Some exciting information was brought to me this week. First, it appears that football is back! That's right, the NFL season kicks off tonight with the Ravens at the Broncos pretending to be at the Ravens! And then on Sunday, we get our first full slate of Sunday games! The next bit of news that I learned was that I'm apparently a writer and I'm supposed to be covering the Indianapolis Colts… huh. On top of that, I apparently have a "preview" piece due today. The things you learn when you finally listen to one of the 829 messages on your phone, eh?
So, the Indianapolis Colts kick off their 2013 season THIS Sunday, when they take on the Oakland Raiders at Lucas Oil Stadium. And like me, they'll learn something about themselves. In 2012, they were the young team with no expectations. They savored that role and parlayed it into an 11-5 campaign. But many of those wins came at the expense of really bad teams, and in many instances, the Colts failed to capitalize on chances to put their opponents away. Now, as they open up 2013 with new faces – the roster will feature 9 new starters – and new expectations – most are picking them to make the playoffs, some to win the division, and one poor soul at MMQB.com picked them to make the Super Bowl – they will find out just how far they've come in a year, as they face a team they not only should beat, but should be able to beat handily.
While this is a Colts blog, we should point out that the Raiders will be finding out about themselves, too. Who is Terrelle Pryor? How many quarters will Darren McFadden last before suffering another injury? Is Matt Flynn a long-lost Hilton – he gets paid a lot of money to stand on the sidelines and do nothing.
We'll learn the answers to all these questions AND MORE, on NFL Kick-off weekend. Catch the excitement!
Tale of the tape
How do the Colts and Raiders 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. Just kidding. There are no stats. The season hasn't started, silly. But I'm going to see who's paying attention, anyhow.
When the Colts have the ball
|Indianapolis Colts Offense||Oakland Raiders Defense|
|87 WR R. Wayne||99 DE L. Houston|
|80 TE C. Fleener||98 DT V. Walker|
|74 LT A. Castonzo||90 NT P. Sims|
|66 LG D. Thomas||93 DE J. Hunter|
|64 C S. Satele||94 WLB K. Burnett|
|75 RG M. McGlynn||53 MLB N. Roach|
|78 RT G. Cherilus||55 SLB S. Moore|
|83 TE D. Allen||21 LCB M. Jenkins|
|81 WR D. Heyward-Bey||33 SS T. Branch|
|12 QB A. Luck||24 FS C. Woodson|
|33 RB V. Ballard||23 RCB T. Porter|
"Run the ball." "Power running team." "Ground-and-pound."
If you listened closely to GM Ryan Grigson, HC Chuck Pagano, and new OC Pep Hamilton talk about the Colts offense this off-season, you might think you were watching some sci-fi horror movie where Jack Del Rio somehow assumed control of the minds of the Colts management and coaching staff. The team that redefined the hurry-up, fast-paced aerial assault in the early 2000s, and caught the league by surprise last year with Bruce Arians' 30/30 offense (30 deep balls, 30 QB hits per game) was telling the world their plan to "do what all good teams have to do to win: run the ball."
Some fans groaned in frustration. Look at the recent Super Bowl winners: the Ravens won on the arm of a hot QB, the Giants won thanks to Eli Manning, the Steelers – once the paragon of RUNNING GAME virtue – because of Roethlisberger, and don't forget the Packers, Saints, and Colts, all of which relied heavily on their star QB. Running the ball and stopping the run was a great mantra. 20 years ago. But an evolution in rules, schemes, and the athleticism of the players, has turned the league on its head. If you want to be one of the elite teams in the NFL, you MUST have an elite passing offense.
Some fans, with the aid of the wonderful Indianapolis media, dismissed the words. Surely, the Colts are just paying lip service to an area in which the Colts have struggled recently. Besides, they have Andrew Luck, one of the best young QBs in the entire league. When you have a quarterback of that caliber, you surround him with the best-possible talent and you let him do his thing.
In the end, no one will know what the Colts are really thinking until they take the field. It's easy to say you want to be a running team. Going out and doing it, staying committed to it, is harder.
"Blah blah bah, Greg, you've ranted about this running the ball thing for weeks. Can you please shut up and get to the good stuff?"
