Eyes in the Backfield: Cardinals

12 Things to Watch for in Sunday's Colts-Cardinals Game

Bruce is back, baby.

Last week, the Colts played twice in the span of five days. While they didn't cloak themselves in glory, they did manage to out-suck the rest of the AFC South, and all but tied up a playoff spot. Now with the second seed in the AFC on the line, they travel to Arizona to take on Bruce Arians and the Cardinals. Here's what to watch for…

1. Watch the comparison. Bruce Arians won Coach of the Year for his work with the Colts last year, and his follow-up album is proving his success was no fluke. Despite going into battle each week with the desiccated corpse of Carson Palmer at quarterback, Arians has the Cardinals at 6-4 and in real contention for the playoffs. Chuck Pagano has likewise followed up his miracle season with a 7-3 record, which for all its flaws is still better than anyone could have hoped. It's still not clear which of the two men is the better coach in the long run, but the winner will get his share of friendly bragging rights.

2. Watch the first quarter. Watch it, but be prepared to cringe. There's no need to go over the litany of stats about how bad Indy has been in the first half of games recently. It's so bad Pagano doesn't even want to talk about it any more. There are all kinds of theories as to why the Colts start so slowly. They range from everything from bad game plans to an insistence on running the football to a lack of focus. Most of the finger pointing centers around the coaching, but it's possible the Colts just aren't a great team. They are given fits and spurts and don't have much more talent than the teams they play. They rely on their quarterback to get hot, and he needs some time to get comfortable. If they could ever just play even in the first half, you get the sense all will be well.

3. Watch the insanity. Rashard Mendenhall has a DVOA of -18.0 percent. He averages 2.9 yards per carry. Andre Ellington averages 6.3 YPC and 23.4% DVOA. He has 46 fewer carries than Mendenhall. What team would possibly be so stupid as to give more carries to a back who is clearly terrible when they have a more explosive back on the roster? I mean one guy around six YPC and another under three? Really? I mean, who would do that?

4. Watch for the big play. Through the first five games of the year, the Indy defense had forced an average of 2 turnovers a game. Over the last five, that number has been cut to just one a game. Not surprisingly, the defense went from 15.8 ppg in the first five to 28.2 ppg over the last five games. The Colts' defense hasn't played well since Week Four against the Jaguars, and really has only had one impressive outing all year (the 49ers win). They've stopped forcing turnovers, and stopped, well stopping anyone.

5. Watch the impressive youngster. You may not have Michael Floyd on your radar yet, but you should. A first-round pick in the 2012 draft, Floyd is already set to obliterate his rookie numbers and has more receiving yards than the great Larry Fitzgerald. His yards per catch is great and his advanced metrics are fantastic. Indy has struggled in pass coverage recently so the combination of Fitzgerald and Floyd will be difficult to handle.

6. Watch the pace. Robert Mathis has fallen off the pace for the sack record and is now trending toward 21.5 sacks. After picking up 9.5 in the first five games, he's "down" to just four in his last five. That's still a great rate, and he's the only legitimate pass rush option the Colts have, but he's slowed down to a "He's having a career year" pace instead of a "Greatest Season Ever" rate.

7. Watch for the knee. Did you know eight teams have a worse kick off return DVOA than the Colts? How is this even possible? I know the Titans had a safety on their first kick return of the season, and that's admittedly worse, but how are there eight teams in football who manage to get less out of their return team than the Colts? Indy fans actively cheer touchbacks at this point. David Reed is 9th in kickoff return yardage. He must have returned approximately 10,000,000 kicks to accumulate that.

8. Watch the swap. The Cardinals and Colts effectively swapped oft-injured corners this year. Jerraud Powers has played every game for the Cardinals and been mediocre. Greg Toler has missed three games with injury and also been essentially mediocre. He'll likely miss this game as well. He was signed for 3-years $14.25 million with $5 million guaranteed. Powers got a 3-year $10.5 million deal with $3 million guaranteed. So the Cardinals won that swap on money. Ryan Grigson shelled out for the free agent and got burned when it would have cost him less to retain his own player. Swell.

9. Watch for the pining. Stanley Havili is likely to miss Sunday's game with a concussion having not practiced all week. That soft weeping you hear in the corner is from Pep Hamilton who is too overcome with grief to bother game planning this week. Without Havili, who will split wide on key third downs? Who take handoffs in front of Trent Richardson? Who will remind me of the sweet, succulent taste of wild boar? Who will be only player in the NFL named Stanley? And no, Stansly Mponga doesn't count, sicko. What's wrong with you?

