Given the Colts dominant 27-7 victory over the 49ers, what I'm about to say may shock some people: Sunday's showdown with the 0-3 Jaguars is a must win game for the Indianapolis Colts.
No, I'm not trolling. I'm not trying to get a rise out of you with a controversial statement. The truth is, over the next 4 weeks the Colts play @ Jaguars, vs Seahawks, @ Chargers, vs Broncos. Three really tough games, and the Jaguars. This is the type of game that a playoff team doesn't lose. You only get so many opportunities to play the worst team in the NFL, you cannot afford to waste them.
So yes, the win over San Francisco was amazing. It was the best start-to-finish performance in the Chuck Pagano era. But if the Colts lose on Sunday, it will have meant nothing. And with that happy opener, let's break it down!
Tale of the tape
How do the Colts and Jaguars 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.
When the Colts have the ball
Indianapolis Colts Offense
Jacksonville Jaguars Defense
87 WR R. Wayne
93 LDE T. Alualu
80 TE C. Fleener
97 DT R. Miller
74 LT A. Castonzo
99 DT S. Marks
69 LG H. Thornton
58 RDE J. Babin
64 C S. Satele
55 OLB G. Hayes
75 RG M. McGlynn
51 MLB P. Posluszny
78 RT G. Cherilus
50 OLB R. Allen
81 WR D. Heyward-Bey
27 CB D. Gratz
12 QB A. Luck
37 SS J. Cyprien
39 FB S. Havili
25 FS D. Lowery
44 RB A. Bradshaw
23 CB A. Ball
The afterglow of the Colts trouncing of the 49ers produced nothing but love for the Colts' often maligned and criticized offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton. The last 5 minutes of the game, which saw the Colts score 14 points and turn a nail-biter into a blowout, made everything better. The offense was great, the play-calling was great, heck, even running the ball was great! No one – myself included – had a negative thing to say about the Colts offense (their decision to kick the extra point instead of going for 2 is a different matter).
I wanted to know if the universal praise was warranted, or if there was maybe a little confirmation bias taking place. So, like any good writer/blogger/analyst, I went back and watched the game. Not once, but twice! And, to be honest, there was a lot to like. The first drive of the game was a thing of beauty. The Colts spread the field, hit a lot of quick passes, and nullified the 49ers speed. I made it known on Sunday, and I'll repeat it again, I absolutely love the bootleg play call that made it a 2-score game. And those weren't the only high points, there was a lot to like in general.
But it wasn't a perfect game, by any stretch. Here are my issues, in no particular order:
I will never understand Pep Hamilton's usage of the fullback. This is not a comment on running the ball or the power running game. Hamilton has this thing where he believes a fullback is something more in the NFL. He continues to have Havili go in motion. He continues to split Havili out wide. This does nothing to the defense. I don't know who Stanford's fullback was during Hamilton's time there, but he must have been one hell of an athlete. In the NFL, no defense is going to be afraid of Havili's presence in the passing game. Even if he does catch the ball, is he going to do anything remarkable with it?
The only time I can see using these concepts with a fullback (a traditional fullback, not a tight end playing fullback) is in the hurry-up. At that point, you have the defense in a specific personnel grouping, and you can run your entire play book and have decent match-ups. But in a normal offense situation, if you want to have four or five receiving options, put the fullback on the bench and put a receiver or tight end in there.
Next, I continue to be baffled by the team's short-yardage decision making. They call themselves a power running team. They go out and call 36 runs (35 by running backs, 1 by the QB). But in short-yardage situations, the team seems to outsmart itself or simply get too cute. Take their 2-minute drill at the end of the first half. The Colts run a draw with Donald Brown for 9yards on 1st down. It's now 2nd-and-1. They call a pass play which gets blown up due to a missed block by Cherilus. That's okay. It's now 3rd-and-1 from midfield. The clock is stopped. You have two timeouts. The Colts come out and run a draw with Donald Brown.
Again, if the clock is running and you're in your hurry-up, there is an argument for this. You have the defense in a specific personnel grouping. You're in the hurry-up, so they are likely just getting set when you snap (which can help with your blocking). But if you're going to run the ball there on 3rd-and-1, bring in your power running package. Get your 2 tight ends. Get your fullback. Get your shiny new Trent Richardson. The three key points here: there was over a minute left in the half, the clock was stopped (allowing for easier substitutions and play-calling) and you had two timeouts. This wasn't the only confusing short-yardage decision, just one of the easier to illustrate.
