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Eyes in the Backfield: Seahawks

12 Things to Watch in Sunday's Colts-Seahawks Game

Oooh. I'm so scared.

Last week, the Colts curb-stomped Jacksonville on their way to their third win of the year. This week, they take on arguably the second-best team in football.  Seattle comes to the Luke in search of a perfect 5-0 start. Here's what to watch for…

1. Watch for the stretch. It's here. While the path to 3-1 wasn't quite what everyone expected, the fact is that the Colts are exactly where most of us figured they would be. Sunday opens the second, and most difficult, quarter of the season for the Horse. The second half of the year has five or so wins in it. If the Colts can go 1-3 over their next four games, they have a decent shot at making the playoffs. If they can split, they'll win double-digit games. Of course, they could also go 0-4 very easily, even if they play good football. This stretch is so difficult that Sunday's game is probably the most winnable of the four. If the Colts are a good team, or at least a playoff team, they have to find a way to put victories in the difficult games.

2. Watch for the excuses. People have been making excuses for Trent Richardson since he came into the NFL last year. He had hurt ribs. His line didn't block. He's new to the offense. That last one will likely hang over him for awhile. It's been a while since a good runner was traded mid-season, but it happened a few times in the 80s. Herschel Walker and Eric Dickerson were both instant hits in their new cities. Basically, excuse time is done. If Richardson really is a dynamic elite runner, he needs to start showing it. Seattle is a tough run defense, however, so if he has another sub-4.0 yards per carry week, watch for some to keep coming up with reasons why. There's a need to justify this trade in the minds of fans and analysts because of the price Indy paid. Had he been traded for a fifth-round pick, people would already be talking about how badly he sucks.

3. Watch for the master. As good as the Seahawks pass defense is, they are inexplicably bad against number one wideouts. That works out nicely for the Colts who happen to feature on of the great ones. Reggie Wayne could well go over 1,000 career catches this week, and he's on pace for another killer 90 catch, 1,200 yard, eight-score year.  Wayne has had at least three catches every game of Andrew Luck's career, and at least five in 16 of the 20 games they've played together. Look for 100 yards from Reggie this week.

4. Watch the slogan. The Indy secondary has adopted the slogan #NoFlyZone as their motto, and they'll get a great chance to test it this weekend. Seattle's corners are generally considered the league's best right now, but the Indy crew has held their own. The Colts have been especially effective against extra receivers. Vontae Davis has been solid, and Greg Toler has been up and down, but Darius Butler (who I interviewed this week) and Cassius Vaughn have been lock down against guys in the slot. The Colts have the best DVOA in football against third and fourth receivers.  Shutting down Doug Baldwin (third in the NFL in DVOA) will be the challenge, but beyond him, the Colts should have success.

5. Watch for the comparison. With Colin Kaepernick struggling and RG3 limping around, the "next great quarterback" competition has narrowed for the moment from four to two. Luck and Wilson stand head and shoulders above their peers. I voted for Wilson for Rookie of the Year in the PFWA awards last year, but would have ranked him second to Luck heading into this year. By DVOA the two are nearly identical, but Luck holds a big edge in QBR thanks to his legs and his fourth-quarter exploits. Luck is the better player, but it's very close. It's a privilege to watch these two up close at this stage of their careers. Both figure to be relevant for a long time.

6. Watch the seam. As noted last week, Coby Fleener is having a nice season. He's on pace for 48 catches, 660 yards, and eight scores. All would be better than the numbers Dwayne Allen put up last year. That kind of production will be hard to replicate against the best defense in the league against tight ends. The good news is that Owen Daniels put up six for 72 against Seattle last week, and he's used in a similar way to Fleener. The bad news is that the Seahawks have picked off five passes intended for tight ends. Luck is going to have pick his spots to target Fleener.

7. Watch the Game Script. I love the work of Chase Stuart at Footballperspective.com on game scripts. This comes from the idea of tracking not only run/pass ratio, but doing so with the actual score in mind. Teams that have a big lead run more than teams that are behind, so when calculating run-pass balance, we need to control for that. The only game the Colts have run more than they passed was Week 3 against San Francisco, a game in which they lead throughout. It was also balanced against the Raiders, but again, Indy led most of the way, and the run plays were bolstered by six Andrew Luck carries. Even in the San Fran game, the ratio was balanced until Indy ran on 12 of the final 14 plays to put the game away. All this to say, the Indy O is playing very well right now, and they are passing more than they run. On the year, counting Luck scrambles as passes, Indy is throwing around 57 or 58 percent of the time. That's just not that far off from what I would consider ideal, and given the fact that they've played from ahead, it's pretty good.