10. Watch the dog fight. This game is a great test for the Colts. They've struggled to go 2-1 against teams a combined 10-20 the last few weeks. Now they get a bonifiede playoff contender, albeit a weak one. Want the Colts to compete at Kansas City and Cincinnati on the road against teams with great defenses, suspect offenses and iffy QB play? Better hope they show up against the Cardinals. Indy has a viable chance to land the second seed in the AFC, and they likely will if they can 4-2 to finish the year. That means sweeping the three home games (which if they don't do, they don't deserve a bye) and winning one of the three road games. They can get that win this weekend. The Cardinals have to figure 11 wins is necessary to go to the post season. That means a 5-1 finish. Their easiest game is either the Titans on the road or the Rams at home. Yeah, Indy can tell you how easy those games are. Arizona needs this one.

11. Watch the pace, part two. T.Y. Hilton is on pace for 1,131 yards receiving on 74 catches with eight scores. His catch rate is right on par with last year at 56%. His DVOA is down slightly, which is to be expected with more use. Hilton's play since Wayne has gone out has been strong, racking up 19 catches for 295 yards. That's easily the best three-game stretch of his career. Skill-wise Hilton looks to be about the same, but it's a comfort to know that as his use increases, his effectiveness hasn't dropped off. He's on pace for a nice second-season to follow up his fantastic rookie year. For the record, the most catches in the first two years of a career in Indianapolis belong to Marvin Harrison (137, 1,702, 14 TDs). Hilton has an outside shot of getting there. Bill Brooks has the yardage record (1,853) and Austin Collie the touchdown mark with 15. Hilton is on pace for 124/1,992/15.

12. Watch for a set back. The Cards are playing amazing defense and are desperate for a win. Every game is a playoff contest for them at this point. Indy hasn't played really good football for more than a few minutes at a time in a month now, and that won't be enough on the road against a determined opponent. Cardinals 23 Colts 17

Eyes in the Backfield-Cardinals (full)

18 Things to Watch for in the Colts/Cardinals Game

It’s hard to come back from losing the Super Bowl

Last week, the Colts relied on a heavy dose of Manning and Clark to snake out a much needed win against the Dolphins.  Now, as a reward they get to play the Cardinals on the road six days later.  The game is in prime time so I know you’ll all be watching.  Here’s what to look for:

1.  Watch for exhaustion. Not only was the defense on the field for more than 45 minutes on Monday night, but they came out fairly banged up.  Freeney, Brackett, Hayden, and Session joined Bob Sanders on the injury report.  That’s a lot of good players that are dinged.  Against a good offensive team, the Colts will need their best guys healthy and playing big minutes in the Arizona heat.  The defense won’t be able to endure another long night.

2.  Watch for cushion.  In week one, rookie Jerraud Powers made several outstanding plays in tight coverage.  In week two, both Colts corners (especially Tim Jennings) gave huge cushions to Ted Ginn and allowed lots of gimme completions on third and medium.  With Powers expected to return to the lineup, pay attention to the cushion he gives Cardinals receivers, especially on third down.

3.  Watch the statue. Kurt Warner is a fabulous player with many great attributes.  He is not mobile in the pocket, however.  Not only is he no Mike Vick, he’s not even Manning mobile.  He’s been sacked three times this year, and took 26 last year.  He is also a fumble machine playing against the two best fumble producing ends in the NFL.  The Colts best chance to turn this game will be Freeney and Mathis creating turnovers.  The Colts have forced just one turnover this year (Bethea’s pick at the end of MNF).  That has to change soon.

4.  Watch for strength verses strength. The Cardinals are a superb passing team, and they feature the best receiving corps in football.  The Colts lead the NFL in pass defense and are built to stop a team like Arizona.  It should be an elite matchup as both teams seek to beat the other at the heart of their game.

5. Watch for big ratings.  Not from the TV audience (though the Colts always pull down a nice number), but from the starting QBs.  Manning and Warner rank 2 and 4 all time on the career passer rating standings.  Warner has a 93.8 and Manning a 94.9. Those are historically big numbers, and the epic matchup should be fun.

6.  Watch the dump off. Both QBs could rely heavily on their running backs to catch balls out of the backfield.  Running back Tim Hightower is Kurt Warner’s leading receiver through two games.  With the Colts young WRs not catching many balls, Manning could end up tossing long handoffs to Addai and Brown. The teams whose backs respond the best could come out on top.

7.  Watch for the debate. Indianapolis chose Donald Brown with the 27th pick of the draft.  Arizona took Beanie Wells from Ohio State at 31.  Fans will get a chance to see who got the better player Sunday night.   Early on, Wells has 14 carries for 73 yards (5.2 YPC) and Brown has 15 for 59 (3.9 YPC) and a TD.  That obviously doesn’t tell the whole story, as Brown has 3 catches for 40 yards and Wells has none.