If the Colts want to be a power running team, the situations I'd love for them to power run are the short yardage. Those are the times they seem the least inclined to be a power running team.
My next issue with the offense is the lack of explosion. The Colts keep telling us that they want to run the ball to open things up in the passing game. The Colts are 4th in the NFL in rushing, gaining 146.3yds/game on the ground. Yes, part of that is because of Andrew Luck, but the vast majority of those yards have come courtesy of the team's commitment to the run. Yet even with that commitment and that success, there's been absolutely no benefit to the passing game, which sits 26th in the NFL at 206yds/game (note: if you're interested, the Colts offense ranks 4th in DVOA, 10th in passing, 2nd in rushing.16th in PFF's stats, 16th in passing, 2nd in rushing).
Where is the deep passing game? Where is the play-action? Part of it is certainly on the players: 1) while the offensive line has been better, it's still not great at pass blocking for long periods of time 2) receivers have to get open and 3) Luck has to make better decisions and throws. But removing the obvious – that players win games, not plays – I want to single out a specific play that illustrates my point:
The Colts first play of the 2nd half. They come out with 2 tight ends and in the I-formation. Reggie Wayne is the lone receiver, he's split to the top of your screen (left side of the formation). Luck runs play action to Trent Richardson. After the fake, Richardson stays in to block (does a fine job). The routes: Reggie Wayne runs a comeback route (7yards), Dominque Jones runs a Crossing Route (3 yards), Fleener releases up the field, I can't see his depth, but its no more than 10 yards when the ball is thrown. And then Havili runs a flat route. Luck throws as soon as his back foot hits the ground on his 7-step drop. He never looks towards Reggie Wayne. Havili is his second read. Because of their closeness on the field, I can't tell if Fleener or Jones was his first.
My point? You came out in a power running formation. This has the natural byproduct of compacting/compressing the defense's formation. Then you run a play action, which has the natural byproduct of pulling the defense in closer to the offense. Then you run all of your routes within 7yds of the line of scrimmage? What are you looking for out of this 1st-down passing play? I don't think they should be running any 1-WR sets on normal downs. If they are going to, at least have run routes that can take advantage of the image you've been building in the running game.
My final criticism: the team plays for field goals. Every 3rd-and-long situation on the 49ers side of the field resulted in a screen being called by Hamilton. They were never productive. Andrew Luck was phenomenal on 3rd downs last year. I believe he will go down as one of, if not the best, 3rd-down quarterbacks in the history of the NFL when his career is over. Stop putting a leash on him on 3rd down. Let him be amazing. Field goals aren't going to win you games.
What I'm watching for, offense:
1. Put the Fullback where he belongs! In the kitchen, cooking dinner The backfield - Leave the fullback on the sideline unless the team is in a power-running situation. I know, I know… that will never happen. So can we at least limit the fullback to the backfield? I feel like Picard in First Contact, "The line must be drawn HERE. THIS FAR. NO FURTHER!"
2. In the words of the prophet Miyagi:"Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, football good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home. Understand? - Let's really go after a bad Jaguars secondary and let Luck win this game with his arm. TY Hilton and Coby Fleener had relatively quiet games against the 49ers (but I loved Fleener's game: only 2 catches, but both times he had a chance to try to do too much, he didn't, and instead made the simple play), but the Jacksonville secondary will afford both of them the opportunity to get free and make big plays.
Show me some play-action. You've put a lot of hard work and effort into building the image of a power running team. The stats don't lie: you're one of the best running teams in the NFL (through 3 long weeks). Put it to use. Let Luck use the play-action to suck the Jaguars defenders in and hit some big plays down the field. Balance, Daniel-san, Balance.
3. Dominate, win big – The Jaguars are bad. No wasted series. No getting conservative with a one-score lead. Score. Score again. And then score again. Don't let this team hang around. You've talked about being a champion, what it takes to win. Champions don't let the worst team in the NFL keep it close. They don't play for a late win. They know they are the better team and they go out there and prove it. No mercy. Mercy is for the weak. Wait, that might actually apply to Blaine Gabbert. Go back to the beginning. NO MERCY.