8. Watch for beast mode. Marshawn Lynch has had some sick runs, and containing him will be difficult for the Colts. Indy's run defense is suspect no matter how you measure it (26th DVOA, 4.2 YPC), but Lynch has had his own struggles (negative DVOA, 3.9 YPC). Indy can't allow him to cut loose. They have to bring him down early in the carry and not allow themselves to get pushed around on the ground. Also, I think robots that transform into animals is almost as dumb as robots that transform into guns, jukeboxes and Volkswagens. I want a robot that transforms into something cool, like a spaceship, or a bigger robot.

9. Watch for grunge. You may have noticed a distinct lack of wit in this week's column. That's because you haven't gotten to the joke point. This week's joke point is all about grunge music and disaffected youth and how Seattle is too cool for school and there's something about Kurt Cobain, and it's all very hip and relevant, or at least it would be if we were still in 1995. That's because for me, it is 1995. It always will be 1995. Jim Harbaugh is still quarterbacking the Colts (I know, right?), Reggie Miller is still playing, I still wear flannel shirts and Seattle is all about garage bands and mid-90s disaffection. The point is that I'm old, and Seattle is a dang hard place to make fun of. Oh yeah, and it rains a lot there! Zing!

The previous point reinforces the tried and true rule of comedy in 2013: if you can't be funny, be meta. Most people can't tell the difference anyway. Lord knows I can't.

10. Watch the scramble. Luck and Wilson are two of the best running quarterbacks in the game, precisely because neither guy is trying to be a running quarterback. The Colts struggled with Pryor against Oakland, but held Kaepernick down by keeping him in the pocket and forcing him to throw. That won't work against Wilson. He actually can throw. Indy will have bring him down behind the line of scrimmage. With a sack rate of almost 12 percent, it should be possible. Whichever QB makes more back-breaking plays with his legs will likely come out on top.

11. Watch Walden. Eric Walden has not looked good on tape. He has four tackles in four games and has been woefully out of place against the running quarterbacks. With Bjoern Werner likely out, Walden has to play and contribute. He's been a disaster most weeks, picking up a negative pass rush score in every game. Of course, he's augmented that with bad run defense. The only thing he does with any proclivity is drop into coverage.  Robert Mathis is doing all the heavy lifting, so watch for Walden to either pick up the slack or for Mathis to face an unceasing stream of double teams.

12. Watch for the tension. I've flipped on this game a dozen times. On one hand, I think Indy has a lot of flaws, and it's difficult to get past how they played the last time I saw them up close. On the other hand, the NFC isn't a fantastic as it first appeared and this is a 1 PM game for Seattle on the road. My head tells me Indy gets beat, but my gut keeps saying this is a game they pull out. Colts 24 Seahawks 21.

Eyes in the Backfield – Seahawks (full)

18 Things to Watch for in Sunday’s Game with the Seahawks

With uniforms this bad, I don’t even need to make any snarky comments

Last week, the Colts defied my every expectation, did everything they had to do, and destroyed the Cardinals.  All it cost them was Dwight Freeney.  D’OH!  Without the driving force of their defense for a few weeks, the Colts have to circle the wagons to keep their momentum going.  As the Seahawks come to town on Sunday be sure to be watching for:

1. Watch the Master. Yeah, he’s great.  We get it.  The thing is though, Peyton Manning has rarely been this good before.  In fact, his last 16 games dating back to last year eerily mirror his 2005 season, right down to the rating.  Compare:  68.9%, 4201, 31, 10, 104.1 to 2005: 67.3, 3747, 28, 10, 104.1.  His YPA over those 16 games is back up to 7.9, right where it has been for most of his career.  The great one is in the zone and there’s no reason to expect that to change this week.  Everything about the Colts begins and ends with his play right now.  Sometimes even the obvious has to be acknowledged.

2.  Watch the next man up. With major defensive stars like Dwight Freeney, Kelvin Hadyen, and Gary Brackett all nicked up, the Colts may have to go in to Sunday’s game missing starters at every level of the defense.  Indy needs another big week out of its second string in order to buy time to start getting players back and healthy.

3.  Watch for an old friend. Edge James is back in Indy for the first time since his contract ran out after the 2005 season.  Edge is the all-time leading rusher for the Colts, and a favorite of Jim Irsay, Peyton Manning, and 18to88.com.  James needs just 79 yards to break into the top ten all time.  My dream scenario for Sunday includes a 30-3 lead late in the fourth quarter.  The Seahawks take over at the 20, and Edge gets a carry.  The Colts defenders all just step aside and let him roll 80 yards for the score.  It would bring the house down.

4.  Watch the backup.  The Seahawks are expected to start Seneca Wallace in place of the injured Matt Hassleback who is out with a broken rib.  Hassleback is more accurate by far than Wallace.  Wallace will have to be careful with the ball, especially on third down.  Turnovers will sink the Seahawks, and Wallace has four picks in his last three games.