8.  Watch my arch nemesis…Chris Collinsworth.  To be fair, I’ve actually enjoyed him paired with Al Michaels this season. I know he’s a darling of many because he actually watches tape (which is a plus), but his nasally voice and HORRIBLE commentary in the 2006 playoff game against Kansas City.  I called him up and clowned him back in 1991 when he was doing sportstalk radio in Cincinnati.  That call from a 15 year old shattered his will and left him weeping for days.  Now he’s back to torment me again…Who will survive?  Turn in Sunday night to…never mind.  Not even I can make listening to Collinsworth sound exciting.

9.  Watch for neutral.  As in…the running games will be stuck in neutral.  Last year, the Colts and Cardinals were 31st and 32nd in running the ball.  Both tried to fix the problem by drafting new running backs.  It’s worked so well that the Cardinals are now 25th and the Colts are 29th!  Everyone knows that if a rushing attack sucks, it must be the RB’s fault!

10.  Watch the best WR in football.  I’ll field arguments that it’s still Randy Moss (though who knows if he still has it), but Larry Fitzgerald clearly grabbed the title by the throat last year.  His performance in the playoffs was virtually impossible.  I’ve never seen a player take over games that often from the WR position, but man, he sure did.  Did I mention that the Colts’ top three corners and #1 safety are all dinged up?  No?  Crap.

11.  Watch the third option. We know that Wayne/Clark is a devastating combo at WR/TE, but Indy has to develop a third option.  Before the season began, we were all counting on Gonzo to step up and throw together a 1,000 yard season.  He’s down for two months, however, and Manning has to have someone else be open.  Be it one of the other WRs or a TE, someone has to show and catch 5 or 6 passes in what promises to be a shoot out game.

12.  Watch for tweaks. The Tampa-two is a great option against a team like the Cards, but Indy may struggle to run it on Sunday night.  If Gary Brackett can’t play, Freddy Keiaho has to step in.  He struggled greatly in coverage last season.  The Tampa-two depends on the MLB getting deep and taking away key routes.  If Brackett doesn’t play, the Colts may have no choice but come with more pressure to force quicker throws.

13.  Watch for 80 yards. Neither the Colts nor the Cards have been very good at hitting that mark in recent games.  The Cards have rushed for 80 yards in just 7 of their last 18 games (they are 6-1 when they do).  The Colts also have just 80 yards or more on the ground in 7 of 18 games.  They are 5-2 when rushing for that much.  The team that manages a competent run game is likely to gain an edge (or at least be running out the clock at the end of the game).

14.  Watch for touchdown passes.  Indy may only have allowed 6 TD passes in their last 18 games, but both sides should expect to see plenty on Sunday.  Kurt Warner has thrown 1.65 TDs a game.  Manning has thrown 1.89 a game.  The two have combined for 5 of the last 10 MVP awards, and battled down to the wire last year.  The prime reason is that both men put the ball in the endzone.

15.  Watch for a vanishing quirk. The way NFL schedules are constructed now, the longest one team can go without playing at a team from the other conference is 8 years.  Because the cycle is the final year of the original cycle, the Colts are playing at Arizona.  This marks the first trip by Indianapolis to Arizona since 1990.  That kind of nearly 20 year gap between trips will never happen again, unless the NFL changes scheduling systems.  The last time the Colts played in Arizona, they lost 20-17 with Jeff George as QB.

16.  Watch for confusion.  Last week Jimmy Johnson of the Fox pregame show proclaimed the Cardinals to be done.  This week he’ll proclaim them to be legit contenders in the NFC.  Next week he’ll call them the greatest team in the history of football.  By November, they’ll be “deader than the last man to cross me in public”.  That’s why I don’t watch Fox.  Well, that and the mechanical scoreboard robot.  What’s up with that?

17. Watch the Cards D line. They are allowing just 2.5 YPC this season and just 56.5 YPG.  They have also produced 8 sacks (2nd in the NFL).  They stop the run, and get after the passer.  It could be a tough night for the offense if the line can’t figure out how block the Cards.

18.  Watch for the step back.  In a vacuum, I think Indy is the much better team.  However, I’ve had this game marked as a loss for the Colts for months based solely on the difficulty of taking another cross country trip 6 days after playing in Miami.  The defense is just a little too banged up in the secondary to feel strong about this game. Not all losses are bad losses and an out of conference setback shouldn’t hurt the team in the long run.  Cards 35 Colts 24.  Demond likes a shoot out:  Cards 40 Colts 34.