2012 has been quite the roller coaster of hype and expectations for the Indianapolis Colts. Following an off-season that saw a great number of their most prominent veteran players released and a free agency period in which the Colts remained relatively quiet, many analysts had pegged the Colts as one of the worst teams in the league, and a strong candidate to draft #1 overall in back-to-back seasons. These low expectations persisted despite the Colts having what many experts considered to be a very successful draft.
As the off-season progressed, however, the expectations and hype surrounding the Colts slowly changed. First came the glowing reports from training camp: the defense was fast and swarming, everyone was buying into Chuck Pagano’s new 3-4 schemes, and the offense, oh the offense, led by rookie wunderkind QB Andrew Luck, was sharp, dynamic, and deadly. By the time the Colts had finished their preseason games, a series of factors – Luck’s first pass going for a TD, a knowledge and understanding of the offense beyond his years, and a pocket awareness that all but a handful of NFL QBs envy – had led many in the media to pegging this Colts team as one who would shock a lot of people.
But this is the NFL, and there is no sport on the planet better than the NFL at creating hope and hype. This is, after all, the league that had convinced Detroit Lions fans, through a decade of incompetence and pain, that next year, NEXT YEAR was the year when 3 of Matt Millen’s 422 drafted WRs would pan out, and help lead the Lions to the playoffs. So it was with an optimistic, yet cautious eye, that the world watched the Colts regular season opener against the Bears.
If the NFL off-season was the happy, carefree dream, the Chicago Bears were the bucket of cold water to the face. They exploited the Colts weaknesses on both sides of the ball. They relentlessly attacked their questionable secondary and offensive line, and turned the Colts from the “team that would shock a lot of people” into the team that everyone wanted to play. Even worse, they made the center of hope and optimism for Colts fans, Andrew Luck, look like, well, a rookie.
Luck’s dismal performance in that game, juxtaposed against the brilliant opening game for fellow rookie Robert Griffin III, had lowered the hype and expectations surrounding the Colts to pre-draft levels. Were they as bad as everyone originally thought? Would they have the opportunity to trade the #1 overall pick in the 2013 draft and collect enough assets to quickly turn this team around? The truth is, like with most hot topics in today’s patience-less, must-have-it-now media, the answer was somewhere in between. The Colts 2nd game of the season, against the Minnesota Vikings, showed us the difference between a good team (and, specifically, a good defense) in the Bears, and a bad team (and, specifically, bad defense) in the Vikings.
And now, after their 23-20 victory over those Vikings, the Colts find themselves in an interesting spot: they are in total control of their “media hype and expectations” fate. If they win this week, they would find themselves with a respectable 2-1 and at least 2nd in their division – and only a solid performance from former Colts QB Peyton Manning from being 1st – as they entered their week 4 BYE. Two weeks of praise, two weeks of premature crowning, two weeks of the question, “Is this team actually good enough to win the division?” (Spoiler Alert for my Week 4 piece: No. Just like the Bears aren’t a good indicator of how bad the Colts are, neither are the Vikings and Jaguars a good indicator of how good they are)
All that stands between the Colts and those two weeks of congratulatory questions is a familiar division foe: the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars are a team all too familiar with hype and expectations. During the Jack Del Rio years (or, as fans of the other 31 fan bases call them: THE AWESOME ERA, SMIRK), the Jaguars often noted the lack of respect they received in the media. They were hungry for the praise and respect from those covering the team. Ironically, the years they were afforded that respect (whether they had earned it on the field or not) were often their worst years, record wise.
If those Jaguars were to offer advice to these Colts, perhaps they would say, “be careful what you wish for.” Also helpful would be: “don’t draft QBs whom you intend to convert to hybrid WR/TE with a 1st round pick, especially when you have bigger holes than the Titan, post ice, on your roster.” The Colts should be thankful for that second piece of advice, very useful. The first? Phooey. While some young teams may buckle under the pressure of hype and expectations, these Colts should welcome them.
The drafting of Luck, the signing of Mathis and Wayne, and the trade for Vontae Davis show us that, despite public claims to the contrary, these Colts want and expect to win, and win soon. With winning, with major success (such as making the playoffs and winning your division) comes the weight of hype and expectations. Just as we saw with their poor late game management against the Vikings, this team – the players AND coaches – is learning how to win. So too will they have to learn how to deal with the “consequences” of success. What better time than the present?
What do the Colts need to do to pick up the win, move to 2-1, and meet those expectations head on? My keys to the game:
1. Contain the Jaguars DTs Tyson Alualu (GO CAL BEARS!) and Terrance Knighton. It’s no secret that the Colts OL has been one of the biggest stories of the young season. The return of RT Winston Justice and (hopefully) C Samson Satele will raise the Colts OL from “morally and ethically offensive” to merely “abysmal”. The bigger issue on Sunday will be the performance of Gs Seth Olsen and Mike McGlynn. Olsen in particular has had epic struggles, and with G Joe Reitz apparently starring in Taken: 3, there is little hope of relief in sight. How these two perform against the interior of the Jaguars defensive line will directly impact the level of success the Colts offense is able to find.
There are some ways the Colts can help out their maligned guards. The first, and easiest, is double teams. Unfortunately, while it’s the easiest solution, it also seems like the least likely, as, through two games, OC Bruce Arians has shown an unwillingness to use more than 5 blockers on most plays. If that trend continues, it will severely limit his ability to provide physical help to Olsen and McGlynn.
Other options include: the hurry up. The Jags DTs are big, strong, and athletic. Using the hurry up offense is a good way to wear them down and tire them out. Go wide: the Colts already have issues moving the ball through the middle of the defense, so don’t bother against this D. Using screens and wide runs should allow the Colts to avoid their biggest obstacles.
2. Play to Andrew Luck’s strengths. Luck has shown a lot of success and comfort in the 2-minute and hurry up offense. Yes, we’ve already mentioned this as a way of attacking the Jags D, but it’s also a way to settle Luck and the Colts O. All the more reason to use it, eh? (Canadian alert)
Move the pocket: Luck has displayed great pocket awareness and mobility, and has had a lot of success on plays where he’s been forced out of the pocket. Why not play to his strength (and work around the weakness of the OL) by designing some plays to work outside of the pocket? Doing so not only helps negate some of the pressure from the opposing DL, it also helps simplify things for Luck, as it literally cuts the field (and his read options) in half. A bonus side effect: roll outs often leave a bit of running room for the QB, allowing Luck to pick up some free yards with his legs, should the coverage in the secondary be good.
3. Make Blaine Gabbert beat you. In year’s past, when Captain Jack Smirk-o was coaching the team, the Jaguars would run the ball 50 times a game, whether it made sense or not. Through 2 games (and 2 losses) new Jags HC Mike Mularkey has already shown a willingness to let future All-Pro QB Blaine Gabbert air it out. The 2nd-year pro is attempting 29 passes per game compared to just 20 rushes per game.
This offensive split should work into the Colts hands: MJD has had his way with the Colts defense in the past, and shutting him down should be their first (and second) priority. Yes, the Colts secondary is suspect, but Blaime Gabbert is completing 51.7% of his passes and has taken 5 sacks through 2 games. That’s not suspect, that’s awful. Shut down MJD and the Jaguars running game, and if Blaine Gabbert finds a way to win, you tip your hat to him and the Jaguars.
4. Coach to win. The Colts were taught a valuable lesson last week: no two score lead is safe in the NFL, especially when you have a young, inconsistent team. Passive coaching almost cost them the win last week. I expect the Colts to have a lead and an opportunity to expand that lead this week. Hopefully Pagano and his staff took notes and can learn from their mistakes.