5.  Watch the changing of the guard. After the Colts failed on third and one last week, Mike Pollack was benched in favor of Kyle DeVan.  The Colts religiously hold to the “best man plays” philosophy, and DeVan’s entrance happened to coincide with an offensive explosion by the Colts.  Pollack reentered the game later and looked bad on a run play.  Caldwell has implied the rotation will continue for the time being. (note:  I ripped this off of Oehser without meaning to.  I not only repeated the information, which is no big deal, but I copied the words almost verbatim.  It was totally unintentional and I did it because it was lodged in my memory, and I’ve apologized to Oehser for the mistake.)

6.  Watch for 4.0. Joe Addai has run the ball effectively in each of the last two games, and it’s time for him really get on a roll.  The Seahawks gave up 256 rush yards to the 49ers a couple of weeks ago, so they can be had.  Addai has upped his YPC on the season to 3.8, and even a 14 for 63 kind of day would push his YPC up to 4 yards a carry for the season.

7.  Watch the cloud of dust. Look for an outmanned Seattle club to do the smart thing and run the ball over and over and over.  They will attempt to keep the football away from Peyton Manning (and Seneca Wallace).  How the Colts fare against this strategy will tell us a lot more about the team’s potential on defense.  Julius Jones has been running well early this year, and we can expect to see a lot of him on Sunday

8.  Watch the returns. Chad Simpson is last in the NFL in kick return average.  We call him “The human touchback”. Due to Simpson’s abdomen injury, TJ Rushing may be forced to return both punts and kickoffs.  It will not take much to best Simpson’s poor performance.

9.  Watch the safeties. It is worth noting how well Antoine Bethea (21 tackles, 2 picks, 1 fumble recovery) is playing eary in the year.  Melvin Bullitt has also been solid, filling in for Bob “The Zombie” Sanders.  They’ll be ready to jump all over Seneca Wallace’s poor decisions.  Sanders is a dynamic player, but the Colts are deep at safety, and Wallace will be hard pressed to break 6 YPA this week.

10.  Watch the big one. Ed Johnson is easing back into playing shape after missing 2008.  His play seems to be improving after being thrown into the fire in Miami.  The Colts will need his size to beat back Seattle’s physical attack.   He came up with a big pressure last week against Warner, and with Freeney out, more push up the middle would be a godsend.

11.  Watch the Rook. Seattle drafted LB Aaron Curry fourth overall out of Wake Forest.  Curry came through with a sack and forced fumble against the Bears, but the pressure to perform is still incredibly high.  Curry signed a six year, $60 million contract, with an astounding $34 million guaranteed.  Linebackers are a key against the Colts, and he’ll have to fight his instincts to bite on the play action fakes.

12.  Watch the kickers. Olinde Mare missed two kicks inside 50 yards last week.  Adam Vinatieri has also been shaky in 2009.  You could argue that AV has been shown up by rookie punter Pat McAfee.  The onus will be on both place-kicking veterans to keep it between the uprights.   One thing is for sure, Indy’s kicker won’t get yelled at after the game.

13.  Watch for desperation. Seattle simply can’t afford to start 1-3 in a division that features talented Arizona and San Francisco teams.  The young team will likely come out with a sense of purpose that will have to be dealt with head on.  Punching them in the mouth early will be key.  Indy is a heavy favorite, and putting Seattle down 14 points early should quiet their ambition.

14.  Watch the streak. The Colts are looking to win their 13th consecutive regular season game.  It is starting to feel like old times.  Nearly as important, they will attempt on Sunday to win their 8th consecutive home game.  This would be huge, given the tough 0-2 start at Lucas Oil Stadium.  It gave the Luke a reputation of not offering much of a homefield advantage.  Now we know there were other reasons for that start than the building.

15.  Watch the confidence. You can sense head coach Jim Caldwell becoming more and more at ease.  The turmoil many predicted has not come to pass.  Fans may be waiting for the definitive test of Caldwell’s mettle, but he seems to feel he has nothing to prove.  That is good place to be.

16.  Watch for the rant. Jim Mora Sr. (one of the least liked Colts coaches ever thanks to his horrible butchering of the 2000 playoff game).  Was famous for his press conference blowups.  His son publicly filleted a kicker just last week.  There’s never any telling what will come out of the mouth of a Mora, but you can be sure it will be loud and have something to do with losing.

17.  Watch the clock.  West coast teams have a terrible record when forced to play 1 PM games in the Eastern time zone in the past few years.  Sure west coast teams suck in general, but their winning percentage dips to around .250 when forced to kick off at 1.  The Seahawks were 0-4 in the Eastern time zone last year, but this is their only trip there this season.  If Seattle gets off to a slow start, it might be because their bodies are still asleep.  Wah.  Do Miami and Arizona in six days and then bitch to me about waking up a little early.

18.  Watch for four.  Freeney or no Freeney, the Colts are the better team.  They are playing at home.  They have Peyton Manning.  Let’s not over think this one.  DZ says Indy 35  Seattle 13.  Demond likes the Colts to prevail 30 – 20.

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