This is the eleventh of 16 articles that I will post throughout the season , previewing the Colts' upcoming matchup. I'll attempt to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both teams, a few areas to focus on, and a couple of key individual matchups. Overview: It's now been 46 weeks since the Indianapolis Colts have won a football game. At 0-10, the team is just 6 losses away from joining the 2008 Detroit Lions in immortality with an 0-16 record. It's been quite a free-fall, considering that the Colts nearly completed a perfect season just 2 years ago. With pressure mounting each week for the club to earn its first victory, how will the team respond coming off a bye week? Jim Caldwell is likely coaching for his job, if he hasn't lost it already. While the players aren't necessarily playing for their jobs, they're likely competing for something much more important than that: their pride. It remains to be seen if the team can translate effort into victories, because they are severely lacking in the talent department. On Sunday, they face the rebuilding Carolina Panthers. Although they are just 2-8 on the season, the team is much improved from last year thanks in large part to rookie QB, Cam Newton. More on the matchup after the jump.
- Cam Newton. The current favorite to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award has electrified the NFL as a dual-threat QB. While he's been prone to turnovers (14 INT's, 3 Fumbles), he's more than made up for it with explosive plays. Newton ranks 6th in the NFL in passing yards – a tremendous feat considering he's a rookie QB who entered the league with questions surrounding his ability to throw the ball. Newton also ranks 3rd in the NFL in rushing TD's, and it's clear that he's become the Panthers' primary option around the goal-line. Stopping the Panthers' offense centers solely on containing Cam Newton.
- Running the Football. Carolina has 2 talented RB's – DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart – and a mobile QB in Cam Newton. All 3 are on pace to rush for 600+ yards, and the Panthers are 7th in the league in rushing yards (3rd in yards per carry). While the Panthers have relied mostly on the pass in 2011, look for them to attack the Colts' defense with a talented running game.
- Steve Smith. There were rumors that Steve Smith demanded a trade this offseason when the team decided to draft a rookie QB in April's draft. Turns out, that rookie QB has revived Steve's career. The diminutive, yet feisty receiver is 5th in the league in catches and 2nd in receiving yards. He also leads the league in catches for 20+ yards.
- Turnovers. You'd expect a team led by a rookie QB to turn the ball over a lot, but their defense hasn't countered that by creating turnovers. The defense has just 13 takeaways on the season, and only 5 teams have caused fewer turnovers (Indianapolis is one of them). The turnover battle could very well determine the outcome of Sunday's game.
- Run Defense. The Panthers have a horrendous run defense – surrendering 140.7 yards per game and a league-high 14 rushing touchdowns. Indianapolis is one of two teams who give up more rushing yards per game, but the Colts are "holding" opponents to just 4.1 ypa, while the Panthers yield 4.8 ypa.
- 3rd Downs. Carolina's offense has fared pretty well on 3rd downs, converting roughly 40.0% of their opportunities (13th in the league), but their defense has been awful – allowing conversions on nearly 45% of 3rd downs. The Colts' offense has struggled to sustain long drives, but Sunday's matchup presents a rare opportunity for Curtis Painter and the Colts offense.
- Running the Football. Despite running for just 98 yards per game (25th in the league), the Colts have been very successful when running the football. Their 4.4 yards per rush (11th in the league) is the team's highest mark since 2001. Let's hope the coaching staff used the bye week to implement a ground-heavy approach on offense.
- Linebackers. Bill Polian recently stated that the Colts' linebackers 'play as well as any three linebackers in the league'. While I wouldn't go that far, I have been very impressed with their play – particularly Pat Angerer. Angerer still leads the league with 105 tackles, and has likely secured himself as the team's MLB of the future. In a dark and ugly season, Angerer has been one of the lone bright spots.
- Pass Offense. After a promising start to his 2011 season, Curtis Painter has regressed in just about every phase of the game. With news comping out that he'll remain the starting QB, there isn't much hope for improvement. Painter has averaged just 152 passing yards per game, and hasn't thrown a touchdown pass since week 6.
- Special Teams. Don't get me wrong, Pat McAfee is having a Pro-Bowl season, but the rest of our special teams – on both sides of the ball – have been horrific. The Colts are averaging just 2.7 yards per punt return, which is dead last in the league (by a pretty wide margin). On the flip side, their coverage unit is surrendering nearly 14 yards per return, 7th worst in the league. On kickoff returns, the Colts are averaging just 18 yards per return (last in the league). On kickoffs, their coverage unit is surrendering 32.7 yards per return (2nd worst in the league). Every time the Colts exchange punts, they lose 11 yards on average. Every time the Colts exchange kickoffs, they lose nearly 15 yards. Still don't think special teams are important?
- Total Defense. Following week 7's embarrassing loss to the New Orleans Saints on national television, the Colts are 'only' surrendering 331 total yards per game. But that has more to do with who they've played (Tennesse, Atlanta, Jacksonville), not how they've played. Sunday will be a much harder test for this defense.
- Controlling the Line of Scrimmage. The Colts can't afford to let the Panthers run the ball successfully on Sunday. If Indy's front-7 can control the line of scrimmage, it will force Cam Newton to orchestrate Carolina's offense through the air. While Newton's proven he can do so, it will provide the Colts' defense plenty of opportunities to create turnovers. On the flip side of the ball, the Colts offense has a great opportunity to establish their run game. The Panthers allow more rushing yards than any defense the Colts have faced.
- Dwight Freeney/Robert Mathis. Dwight Freeney, in particular, has had a quiet season. He has just 3 tackles and 0 sacks since week 5. When the Colts' offense can't remain competitive, and the Colts' front-7 can't stop the run, Freeney and Mathis are afforded very few opportunities to rush the quarterback. That's why it's imperative for the Colts' front-7 to control the line of scrimmage. Forcing obvious passing situations will allow the defensive ends to attack Cam Newton, who loves to hold onto the football.
- Reggie Wayne. Wayne has failed to top 61 yards in his last 5 contests, and hasn't scored a touchdown since week 1. The quarterback play has certainly taken a toll on Wayne's production, but Wayne seems uninspired for a receiver playing for a new contract. Given his recent play, no team would offer Wayne a large, multi-year contract. It's time for him to prove what he has left in the tank.
- Special Teams. I'm not asking the Colts to make some game-changing, special teams plays. But just don't give them up. As noted earlier, the disparity in the return teams and coverage teams are costing the Colts valuable field position. As a weekly underdog, the Colts cannot afford to give up big plays in special teams.
- Play Calling. The Colts must establish the run. Then continue to establish the run. For some reason, the coaching staff is determined to live and die with the play of Curtis Painter at quarterback. When they do throw, expect a plethora of screens and short, quick passes.