This is the fourth of 16 articles that I will post throughout the season, previewing the Colts' upcoming matchup. I'll attempt to analyze some strengths and weaknesses of both teams, a few areas to focus on, and a couple of key individual matchups. Overview: Despite a 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday night, the Indianapolis Colts finally showed signs of life without Peyton Manning. The defense forced 3 turnovers, scored a touchdown, allowed only 16 points, and held the Steelers rushing attack to 67 yards on 28 attempts (2.4 ypa). But the offense still struggled: 13 points and just 241 total yards. Curtis Painter replaced the concussed-Kerry Collins, leading the team on a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that tied the game with just 2:09 to play in the 4th quarter. Despite the Colts' improving play, the team stands winless at 0-3, and appears closer to the #1 overall pick in April's draft than they do to the 2011 NFL playoffs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have found themselves in 3 close, competitive games – losing to the Detroit Lions by 7 points, then beating the Vikings and Falcons by a combined 7 points. This will be the Bucs' first appearance on Monday Night Football since 2008, and their first home game on Monday night since 2003. That season, these 2 teams met on MNF, with the Colts overcoming a 21-point lead with just 4:00 to play. Mike Vanderjagt would eventually kick the game-winning field goal for a 38-35 overtime victory.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Running the football. The Bucs struggled running the ball week 1 against the Lions, but they've eclipsed 100 yards in each of their past two games. In 2010, they ranked 8th in the league with 2,001 rushing yards – averaging 4.6 yards per carry. LeGarrette Blount is a physical, north-south runner with a similar style to the Colts' previous two opponents: Peyton Hillis of the Cleveland Browns and Rashard Mendenhall of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
- Josh Freeman. Freeman had a breakout year in 2010, throwing for nearly 3,500 yards, 25 touchdowns, and just 6 INT's. Statistically speaking, he's off to a slow start in 2011 (2 TD's, 4 INT's), but he's a big, versatile QB who can extend plays outside of the pocket – ala Ben Roethlisberger.
- Stopping the run. The Buccaneers were one of only 7 teams to surrender more rushing yards in 2010 than the Indianapolis Colts – allowing 2,107 yards at 4.7 yards per carry. Their defense hasn't fared much better this season, ranking just 23rd against the run through 3 weeks. They have forced 5 fumbles in the run game, but Colts' running backs typically don't turn the ball over.
- Containing the pass. Typically, the Buccaneers "Tampa-2" defense is one of the league's best against the pass, but they rank just 23rd in yards allowed in 2011. Matt Grecco, writer for Stampede Blue, notes that the Bucs are dead last in the league in ANPY/A (Adjusted Net Passing Yards per Attempt). The problem may start up front, where the Bucs' front-7 has failed to generate much of a pass rush: They've recorded only 4.0 sacks in 2011 (T-27th in the league), and recorded only 30.0 sacks in 2010 (23rd in the league).
- Stopping the Run. I can't believe I just listed that as a strength of the Indianapolis Colts, but give credit where credit is due. Their defense has allowed just 3.3 yards per carry so far in 2011 after allowing a whopping 4.6 yards per carry in 2010. The Colts contained Peyton Hillis and the Cleveland Browns (3.1 ypc) two weeks ago, and shut down Rashard Mendenhall and the Pittsburgh Steelers (2.4 ypc) last Sunday night. As noted earlier, the Bucs' rushing attack is a similar style to the Browns and Steelers, so look for the Colts to find some success against the run Monday night.
- Forcing Turnovers. The Colts have forced 7 turnovers so far in 2011, which is T-5th in the league. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis terrorized Ben Roethlisberger Sunday night, combining for 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles – one of which was returned for a defensive touchdown. As I predicted in last week's Weekly Matchup Preview, turnovers played a key role in the Colts/Steelers matchup, and forcing turnovers will serve as the Colts' best chance at remaining competitive again on Monday night against the Buccaneers.
- Pat Angerer. He deserves it. In just his 2nd season in the league, Angerer is the leading tackler in the NFL with 42 tackles through 3 games (11 more tackles than anybody else). He also has a forced fumble and fumble recovery, and has asserted himself as the physical presence this Colts' defense has been lacking since Bob Sanders won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2007. With Gary Brackett being placed on IR, and possibly playing his final snap in a Colts' uniform, a new era has begun in Indianapolis – and it starts with Pat Angerer as the Middle Linebacker.
- 3rd Down Defense. The Colts' defense have allowed their opponents to convert a whopping 50.0% of their 3rd-down plays - dead last in the NFL. But it gets worse: the defense gave up 4 3rd-down conversions of 10+ yards against the Steelers, which is simply unacceptable. Given the deficiencies on the offensive side of the ball, the defense must make stops on 3rd down to get themselves off the field.
- Special Teams. At this point, I'm not sure what the problem is: Coaching? Personnel? Tackling? Lane Assignments? Pat McAfee is great, and probably deserves Pro Bowl consideration, but it seems like he's forced to make every tackle on punt returns. Yet again, the Colts gave up another big return to the Steelers last week (37 yard punt return), upping their season total to 4 big returns through just 3 games.
- Red Zone Offense. Indianapolis ranks just 27th in the league in Red Zone efficiency - scoring touchdowns on only 33.3% of their trips inside the 20. The offense has moved the ball surprisingly well, but the Colts cannot afford to keep settling for field goals.
- Turnover Battle. Let's face it – without forcing 3 turnovers against the Steelers Sunday night, the Colts likely get blown out again. The turnovers lead to 13 out of 20 points for the Colts, and halted a few Steelers' scoring chances of their own. Since Josh Freeman loves to extend plays like Roethlisberger, Freeney and Mathis should have plenty of opportunities for sacks and turnovers.
- Colts' Running Game. Surprisingly, the Colts have ran the ball extremely well in 2011 – averaging 4.3 yards per carry. With the Buccaneers struggling to stop the run, the Colts must be able to run the ball Monday night to alleviate some pressure from Curtis Painter. Jeff Saturday was particularly impressive in the run game by man-handling Steelers' DT Casey Hampton. He'll have his hands full on Monday against the Buccaneers' 2nd-year defensive tackles – Gerald McCoy and Brian Price.
- Special Teams. Without Peyton Manning, the Colts find themselves fighting an uphill battle each and every Sunday (or in this case, Monday). There's little room for error, especially in the kicking game – yet the team continues to give up big returns. I can't remember the last time I've seen the Colts' special teams (minus Adam Vinatieri) outplay their opponents. They don't need to make big plays, they just need to stop giving them up.
- Big Stage Experience. This game may have very little impact on the 2011 playoffs, but it's still a nationally-televised game on Monday Night Football. The Colts typically show up for prime-time games, and last week proved that Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have carried on the torch without Peyton Manning. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers haven't played a home game on Monday night in nearly 8 seasons.
- Touchdowns vs. Field Goals. I mentioned that Indianapolis ranks just 27th in the league in red zone efficiency, but Tampa Bay ranks 31st in the league (scoring TD's on just 27.27% of their opportunities). If one of these teams can manage a few red zone touchdowns while holding their opponents to field goals, it could be the difference between a win and a loss Monday night.