Hitchhiker’s Guide to Colts vs Dolphins, Week 9

The Indianapolis Colts came from behind to beat the Tennessee Titans 19-13 in overtime to move to 4-3 on the season, the first time they’ve been over .500 since January of 2011. As a reward for their victory, the Colts will face off against Miami in a November showdown filled with tension and playoff implications.

The Colts and Dolphins enter Sunday’s game holding down the wild card spots in the AFC playoff race. Which of these young teams will emerge victorious and take a major step towards an unlikely playoff berth? We’ll take a look at the stats, injuries and match-ups that will help decide this key AFC match-up.


Tale of the tape

How do the Colts and Dolphins 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

Miami Dolphins

Offense Defense Offense Defense
Passing 9th (17th) 7th  (31st) 23rd (14th) 27th (8th)
Rushing 17th (9th) 27th (31st) 11th (20th) 3rd   (5th)
Total 8th (14th) 19th (31st) 23rd (20th) 22nd (7th)


When the Colts have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Offense Miami Dolphins Defense
87 WR R. Wayne 98 DE J. Odrick
80 TE C. Fleener 94 DT R. Starks
74 LT A. Castonzo 96 DT P. Soliai
72 LG J. Linkenbach 91 DE C. Wake
64  C S. Satele 56 WLB K. Burnett
75 RG M. McGlynn 58 MLB K. Dansby
69 RT W. Justice 55 SLB K. Misi
83 TE D. Allen 24 CB S. Smith
11 WR D. Avery 30 FS C. Clemons
12 QB A. Luck 20 SS R. Jones
33 RB V. Ballard 31 CB R. Marshall

We’re going to change things up a little this week. Normally in this section I’d give you a little blurb about the importance of Andrew Luck, and then I’d tell you what the Colts need to do in the air and on the ground to be successful against the Dolphins, and then I’d offer up some dramatic closing. This is a fun formula, and one I’ll go back to in the future, but there’s something else I need to focus on this week.

After far too many games this year, I’ve been left with the same thought: “wow, Andrew Luck and the offense were good today” and then I look at the score and see that, on average, they’re only scoring 19.4PPG (24th in NFL). So what gives? Has the Colts offense not been as good as I initially thought?

It turns out that I’m not crazy. The Indianapolis Colts offense performs very well in most statistics: they are the 8th best offense in the entire NFL when it comes to yards gained (373ypg) and they are the 14th best offense according to DVOA.

Here’s where it gets tricky: the Colts are also very good at getting INTO the red zone (inside the opponents 20-yard line), averaging 3.4rztpg (red zone trips per game). Where they come up short, however, is when it comes time to punch the ball in: the Colts manage to score touchdowns on only 1.6 of their rztpg, or 45.8% of the time, which is 24th in the league.

What is causing the Colts red zone troubles? A combination of things: the coaching staff’s willingness to settle for RZ field goals, untimely penalties, dropped balls, and the lack of a great rz target. Most of these are correctable: coaches can be more aggressive in red zone and goal line situations, a young team can mature and grow which will cut down on penalties and drops, and TEs Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener can definitely develop into great red zone threats. The emergence of a consistent running game will also help, as the throwing windows naturally shrink in red zone and goal line situations, making the running game a more attractive option.

Based on their performances this year, it feels safe to say that the Colts offense will move the ball against the Miami Dolphins defense on Sunday. Their ability to win the game will come down to what they do once they’ve gotten deep into Miami territory. If they can cut down on mistakes and find a way to make their long drives result in touchdowns, not field goals, they will likely walk out of The Luke with a victory, a 5-3 record, and in a great position to make the playoffs.

When the Dolphins have the ball

Indianapolis Colts Defense Miami Dolphins Offense
90 DE C. Redding 82 WR B. Hartline
99 DT A. Johnson 77 LT  J. Long
94 DE D. Nevis 68 LG R. Incognito
98 OLB R. Mathis 51 C  M. Pouncey
53 ILB K. Conner 74 RG J. Jerry
50 ILB J. Freeman 71 RT J. Martin
93 OLB D. Freeney 80 TE A. Fasano
32 CB C. Vaughn 15 WR D. Bess
28 SS T. Zbikowski 17 QB R. Tannehill
41 FS A. Bethea 41 FB J. Lane
25 CB J. Powers 22 RB R. Bush

Looking at the red zone stats for the offense was fun and informative, how ’bout we do the same for the defense? First, let’s set the table: the Colts are 19th in the league in defensive yardage per game (350.4ypg), 31st in defensive DVOA, and 22nd in scoring, giving up 24.4PPG. Not flattering, to the say the least, and it doesn’t get much better in the red zone.

The Colts have surrendered an average of 3.1rztpg, which is good for a 5-way tie at 16th-20th. At first blush, this would appear to be a small victory for the Colts, as they are surrendering .3 fewer rztpg than their offense is earning, but here’s where it gets ugly: Colts opponents are scoring TDs on 2.1rztpg, or 68.18% of the time. With these numbers in mind, it becomes pretty easy to see and understand why the Colts have been in so many close games this year.

