12 Things to Watch in Monday's Colts-Chargers game
Spider three? Why banana?
Last week, the Colts toppled Seattle and vaulted up the ranks in the AFC. This week, Andrew Luck gets his first Monday night test against Phil Rivers and the San Diego Chargers. Here's what to watch for:
1. Watch the pocket. The Colts have faced four running quarterbacks in five games to open the year. The fifth game was against Blaine Gabbert, who really doesn't count as a quarterback at all. He's basically an insurance agent in training. Pryor, Tannehill, Kaepernick and Wilson all make their share of plays with their legs, but only Wilson breaks into the top 10 in passing DVOA for the year. Gabbert just breaks into tears. Rivers is a different animal altogether. He's second in the NFL in DVOA, he's second in QBR and is completing almost 75% of his passes. He ain't Peyton, but he's the perfect warm up. The Colts secondary was cited as a weakness coming into the year but has played well against guys who can't pass. Now they have to play well against someone who can.
2. Watch the new age. For all they hype about the ESPN trailer for Andrew Luck's first game on the world-wide leader, the fact is that it's a new age for the Chargers too. Long the Indy nemesis, most of the great players who tortured the Colts are gone. Even Norv isn't around any more. Other than old man Rivers, Antonio Gates and the robo-punter, the Chargers have almost completely turned over. Colts fans get a little twitchy about playing the Chargers, but this team isn't that team.
3. Watch the unsustainable pace. Robert Mathis isn't going to have 30 sacks this year. I feel confident saying that. Moreover, the Colts next three games come against the six of the best offensive lines at adjusted sack rate. San Diego is second-best in the NFL at preventing sacks (Denver is first and Houston is sixth). To put that in perspective, the Colts have played four of the seven worst lines to date. Sacks are going to be at a premium for the next month or so. Don't be surprised if Mathis finds himself around 10 or 11 sacks come mid-November.
4. Watch for the meme. Chuck Pagano thinks turnovers and rushing yards are the determining factors in who wins a game. The Chargers are 2-0 when out-rushing the opponent and 1-2 when they have fewer turnovers. Indy on the other hand is 2-1 when out rushing the opponent (2-0 when they don't!) and 3-0 when they win the turnover battle. Turnovers matter, but rushing yards don't. It continues to worry me that he deeply believes they do. The Colts are going to pound the ball because they think that's what wins. Oh, for the record, the team with the better YPA is 5-0 this year in Colts games.
5. Watch for the end of the excuses. Regardless of what you think of the Trent Richardson trade, everyone has to agree that four weeks ought to be enough time for a running back to acclimate to an offense. The Colts have one of the best run-blocking lines in football and the Chargers have the worst defensive line. If Richardson can't look good against San Diego, he can't look good. Whether or not he's ever going to be an elite back, he ought to look like one this week. He should be well over 4.5 yards a carry and pushing 100 yards. If not, the warning bells will be sounding on his career.
6. Watch for the implosion. The Chargers have been in every game they've played this season, but are just 2-3 in part because of Phil Rivers' play down the stretch in games. His YPA, completion percentage and interceptions all soar in the fourth quarter this season. That's not because San Diego is playing from behind either. They've had the fourth-quarter lead in four of five games this year. The Colts have only allowed one fourth-quarter touchdown this season, and that was in Week 1. If this game is tight, look for Indy to come back and win.
7. Watch for the package. I'm not one to harp on packages normally, but the Colts have an ugly one. Last week we all saw what a dynamic player T.Y. Hilton can be. He's only in the game about 60% of the time. Darius Heyward-Bey, by comparison, gets on the field 72% of the snaps. Stanley Havili, the full back, has been in for 112 snaps. That's about a third of the time. The numbers don't line perfectly, but the Colts willfully take one of their best players off the field once in each set of downs. I can't begin to explain it.
8. Watch the pest. Danny Woodhead is going to present a challenge for the Colts defense. He's second in receiving DYAR for running backs, up there with ex-Charger and Colt-killer Darren Sproles. The Colts haven't had to defend an excellent receiving back this year. None of the top-15 receiving backs have played Indy. Again, they are getting two of the top three backs in the next two weeks, so strap in.
9. Watch for Spader. It's breast cancer awareness month, so the NFL has gone all Pretty in Pink. Luck comes off as the goofy-nerd everyone likes. Phil Rivers has a heavy dose Steve McKee in him. I can just hear Rivers say things like, "Nobody appreciates your sense of humor." He's about one step removed from playing the entire game with a button-down jersey, just so he can go out there and show off his waxed chest. I'm not really sure who Molly Ringwald is in this analogy, so I'm going go with us. We are all Molly Ringwald. And Andrew Luck has stolen our heart in fine 80s nerd-guy fashion. In a related story, it just occurred to me that I'm old.
10. Watch the secret weapon. Donald Brown doesn't qualify for the DVOA lead because he doesn't have enough carries, but his 65.2% is the best in the game. More impressive perhaps is the fact that he has 59 DYAR, which qualifies him for eighth in the league. That's amazing considering DYAR is a volume stat, and he doesn't get many touches. Obviously, he wouldn't be that successful as an every down back, but as a change-of-pace player, he's insanely valuable. Oh, and his pass blocking grade is better than Richardson's on the year. Just saying.
11. Watch for the deputy. This guy has come in and replaced the sheriff, and you know how much I love this guy. I was talking to this guy and he told me that you never check down to the wideout on Spider 3 Y Banana. Bananas are the best and spiders really got something, but this guy, the deputy I call him, he's come in and he's the Sheriff now. I know that sounds crazy to say because the sheriff is the sheriff, but the deputy, he's the top banana. When I was in Tampa, I wanted my own deputy, but my guy was more Barney Fife than Wyatt Erp. I think he was a marshal. So that's what this guy is. He's The Marshal. Banana, Mike. Ba-nana.
12. Watch for the roll. I don't buy the Colts defense even a little bit, but I'm all in on Luck. I think the games are slowing down for him at just the right time. Andy wins another shootout. Colts 30, Chargers 24.