, the Colts, thanks to a weaker-than-normal conference, still find themselves in the middle of the AFC Wild Card hunt. To make the playoffs, the Colts will have to take advantage of their upcoming schedule, which features some of the worst teams in the NFL.

Their journey will start Sunday against the Cleveland Browns (1-5). Will the Colts be able to bounce back from their loss to the Jets, overcome a handful of key injuries, and beat the Browns? Or will Cleveland, where the only position on the roster that isn’t a question mark is running back, be able to hand the Colts their second embarrassing loss in a row, and all but end any chance at a magical season for the Colts?

After the jump, we’ll take a look at the stats, injuries, and key match-ups as we breakdown this Week 7 showdown.

 

Tale of the tape

How do the Colts and Browns 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

Cleveland Browns

Offense Defense Offense Defense
Passing 9th   (19th) 3rd  (25th) 16th (29th) 30th (21st)
Rushing 26th (21st) 29th (31st) 27th (19th) 29th (23rd)
Total 13th (17th) 17th (29th) 25th (28th) 30th (23rd)

   

When the Colts have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Offense Cleveland Browns Defense
87 WR R. Wayne 97 DE J. Sheard
80 TE C. Fleener 71 DT A. Rubin
74 LT A. Castonzo 90 DT B. Winn
72 LG J. Linkenbach 92 DE F. Rucker
64  C S. Satele 50 OLB J-M Johnson
75 RG M. McGlynn 52 MLB D. Jackson
69 RT W. Justice 56 OLB K. Maiava
83 TE D. Allen 20 CB J. Haden
11 WR D. Avery 30 SS T.J. Ward
12 QB A. Luck 33 FS U. Young
33 RB V. Ballard 31 CB S. Brown

For as long as this column runs, the theme of this particular section will, for the foreseeable future, revolve around QB Andrew Luck. You see, while WR Reggie Wayne remains this team’s best player (for at least the rest of this season), Luck is its most important. He’s the straw that stirs the Colts drink, and so it’s no surprise that Andrew Luck’s worst day as a pro coincided with the Colts most embarrassing loss of the season.

Luck’s struggles against the Jets this past Sunday can be blamed on three factors: his WRs inability to create separation from the opposing secondary, an ineffective running game, and an offensive line that was unable to provide adequate pass blocking.

The bad news is, these three factors will plague Luck and the Colts offense all year. Outside of Wayne, none of Luck’s receiving targets are able to consistently beat one-on-one coverage, forcing Luck to either hold on to the ball longer than he’d like, in hopes that someone breaks free, or, throw the ball into a tight window. In the running game, while the efficiency should improve once RB Donald Brown returns from his knee injury, he’s simply not good enough – and few RBs are – to overcome the abysmal run blocking on a consistent basis. And as for that offensive line: while the return of Joe Reitz should help cover up some of the issues – Seth Olsen and Jeff Linkenbach have both been horrible filling in for Reitz – there doesn’t appear to be any immediate solution to the problems at C and RG.

There is good news, though: not every defense will be as good as the New York Jets or Chicago Bears, the two teams that have been the most problematic for Luck this season. In fact, a look at the schedule shows that, for the most part, Luck should be facing relatively weak defenses until the end of the season. This means the throwing windows will be just a little bigger, the running lanes just a little wider, and the pass rush should arrive just a little later, which should be enough for Luck to once again be successful.

That success should start this week against a Cleveland Browns pass defense ranked 30th in yardage (294ypg) and 21st in footballoutsiders.com’s DVOA. In fact, a deeper look at the numbers suggests that Luck should have a big day throwing to his favorite target: Reggie Wayne. According to DVOA, Cleveland struggles to cover opposing offense’s top receivers, and we know how much Luck loves throwing to Wayne, so the duo could produce some big numbers this week.

Looking at other match-up statistics: the Browns do have success against offense’s #2 WRs and TEs, so don’t expect too much from WR Donnie Avery or TEs Allen or Fleener (though an injury to LB Scott Fujita may help there). Finally, the Browns struggle covering offense’s #3/#4 WRs and RBs, so there is hope for another big game from rookie WR TY Hilton.