You kids today. So impatient. Don't you remember the good ole days, when relationships mattered? When a good story meant something? It was around the same time as RUNNING THE BALL stopped mattering in the NFL! HAH!
Okay okay. So how should the Colts attack the Raiders?
The Colts are loaded with talented pass catchers – all of whom should be ready for Sunday's game, according to HC Chuck Pagano. On paper, the Raiders seem set to handle this, with a back-seven that includes names like Charles Woodsen, Mike Jenkins, Tyvon Branch, and Tracy Porter. But then we realize it's 2013, not 2008, and one of those groups (hint: they are old and wear Silver and Black) is not as good as it used to be.
So I expect Hamilton and the Colts to attack the Raiders through the air, just how they do that is up to the Raiders. If the Raiders, fearing the Colts speed, play off the receivers, then I expect we'll see Luck employ the strategy used against the Giants in Week 2 of the preseason: a lot of hitches and quick passes to the WRs. If the Raiders play tighter coverage, I would expect Luck to exploit his match-ups inside, where Hilton, Fleener, and Allen should be more than capable of beating coverage and making a big play.
Sure, we'll see the Colts run the ball. The team seems eager to get free agent pickup Ahmad Bradshaw some action. Vick Ballard will definitely see his share of touches, as well. But despite the service paid to running the ball, I expect – or maybe it's wishful hoping at this point – the Colts to use the run as a means to keep the Raiders off balance. If Oakland starts overplaying the pass – a lot of nickel and dime formations – then expect the Colts to pound away at the softer Raider fronts.
Here are some things I'll be watching for closely this week:
1) Will the Colts use the hurry up offense in normal game situations (ie: not when trailing or at the end of a half)? They said they would use it last year, and rarely did. They said they would use it this year, but never showed it in the preseason. Were the Colts holding back? Will we finally see Andrew Luck take control of the offense?
2) How does the team use the play-action pass? The biggest benefit from a commitment to the run is the way it allows a QB to manipulate the defense with the play action. The Colts rarely used the PA last year. I hope that changes this year, especially with all of their talk about running the ball.
3) Yep. Running the ball. How often do the Colts do it? Is it in the normal flow of the game, or are they forcing it?
4) If the team gets a lead, how do they react? Last year, they failed to earn a lot of two-possession leads. If they want to build on last year's success, they MUST learn how to be aggressive with the lead, to build on it, and to put teams away. The easiest way to go from 11-5 to 7-9 (other than an injury to Andrew Luck) is for the team to continue to be involved in a lot of one-score games. Get a lead. Build on the lead. Send us home happy.
When the Raiders have the ball
Indianapolis Colts Defense
Oakland Raiders Offense
|90 DE C. Redding||17 WR D. Moore|
|97 NT A. Franklin||68 LT J. Veldheer|
|99 DT RJ. Francois||76 LG L. Nix|
|93 OLB E. Walden||61 C S. Wisniewski|
|51 ILB P. Angerer||65 RG M. Brisiel|
|50 ILB J. Freeman||69 RT K. Barnes|
|98 OLB R. Mathis||86 TE D. Ausberry|
|28 CB G. Toler||80 WR R. Streater|
|30 FS L. Landry||2 QB T. Pryor|
|41 SS A. Bethea||45 FB M. Reece|
|23 CB V. Davis||20 RB D. McFadden|
Contrary to what my writing may indicate, I take my job seriously. I enjoy writing. My writing is a reflection of me. So when I sit down to write, sure, I want it to be fun, funny, conversational, etc… but I also hope that, most of the time anyhow, it's a bit informative, educational, and, eeek, maybe even correct? So when I sat down to write about this game, writing about the Colts was easy: I know the roster like the back of my hand, I've watched their preseason games, I've listened to the team talk about their philosophy, etc…
But when I sit down to write about the Raiders… It's not that I'm not interested in the Raiders. Let's just pause the column for 30 seconds. Take this time to scroll up and read the Raiders' starting offense.
Sure, Darren McFadden is a name that can inspire fear (when healthy), but after him? Terrelle Pryor making his first-career start in the NFL! Denarius Moore and Rod Streater at WR. Someone called David Ausberry at tight end. I'm reminded of a scene from the beginning of Major League (don't ask which, there was only one Major League movie made. Are we clear?) when the Indians' roster is announced, and one fan, who is reading said roster, exclaims, "who are these ****ing guys?"