So what is the cause of the defense’s red zone issues? As we’ve discussed, passing windows should shrink in the red zone, making red zone and end zone pass completions more difficult. This general rule doesn’t really apply to the Colts because of two major deficiencies: pass rush and physical cornerbacks. These two issues combine to allow WRs to work free from the coverage on the back end, while providing the quarterback more than enough time to find the open receiver and throw a good, unhurried pass. While the return of Robert Mathis should help a little in this area, the problems in the secondary – especially with the injury to CB Vontae Davis – won’t be addressed till the off-season.

The other issue plaguing the Colts red zone defense is their inability to stop the run. The Colts defense is surrendering 4.8 yards-per-rush which is 29th in the league. While we’ve seen the Colts rush defense have recent red zone success against the Browns and Titans, they are still surrendering far too many yards-per-carry in those situations, allowing the opposing offense the choice to attack through the air or on the ground, and to be unpredictable and deceptive while doing so.

Unlike the offensive issues, which should correct themselves as players develop and mature, there are no quick, easy answers for the defensive issues. Outside of Mathis – and perhaps NT Josh Chapman, the great hope!!! – no one on the injury report will have a noticeable, positive impact on the defenses deficiencies. Instead, the Colts should look to improve their offense’s success in these situations and hope that that success helps relieve some of the pressure from their own defense.

For those interested, here are the Dolphins red zone stats coming into this match-up:  their offense is getting 2.7rztpg and scoring touchdowns on 57.89% of them, while their defense is surrendering 3.6rztp but only allowing touchdowns on 36.00% of those trips. This game will be won or lost in the red zone.

Five key match-ups

1. LT Anthony Castonzo vs. DE Cameron Wake – I’ve been one of LT Anthony Castonzo’s biggest supporters, bravely defending him against his staunchest critics, but even I had to point out that Sunday’s game against the Titans was the worst of Castonzo’s career. Castonzo was consistently beat by speed rushes around the edge, which forced Luck to scramble from the pocket far too often. Things won’t get easier this week as Castonzo squares off against Miami DE Cameron Wake.

Wake, the 4-year player out of Penn St., already has 7.5 sacks on the year, and will be the best pass rusher Castonzo has faced since Jared Allen in week  2 against Minnesota. While I’ve given up on the interior OL being competent in pass protection, I do believe Castonzo has all of the physical and mental tools to be an above average LT, and it’s time that he puts it all together.

If he can, it will help QB Andrew Luck attack the Dolphins secondary down field, putting the Colts in position to score enough points to win the game. If he struggles, we could see a repeat of the Jets game, in which the pass rush was simply too much for the Colts offense to overcome, and the game quickly got out of hand.

2. LBs Jerrell Freeman, Kavell Conner, and Pat Angerer vs. RB Reggie Bush – The Dolphins are an amazingly balanced team, calling 222 pass plays and 220 run plays on the year (okay, 22 of those runs are credited to quarterbacks, but I’m not going to go through the tape and see which are sneaks, which are QB runs, and which are kneel downs, so call it 222 and 220). That said, they are a young team quarterbacked by a rookie who is going through the standard growing pains (Tannehill has completed just 59.1% of his passes, has thrown 6 INTs to 4 TDs, and has taken 13 sacks on the year) which relies on the running game to relieve some of the pressure from Tannehill’s shoulders.  

The first step towards finding some defensive success against the Dolphins will be putting their offense in 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations. This will fall on the shoulders of the Colts trio of ILB (the best, deepest unit on the defense, by far) Jerrell Freeman, Kavell Conner, and Pat Angerer. All three have excelled at making good reads and playing smart, patient football this year, and they’ll need to do more of the same this week against Miami RB Reggie Bush.

Bush is very similar to the last back the Colts faced, Chris Johnson, in that both men are explosive and love to exploit cutback lanes for big gains. The Colts defense had a few miscues against Johnson but, overall, were pretty successful against the Titans back. The Dolphins do feature a better OL than that of the Titans, making the Colts task task a little harder, but I do expect the linebackers to be relatively successful in bottling up the Dolphins rushing attack.

If that happens, it’ll be a good first step towards the defense helping to secure a victory and a 5-3 record.

3. LBs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis vs. Dolphins OL – The second step in the journey towards defensive success and a 5-3 record is going to have to come from the part of the defense that has consistently underperformed for most of the year. I’m speaking, of course, of the pass rush. The Colts have not only registered a mere 15 sacks on the year (18th in the NFL), but they’ve also failed to so much as hurry the quarterback on most plays. This has allowed even the most mediocre passers to look like Pro Bowlers as they pick apart the Colts undermanned secondary.