So Luck’s receivers should be able to find some room to operate in the secondary, but will the Colts OL be able to protect Luck long enough for him to be successful? The Browns have racked up 15 sacks through 6 games (T-11th, NFL), but their advanced metrics show that their pass rush is still a little below average. Also working in Luck’s favor: while they are expected to play on Sunday, two of the Browns four DL starters are slowed by injury: DL Ahytba Rubin has a calf injury and DE FROSTEE RUCKER(!!!) has foot and shoulder issues. All of this adds up to mean that, while Luck might be hurried and hit on Sunday, he should have enough time to get the ball off.

Finally, in the running game, the Colts are going to need The Lounge Singer, RB Vick Ballard, to step up his game against the Browns. Many, including myself, thought the Jets were a good first match-up for Ballard, but he was left singing the blues after picking up only 25 yards on 8 carries. If Ballard can execute better – his vision and decisiveness were subpar against the Jets – he should find room to run against the Browns, who rank 25th in run defense by yardage (131.3ypg) and 23rd according to DVOA.

On paper, the Colts offense v the Browns defense feels very similar to the Colts match-up against the Jets. While the Jets ended up being a tougher match-up than the numbers would indicate, the Browns, thanks to a lack of high-end defensive talent, should be a more manageable opponent for Luck and the offense.

When the Browns have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Defense Cleveland Browns Offense
90 DE C. Redding 15 WR G. Little
99 DT A. Johnson 73 LT J. Thomas
94 DE D. Nevis 62 LG J. Pinkston
92 OLB J. Hughes 55 C  A. Mack
53 ILB K. Conner 66 RG S. Lauvao
50 ILB J. Freeman 72 RT M. Schwartz
93 OLB D. Freeney 82 TE B. Watson
23 CB V. Davis 11 WR M. Massaquoi
28 SS T. Zbikowski 3  QB  B. Weeden
41 FS A. Bethea 48 FB  O. Marecic
25 CB J. Powers 33 RB T. Richardson

The Colts defensive game plan on Sunday should be simple. The Browns receiving options – WRs Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi, and Josh Cribbs (only as a WR, I’ll have to wear an adult diaper every time he returns a kick on Sunday), along with TE Ben Watson – aren’t dynamic, dangerous down-field threats. Worse, when they do get open, rookie QB Brandon Weeden (129/231 (55.8%), 1,519 yards, 7 YD, 10 INT, 11 sacks), who is old enough to be my grandfather, isn’t good enough to get them the ball consistently.

So similar to our defensive game plans against the Jaguars and Jets, the Colts should focus their efforts on stopping rookie RB Trent Richardson (95 carries, 340 yards (3.6ypc) 4 TDs, 22 catches, 186yds, 1 TD) and force Weeden and the Browns passing game to beat them. By bringing an extra defender into the box, calling run blitzes, and not allowing the Browns any “formation wins” (more blockers to the play side than there are defenders) the Colts will take a big step towards stopping Richardson.

Beyond that, the Colts must execute better. Far too often on Sunday, a Colts defender was in position to make a stop on the Jets running back at or behind the line of scrimmage, only to see the Colts player miss the tackle and the running back gain positive yards. The Colts can’t afford these kinds of mistakes if they hope to be more than an inconsistent .500 team.

Despite the injuries plaguing the team, the Colts have the talent to handle the Browns offense. It comes down to properly identifying the Browns strengths and then executing a game plan that forces them to rely on their weaknesses. If that happens, the Colts should find themselves at 3-3 and in the heart of the AFC playoff race.

Five key match-ups

1. Colts OL vs Cleveland Browns pass rush - Last week we talked about New York’s anemic pass rush: they had only 5 sacks through week 5, and ranked near the bottom of the league in adjusted sack rate (footballoutsider’s metric). All the Jets did was sack Andrew Luck 5 times, notch 5 additional QB Hits, and rack up countless other QB Hurries. If the Colts are going to be successful against the Browns, or any other team, for that matter, they are going to have to do a better job of giving Andrew Luck enough time in the pocket to find the open receiver.