When the Jaguars have the ball
Indianapolis Colts Defense
Jacksonville Jaguars Offense
90 DE C. Redding
94 WR C. Shorts III
97 NT A. Franklin
75 LT E. Monroe
95 DT F. Moala
65 LG W. Rackley
93 OLB E. Walden
63 C B. Meester
51 ILB P. Angerer
77 RG U. Nwaneri
50 ILB J. Freeman
76 RT L. Joeckel
98 OLB R. Mathis
89 TE M. Lewis
28 CB G. Toler
14 WR J. Blackmon
26 FS D. Howell
11 QB B. Gabbert
41 SS A. Bethea
45 FB W. Ta'ufo'ou
23 CB V. Davis
32 M. Jones-Drew
After his team's victory over the 49ers, Colts' HC Chuck Pagano said that his team, "found out who we were on Sunday." Pagano meant that his team was a hard-nosed, tough, physical team that could grind opponents down on both sides of the ball. The hope for the Colts – and their fans – is that Pagano is right, and that Sunday's performance – not weeks 1 and 2 – was more indicative of who this Colts team really is.
So this is the week that the Colts prove it. The Jacksonville Jaguars are 32nd in total offense, 29th in passing offense, 30th in rushing offense, and 32nd in scoring offense. DVOA ranks them 32nd in total offense, 32nd in pass offense, and 29th in rushing offense. ProFootballFocus' signature stats rank them 32nd in total offense, 32nd in passing offense, and 32nd in rushing offense. For those of you scoring at home, congratulations! For the rest of you who are just reading this preview column, bummer.
The Jaguars, by any metric, are a bad offensive team. And so, if the Colts are what they say they are – the team we saw on Sunday – then they should dominate on defense. Yes, it's possible that they'll be without Ricky Jean-Francois (yes, I could have typed RJF, but really Ricky Jean-Francois is a totally awesome name) and LaRon Landry, but the same offensive limitations that plagued the 49ers – a strong running game, but a lack of receiving options – will trouble the Jaguars.
This will allow the Colts to employ the same basic game plan: aggressive man-coverage on the outside, a safety sneaking into the box, and a defensive line pushing up field. This should work even better on Sunday, given the impending return of Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert, who reads defenses like a 4-year old reads a book: yea, he'll get done, but it'll take him an hour and he'll need help from his parents. It's not that Gabbert is bad. It's that Gabbert redefines what bad is. Last year, the Jaguars' signal caller (and that signal was, more often than not, surrender) finished 31st in QBR, 34th (!!!!!) in DVOA, and 27th in PFF.
Gabbert jokes aside, one thing to note is this: these Colts seem to thrive on being the underdog, the forgotten team. They seem to rise to both the challenge and the level of their competition. What happens after that win? Are they able to stay at that level? Will they play down to Jacksonville? Last year, after shocking Green Bay, the Colts got demolished by a horrible New York Jets squad. Part of taking that next step and evolving into good team, not just a good story, is being able to play at a consistent level, week-in and week-out, regardless of your opponent or your underdog status.
And while the Jaguars are bad, they aren't without weapons. Cecil Shorts, Jr, Jr, the man who ripped our hearts out last year, is having another nice season with 19 catches for 276 yards (trust me, look at Gabbert and Henne's stats – those are great numbers) and is a threat every time he catches the ball. And don't forget perennial Colts-killer Maurice Jones-Drew. If anyone knows how to attack the Colts, it's him.While both of these players are dangerous individually, as a team, the Jaguars should struggle to move the ball against the Colts.
Last Sunday gave us a glimpse into what this Colts defense could (and probably will be in the future) be. Against the Jaguars, I think we'll find out whether or not that identity is permanent.
What I'm watching for, defense:
1. Cut out the Cut back - The Colts defense was dominant on Sunday, but it did have one horrendous drive. That drive saw the 49ers go 91yards in 9 plays. 77 of those 91 yards came on the ground. The 49ers used a nice mix of cut-backs, misdirections, and draw plays all designed to exploit the Colts aggressive nature. There is NO running back in the league better at exploiting cut backs than MJD. The Colts should want the Jaguars to throw. They need to force them to throw by bottling up the running game and allowing no easy yards. Play fast, play aggressive, play disciplined. You did it on all but one drive Sunday against the 49ers. Do it every drive against the Jaguars.