It's not that I don't want to tell you about the Raiders offense, it's just that even Mrs. Ausberry didn't know David was a starting NFL tight end.
And all of this is to not say the Raiders can't or won't win on Sunday. As those plucky, make-believe Indians showed us (in Major League) – even the biggest collection of nobodies is good enough to beat a collection of somebodies. Do we know if the Raiders have an eccentric announcer who tends to favor whiskey?
The only definitive thing I will say about the Raiders offense, in general, is this: the Colts revamped their defense in the off-season. They got bigger along the defensive line and they brought in Greg Toler and LaRon Landry to bolster their secondary. This match-up, against a young, inexperienced QB and a lackluster group of receivers, is the exact kind of match-up the Colts should get off to a quick start against. If this Raiders team is able to successfully attack the Colts defense, it doesn't bode well for the Colts moving forward.
That said, I'm an Ohio St. Buckeyes fan (please, direct all thrown objects to your wall, we don't want to damage your monitors), and I've seen a lot of Pryor. There are three things Terrelle Pryor excels at: throwing the deep ball, running like a gazelle, and RUINING THE NATIONAL TITLE HOPES FOR MY FAVORITE COLLEGE. Just kidding, we'd have gotten trounced by some no-name SEC team anyhow. I'm not bitter.
Pryor is dangerous. If you play undisciplined, he will burn you with his legs. If you over-commit to preventing him from running the ball, he will hit a big play deep. So while the Raiders aren't loaded with weapons, the Colts must play smart, disciplined football. The team has been concerned about their lack of a pass rush and has hinted at more blitzes in the regular season. Try some against Pryor. If you rattle him and force mistakes, then continue to apply that pressure, but if he stays poised and exploits your aggression, don't be too proud to sit back and force him to lead long, consistent drives. Chances are, he'll be unable to.
Keeping an eye on:
1) The new guys in the secondary. Greg Toler and LaRon Landry were brought in to shore up a very bad secondary. Now the team says it has one of the best groups in the league. Let's see them prove it against a bad team.
2) Where will the pass rush come from? The only man who was able to generate consistent pressure on the QB in the preseason now lives in Dallas. Will Robert Mathis be able to turn it on now that the games count? Will Swedish Rookie Sensation Bjork (my nickname for Björn Werner) be able to provide a spark? And will free agent prize, the $16MM man, Erik Walden, make me poke my eyes out?
3) Second chances. Andrew Luck is great. He's also young. This sometimes leads to situations where he takes unnecessary risks, which lead to turnovers or 3-and-outs. That's going to happen. How does the defense respond? Do they go and force a 3-and-out of their own? Are they able to get the ball back for their offense? Or do they give up backbreaking points off of turnovers?
4) Attack the lead. I'm not saying the Colts will lead on Sunday. Think of this as more of a general, year-long watch. The Colts, at some point, will have a lead. I want to see the defense get aggressive and attack the QB when he's in a passing situation. Don't sit back. Don't get comfortable. Don't let the opposing QB get comfortable. Get a lead, attack. On both sides of the ball.
1. Protect Luck – I think I wrote about this 17 times last year, so I'll try not to belabor the point too much this season. But the reality is, the Colts will only go as far as Andrew Luck takes them, and he'll be able to take them significantly further if the OL can protect him better in 2013 than it did in 2012. If you listen to our weekly podcasts or follow me on twitter, you'll know that I have some serious doubts that this will happen, mostly because of starting RG Mike McGlynn and C Samson Satele. While LT Anthony Castonzo has developed into an above-average starter, and FA acquisitions LG Donald Thomas and RT Gosder Cherilus should both be upgrades over their 2012 counterparts, the McGlynn-Satele duo has the ability to single- (double?)handedly stop the offense in its tracks.
And if the offense sputters because of the duo's inability to make a block, it will be up to the coaches to overcome this deficiency, either by promoting a backup – rookie Hugh Thornton's averageness sure screamed "UPGRADE" during the preseason – or by tailoring an offensive gameplan arround them. OC Pep Hamilton can accomplish this by calling a lot of bootlegs and roll outs, to get Luck away from the pressure, and by using screens and misdirection plays to slow down the Raiders' pass rush.