When I say “time in the pocket”, I don’t mean that the Colts OL needs to give Luck 4 or 5 seconds to survey the field – though that would be a welcomed change – but they must provide him with enough time to go through his progressions. Outside of WR Reggie Wayne, and occasionally TEs Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, Luck’s receiving options struggle to get open, meaning Luck needs more time to find an available target.

While all 5 OL positions have had struggles this year, it’s the interior of the line (OGs and C) who really need to step up their game. OTs Winston Justice and Anthony Castonzo, have, by-and-large, done a good job of pass blocking, but the interior of the line – especially C Samson Satele and whoever the Colts trot out at LG – has been abysmal. Pressure up the middle is the most difficult for a QB to handle: it takes away his ability to step up in the pocket, it forces the QB to slide laterally, which can mess with his footwork and his eyes, and, because, in most cases, the DEs are the defenses best pass rushers, the QB often scrambles into a sack.

The potential return of LG Joe Reitz, who has missed the entire regular season to this point, should help stabilize the OL. If the line can raise it’s level of play to average, it would be a major step up, and should allow Luck more than enough time to pick apart a Browns secondary that ranks near the bottom of the league in most metrics. If not, Luck and the Colts offense could be in for another long, frustating day, and the Colts could be heading to 2-4.

2. Colts Coaches vs Conservatism - I already wrote extensively about this on Monday, so I’ll be brief.  The Colts offense is very good. Their defense, especially with its injury woes, is bad. With these two things in mind, the Colts coaches should be looking for opportunities to be aggressive, to keep their offense on the field longer, and to go for touchdowns instead of field goals. This is a young team with a lot of confidence, some talent in key positions, and nothing to lose. Let them go for it, in every meaning of the word, on Sunday. Interim Head Coach Bruce Arians said of this week’s game, “all that matters is the ‘W.’”  It’s time that the coach’s decisions matched his words.

3. Colts Front-7 vs RB Trent Richardson - After watching RB Shonn Greene, who prior to Sunday’s game was averaging 2.9ypc, run for 161 yards on 32 carries (5.0ypc), the Colts have to be concerned about what Browns RB Trent Richardson, a much more skilled player than Greene, will be able to do to them.

Richardson enters this week’s game with 340 yards on 95 carries (3.6ypc), but don’t let his average fool you: Richardson is the Browns best offensive skilled player, and has been a dynamic threat in a majority of the Browns games. While it will be a difficult task with the injuries they are dealing with, the Colts must not allow Richardson to have the same level of success as Greene.

Part of slowing him down can come through scheme – crowding the line of scrimmage, calling run blitzes, and understanding the Browns tendencies on certain downs-and-distances will go a long way to keeping Richardson in check. But beyond that, stopping the running game on Sunday, or any other day, will come down to the Colts players executing better. This is particularly true of S Tom Zbikowski, brought in this off-season for his physical play and knowledge of the defense, who has been nothing short of a liability in every game this season. Safety play is so vital to the success of a defense, and if Zbikowski can’t raise his level of play, Richardson may enjoy a career game.

4. Colts Secondary vs QB Brandon Weeden – The Browns offense closely mirrors that of the Jets: they are bad (near the bottom of the league in every metric), lead by a bad quarterback (QB Brandon Weeden ranks at the very bottom of the league in most metrics), and they want to beat you on the ground. If the Colts can successfully bottle up Richardson, they must be able to take advantage of Weeden: don’t allow him anything easy.

The return of CB Vontae Davis should help in this area. While he hasn’t been perfect in his time with the Colts, Davis is their best option as the starter beside CB Jerraud Powers, and his size and strength allow the Colts to play more press coverages on the outside. By pressing the Browns WRs – who aren’t particularly scary – you force Weeden to either go through multiple progressions or force throws into tight windows, two areas he has yet to show any proficiency in.