The good news for the Colts is that the only man capable of generating a consistent pass rush, OLB Robert Mathis, is set to make his return from a knee injury this week. How important has Mathis been to the Colts? Not only is he responsible for 5 (33%) of the Colts sacks, but all 3 of the Colts turnovers have come in the 4 game Mathis has played this year. And don’t forget, while they were still inconsistent in weeks 1-4, the defense did show signs of being able to stop teams. Hopefully the return of Mathis will also mean the return of a more aggressive, successful defense.

If Mathis – and his partner in pass rushing crime, Dwight Freeney – can get to Tannehill on Sunday, force him into quick decisions and bad throws, the Colts will be able to take advantage of the 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations. If they are unable to get to Tannehill, it’s likely that we’ll see a repeat of the Browns and Titans games, where both QBs Weeden and Hasselbeck were able to convert 3rd-and-long situations with regularity.

4. CBs Jerraud Powers and Cassius Vaughn vs. WRs Davone Bess and Brian Hartline –The final key to the success of the defense will be the play of its secondary. Passes will be completed – the Colts lack anyone even closely resembling a shutdown cornerback – it’s what happens after they’re completed that matters. WRs Davone Bess and Brian Hartline aren’t exactly #1 WRs, but they are both good route runners with excellent quickness, and will look to turn short- and intermediate-route catches into big plays.

The Colts secondary must make quick, sure tackles and prevent the Dolphins dinking-and-dunkings to turn into anything more than that. Force QB Ryan Tannehill to lead long, methodical drives: he’s a rookie, he’s going to make mistakes. Every yard the Dolphins gain after the catch/contact is letting Tannehill off the hook. The Colts secondary won’t shut anyone down, that’s not how they’re currently built, instead, they’ll have to play smart, play fast, play physical, that’s their recipe for success against the Dolphins.

5. The Young Indianapolis Colts vs. a Big Game with Playoff Implications – It’s rare for a young, rebuilding team to find themselves playing a big game in their “1st year.” (writer’s note/question: what constitutes the first year? I guess we’re going with the first year of the quarterback. Since quarterbacks are solely responsible for wins and losses. We’re now 9 weeks AP (After Peyton)) But thanks to a very good rookie quarterback and a very bad AFC, that’s exactly the position these young Colts find themselves in.

You never know how a team will deal with their first big game. Will they treat it as any other game and perform to their standards? Will they become over-amped, over-hyped and commit uncharacteristic mistakes? Or will they raise the level of play in the face of that pressure and exceed even their own expectations?

It’s hard to say exactly how this Colts team will perform in their first big, tension-filled test, but keep the follow things in mind: 1) They will be at home, where they’ve performed their best this year. 2) They’ve been successful late in close games. 3) They’ve already notched a huge comeback over a good team. 4) They’ve been on an emotional, tense roller coaster since Chuck Pagano’s leukemia diagnosis.

This isn’t to say the Colts will win Sunday, but it is to say that, in my opinion, the outcome won’t be because the moment was too big for the Colts. This is a young team, yes, but they have strong veteran leadership and a quarterback who constantly forgets he’s a rookie, which means they have a shot against anyone, on any stage.

6. A Double (or triple!?) Whammy Game – I know, I know, 5 keys. Well, don’t worry, I CAN count. This isn’t really a key, but an interesting sidebar that had no place anywhere else in this piece. Sunday’s game is somewhat of a double/triple whammy game, with the potential to be a win-win-win or a lose-lose-lose for the Colts.

You see, not only do the Colts want to win this game because, well, they like to win games, but a win and the resulting head-to-head tie breaker over the Dolphins may play a big role in determining the 6th and final playoff spot in the AFC.

Not enough on the line for you? Well, one last important reminder: the Colts traded a 2nd round pick to the Dolphins for Vontae Davis. A win by the Colts hurts that pick’s value, a loss, conversely, increases its worth. So while the Colts already have more than enough motivation for Sunday’s game, there’s one more reason Grigson might be doing a silent fist pump should his team come out on top on Sunday.

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)
CB Vontae Davis KNEE (OUT)
LB Jerrell Freeman   FOOT (QUESTIONABLE)
TE Coby Fleener SHOULDER (OUT)


Miami Dolphins

Player Name Injury (STATUS)


Series notes

  • Note that these are regular season stats! :)
  • The Colts and Dolphins have met 68 times, with the Colts holding a 24-44 record in the series.
  • Once again, Colts rookies Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard, TY Hilton, and/or LaVon Brazill have yet to face the Dolphins, so there are no series stats for those players.
  • WR Reggie Wayne has faced the Dolphins 3 times in his career and has 16 catches for 173 yards and 0 TDs in those games.
  • DE/OLB Dwight Freeney has 4 sacks in 2 career games against the Dolphins. Robert Mathis (who is questionable) has 1 sacks in 1 game against Miami.
  • QB Ryan Tannehill is a rookie. Rookies don’t have stats or something. WRs Davone Bess and Brian Hartline, as well as RB Reggie Bush have only faced the Colts once in the regular season in their careers. There just aren’t enough compiled statistics to put down in this mostly-irrelevant stat section.


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.


Miami – 28, Indianapolis – 13