If Satele and McGlynn are unable to perform better than they did in 2012 and the 2013 Preseason and if the coaches are unable to cover up their mistakes, Luck will continue to take an unhealthy amount of hits. And the Colts may not be as lucky as they were in 2012, when Luck was able to get up after each of those hits.
2. Stop McFadden - In just about any other match-up, the key to stopping the opposing defense would be to shutdown the quarterback or the stud receiver. With the Raiders, however, it will be important for the Colts to contain the ever-dangerous McFadden. Not only is the sometimes-explosive, other times-injured running back the best player on their offense, McFadden will also be their "control switch." When Pryor is struggling, feeling the pressure of the situation, they can give McFadden carries. If the Colts start to really overplay the pass, both in play calls and personnel packages, give the ball to McFadden. The Raiders will also want to slow the game down, limiting the number of possessions for both teams. Their best chance to accomplish this? Giving the ball to McFadden.
Now, the Colts can't make the Raiders call pass plays, but what they can do is make the run so unproductive that it is in the Raiders' best interest to call something else. So that should be the game plan. Don't allow McFadden to break off a long run. Don't allow him to consistently hit runs of 4 and 5 yards. Don't allow the Raiders to lean on the run in early downs to give Pryor easier conversions on 2nd and 3rd down. If the Colts can contain McFadden and the Raiders' rushing attack, they should put themselves in a great position to win the game.
3. Special Teams – If there's one way for a "weaker" team (if any Raiders fans are reading this, please, don't flip out – I'm not trying to insult your team, I've merely looked at the roster) to overcome a superior foe, it's by winning the special teams battle. A couple of great returns leading to short fields – or outright scores – can really turn the game around. Conversely, pinning your opponent deep, forcing them to execute longer drives is a great way to stall even the most-powerful offenses. (Just ask the Peyton Manning Colts, right, Mike Scifres?)
As Colts fans know, this has been an area of weakness for Indianapolis for years, and those struggles continued in the preseason. Thankfully, Pat McAfee is a refreshing coat of paint on a dilapidated trailer, and he provides the Colts their best opportunity to neutralize the Raiders' (and all future opponent's) return games, thanks to his ability to force touchbacks on kick-offs and his ever-improving punting skills.
If McAfee can perform at the level we've come to expect from him, he'll take that puncher's chance out of Oakland's arsenal. If he struggles? It could help the Raiders land a knockout blow.
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.
|TE Dwayne Allen||FOOT (PROBABLE)|
|RB Ahmad Bradshaw||FOOT (PROBABLE)|
|T Anthony Castonzo||KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)|
|LB Kavell Conner||ANKLE (QUESTIONABLE)|
|TE Coby Fleener||KNEE (PROBABLE)|
|LB Mario Harvey||KNEE (PROBABLE)|
|S Joe Lefeged||KNEE (PROBABLE)|
|RG Mike McGlynn||KNEE (PROBABLE)|
|WR David Reed||HEAD (PROBABLE)|
|TE David Ausberry||SHOULDER (QUESTIONABLE)|
|QB Matt Flynn||RIGHT ELBOW (PROBABL…Y… NOT…)|
|K Sebastian Janikowski||RIGHT CALF (QUESTIONABLE)|
|T Jared Veldheer||TRICEPS (QUESTIONABLE)|
|T Menelik Watson||KNEE (PROBABLE)|
The Colts and the Raiders have faced each other 12 times in the regular season. The Colts hold a 5-7 record in those games.
That's all you get. Seriously, when I started "Hitchhiker's Guide", it was the Manning Era. There was a wealth of player stats for each match-up, because Manning, Wayne, Clark, Addai, etc… had all destroyed the league a few times over. Now all of these kids are invading and I'm left to tell you, "there are no stats! For either side!" Darn kids. GET OFF MAH LAWN.
Identifying the coverage
Who(Visually): Marv Albert and Rich Gannon
Who(Audio): Bob Lamey and Will Wolford
Is the Game on in your area? Good question! The people at The506 will be able to tell you.
Officiating Crew: Not sure yet. I know it's NOT Ron Winter or Walt Coleman! When I know the exact crew, I'll update!
Colts – 24, Raiders – 17