The Colts defense, which through 5 games, has only intercepted opposing QBs 2 times, should also be able to create some turnover opportunities against Weeden, who has thrown 10 INTs and fumbled once through 6 games. If the Colts can get a couple of take aways, give the offense some short fields, their chances for getting the win increase dramatically.

5. Colts Special Teams vs Browns Special Teams – That the Colts special teams unit is one of the worst in the NFL comes as a surprise to very few Colts fans, their struggles have been well-documented over the past decade.  And, while GM Ryan Grigson said that improving ST play was one of his priorities entering the season, it’s going to be tough to accomplish that goal when some of the Colts offensive and defensive starters are “special teams” quality. In other words, good depth helps create good special teams, and the Colts are sorely lacking in the good depth department.

So while no one should expect the Colts to start racking up the return TDs, what happened on Sunday, when the Colts allowed the Jets to convert a successful fake punt in an obvious situation, was completely inexcusable. Executing flawless fair catches and kneel downs, while limiting the damage done by the opposing team’s special teams – and that includes fakes – is the name of the game. A “draw” in the special teams battle will go a long way towards helping the Colts pick up a “win” against the Browns.

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)
OLB Dwight Freeney Ankle (QUESTIONABLE)
RT Winston Justice Ankle (QUESTIONABLE)
CB Darius Butler Shoulder (QUESTIONABLE)
CB Vontae Davis Ankle  (QUESTIONABLE)
DE Fili Moala Knee (OUT)
NT Martin Tevaseu Ankle (QUESTIONABLE)
RB Donald Brown Knee (OUT       
OLB Robert Mathis Knee (QUESTIONABLE)
LG Joe Reitz Knee (QUESTIONABLE)
DE Cory Redding Knee (QUESTIONABLE)
LB Pat Angerer Foot (QUESTIONABLE)

 

Cleveland Browns

Player Name Injury (STATUS)
WR Travis Benjamin Hamstring (QUESTIONABLE)
LB Scott Fujita Shoulder/Neck (OUT)
DB Tashaun Gipson Knee (Questionable)
WR Mohamed Massaquoi Hamstring (Questionable)
DB Dmitri Patterson Ankle (Questionable)
OL Jason Pinkston Illness (Probable)
RB Trent Richardson Chest/Rib (Questionable)
DL Ahytba Rubin Calf (QUESTIONABLE)
DE Frostee Rucker Shoulder,Foot (PROBABLE)
DB Ray Ventrone Hand, Calf (QUESTIONABLE)
DB T.J. Ward Hand (QUESTIONABLE)
QB Brandon Weeden Foot(PROBABLE)
LS Christian Yount Shoulder (QUESTIONABLE)

 
 

Series notes

  • Note that these are regular season stats! :)
  • The Colts and Browns have played 26 times, with the Colts having a 12-14 record in the series.
  • This is a pretty shallow game for player stats: Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard, TY Hilton, Brandon Weeden, and Trent Richardson are all rookies, so, ya know, they haven’t played too many teams. I thought about making up some stats, especially for Weeden, who will likely be dead or retired by the next time these teams meet, but that would be unethical of me.
  • WR Reggie Wayne has faced the Browns 4 times and has accumulated 17 catches for 248 yards in those games.
  • DE/OLB Dwight Freeney has 7 sacks in 4 career games against the Browns. Robert Mathis (who is questionable) has 3 sacks in 3 games against the Browns.
  • WR Mohamed Massaquoi has 3 catches for 45 yards in 1 game against the Colts
  • WR Greg Little had 4 catches for 38 yards in his only game against the Colts
  • TE Ben Watson has 17 catches for 182 yards in 7 career games against the Colts
  • Cleveland DEs Jabaal Sheard and Frostee Rucker (FROSTEE RUCKER!!!) have combined for 1 sack and 6 total tackles in 3 combined games against the Colts

 

Identifying the coverage

Where(Visually): CBS

Who(Visually): Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots

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.

Prediction

Colts – 31, Browns – 24

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