2. Cecil Shortage – Shorts, III's last-minute catch in week 3 of 2012 was a dagger in the heart. He has the explosiveness to make every play into a big play. He's also the team's only real receiving threat. Like they did against Boldin of the 49ers, the Colts need to press, jam, suffocate Shorts. Force Gabbert to throw into tight windows. He'll make a bad throw more often than not.
3. BLAINE GABBBBBBBBBBBERT - There is no witty title here. IT'S BLAINE GABBERT. Be Aggressive. Be Be Aggressive. Attack him. Attack him with blitzes. Attack him with disguised coverages. Attack him with aggressive plays in the secondary. The dude stinks. Whether or not it's by choice or just an unfortunate habit, the guy is trying to turn the ball over. Accept his gifts. Seriously, Blaine Gabbert better not beat this team.
Keys to the game (Besides outscoring your opponent)
1. Protect Luck (For the fourth-consecutive week!) – I'm on autopilot at this point, to be frank. The Jaguars are tied for 24th in sacks with 6. They have 26th-ranked pass rush according to PFF's stats. And they rank 17th in Adjusted Sack Rank. Given how the offensive line played against the 49ers, even with the absence of C Samson Satele (or is that because of his absence?), the Colts should find some success in pass blocking on Sunday. If they do, I expect/hope Luck and the Colts to take some shots down field.
The Colts' offense was patient on Sunday. Luck didn't try to force any bad passes, he took what the defense was giving him, and eventually they found enough holes to earn a victory. On Sunday, those big plays will be there. I hope the Colts look for them. Being a ground-and-pound offense is all well and good, but the pay off for that commitment to the run has to be explosive passing plays off of the play-action.
2. Make Explosive Plays in the Passing Game – I covered the thought process behind this in key 1. Let's look at some stats now:
The Jaguars rank 26th in pass defense according to DVOA. That's bad, but let's look deeper. They rank 30th in covering #1 WRs (Hello, Reggie Wayne!), 8th against #2 WRs (don't worry, DHB, more good news coming!), 30th against "Other" WRs – think TY should be able to exploit this defense? - and 32nd against TEs (another big day for Fleener?). While those are just "ranks", look at how those ranks line up with real Colts players: 3 of their best receiving targets – Wayne, Hilton, and Fleener – have favorable match-ups. This is the week that the Colts passing game needs to go off. In a good way. (For those interested, PFF ranks the Jags 25th in pass coverage)
3. Get on em Early - The last thing you want to do with a bad team is give them any reason to live. No hope, no prayer, no thoughts of an amazing upset. Score early, score often, score a lot. I believe more in Xs and Os and advanced stats than in rah-rah speeches, emotions, and psychology, but there's no denying that the Jags are a bad team, and bad teams start to look for reasons to lose. At 0-3, their season isn't quite over. If they were to beat the Colts, 1-3 isn't the end of the world, especially in a volatile AFC. But they are expected to lose. They are 9.5pt underdogs. If the Colts get a 14pt lead early, watch the body language. Watch how they move. Is there a belief that this offense can come back from a big deficit? Let's find out.
4. Suffocate em on Defense - This one's simple. Just attack. Don't give up the big play. They are going to complete passes, that's fine, don't give up yards after the catch. They are going to run the ball, that's fine, too. Don't give up yards after contact. Make nothing easy for the Jaguars. Make them work for everything. They don't have the talent at any position to grind out 10-play, 80-yard drives.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not taking the Jaguars lightly. I believe they are the worst team in the NFL, but the worst team in the NFL generally wins around 2 games. DON'T BE ONE OF THE TWO!
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.
LB Pat Angerer
S Antoine Bethea
RB Ahmad Bradshaw
DT Ricky Jean-Francois
S LaRon Landry
C Samson Satele
DE Jason Babin
NOT INJURY RELATED (PROBABLE)
CB Alan Ball
DB Will Blackmon
WR Stephen Burton
QB Blaine Gabbert
HAND (I HOPE SO)
CB Dwayne Gratz
RB Maurice Jones-Drew
TE Marcedes Lewis
DB Dwight Lowery
C Brad Meester
NOT INJURY RELATED (PROBABLE)
DT Roy Miller
G Uche Nwaneri
LB JT Thomas
Series note and a video
The Colts and Jaguars have played 24 times in the regular season, with the Colts holding a 16-8 edge.
A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority.
Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.