Five Things to Watch: Colts v. Texans (Week 1)

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Addai'ing for a ground game!

A chill is in the air, my wife is preemptively filing for divorce, and the tarps are being unfurled at EverBank Stadium, all of which can lead us to only one conclusion: the NFL season is about to start.  Last year we witnessed our Indianapolis Colts have a great season, posting a 14-2 regular-season record, followed by them marching through the playoffs, only to see them be denied, for some unknown reason — the ability to play in the Super Bowl.  Here are five things to watch as the Colts Season of Vindication™ kicks off Sunday in Houston:

1.  The Return of Real Football

As heartbreaking as last season was, I cannot quit the NFL.  While the Colts are my one true love, I eat up everything NFL, whether the Colts are involved or not.  Fantasy?  Count me and my 50 teams in.  An afternoon game featuring the Raiders and Chiefs?  Put me down for $20 on the Raiders!  Horrible analysis from a grumpy, bitter Deion Sanders?  Okay, let me rethink my love for all things NFL.

When it comes to sports, March through August are just cheap appetizers, undercooked, under-flavored, underwhelming, trying to tide me over, unsuccessfully, ’til my ribeye of football is brought to the table.  Now it’s here, along with a stout beer, a sharp knife, and a wonderful horseradish sauce, and I’m ready to gorge myself.  I just hope I’m getting dessert served to me in Dallas.

2.  The Sheriff

Jon Gruden has ruined me when it comes to The Greatest Football Player in the History of the Sorld, Peyton Manning.  His nickname for Manning, The Sheriff, has so infiltrated my mind that I can no longer hear the name Peyton Manning without hearing the sounds ‘pew pew’ in my head.

I’ll carry on, however, because watching Manning is an amazing privilege.  Whether he’s changing the play at the line, dissecting the defense in the most emasculating way possible, throwing a perfect ball between coverages, or using his sixth-sense to avoid an oncoming pass rush, I’m always amazed, enthralled, and entertained by Manning.

This year, and this game, will be no different.  While you may question the Colts defense, their return game, or their offensive line, you cannot question Manning.  No one works harder, no one cares more than the Colts’ best player, and those attributes come through in his play every Sunday.

For his part, Manning seems to love playing the Texans.  The Colts quarterback has posted a passer rating of 112.4 in 12 career games against the Texans.  If he’s able to overcome the shortcomings of his offensive line, he should put up similar numbers on Sunday against an inexperienced and short-handed back seven of the Texans.

Win or lose, I know the one facet of the game I will not have to question is how Manning played.  Let’s hope The Sheriff’s deputies are up to the task on Sunday.  Pew.  Pew.

3.  Bob

Tony Dungy calls him “The Eraser”, Nate Dunlevy calls him “The Zombie”, Brad Wells calls him, “Benched”.  No matter what you call him, Bob is back, and he’s bringing bone-jarring hits — and a likely trip to the injured reserve — with him.

It’s been almost a full year since Bob Sanders tore his biceps against the San Francisco 49ers, putting an end to his 2009 season.  The 2007 Defensive Player of the Year has had an up and down relationship with Colts fans – they love what he can do when on the field, but hate that he’s rarely on the field.   He says he feels as good as ever, and he’s shown signs of being able to return to his game-changing form this pre-season.

When Sanders is on the field, he instills a sense of confidence in the defense.  You can see a swagger that is not present when Bob is on the sidelines.  Whether that translates to improved defensive play remains to be seen, but we know that everyone, including the offensive players for the Texans, will be looking for Sanders before every play.

It will be interesting to see how well Sanders has learned Larry Coyer’s defensive system.  While this will be the Colts’ second year in the system, Sanders has not had much in-game experience with it.   His ability to acclimate himself to the system will go a long way in determining how creative Coyer can get in his coverage and blitz schemes.

On Sunday, I expect Sanders to have an immediate effect on the running game, helping the defense keep Arian Foster and Steve Slaton in check.  They’ll still get yards, but not the gashing plays we’ve seen from the Texans in the past.   In the passing game, the availability of Sanders should allow Coyer to use his three safeties (Sanders, Antoine Bethea, and Melvin Bullitt) at the same time, giving him the ability to run some more exotic coverages and blitzes, but not leaving the Colts exposed on the back end.

While I’m excited to see Sanders play, I know that I’ll be holding my breath with every hit.  Hurt others, Bob, not yourself!

4.   Addai’ing for a Running Game

Much has been made this off-season about the need for the Colts to have an improved running game.  Gone are Ryan Lilja and Tony Ugoh, in are a bunch of guys that no one, including their parents, knew played in the NFL.   While Peyton Manning will use his powers to cover up shaky pass protection, how this line does in creating lanes will go a long way in determining whether or not the ground game improves.

For his part, fifth-year back Joseph Addai looked like a man in a contract year this pre-season.  When he was not performing kamikaze attacks on defensive players who just recovered fumbles, Addai has looked like his rookie-self, performing well in all facets of the game: running with a burst, showing great hands and agility as a receiver, and showing why he is considered an elite pass blocker.

If Addai can play at this level all season, while remaining healthy, he could bring a balance to this offense that has been missing the past two seasons.  While the NFL is definitely a passing league, the ability to run the ball against two-deep looks, when the defense is daring you to run, is vital.  And maybe a few nice runs by Addai and/or Donald Brown could tempt opposing defenses into running a few blitzes, where Manning really excels.

The Colts running backs should have some opportunities for success on Sunday.  The Texans will be without Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing, who is serving a four-game suspension for, uh, “over-doing it.”  On top of that, the Texans have an inexperienced back end, and will probably play a lot of defenses that offer safety help to the cornerbacks.  These two factors combined should afford Addai and Brown some room to operate, assuming the offensive line opens any holes for them.

5.  As the Gonzo Turns

One of the more interesting sub-plots this pre-season has been the story of Anthony Gonzalez.  Gonzo, as his fan club calls him, injured his knee in the first game of 2009 and missed the entire season.  He’s worked hard this off-season to not only get back to his pre-injury form, but to also win back his starting job.

Gonzo did not win back the starting job, apparently, and voiced some displeasure this past week at the ‘open competition’ he felt he was promised, but that never took place.  To confuse the situation even more, Gonzalez was listed as the starting punt returner on the Colts first official depth chart of the regular season, despite fielding exactly ZERO punts this pre-season.

Fans and media were not the only ones surprised by this, as Gonzalez himself expressed a bit of shock, going as far to mention his lack of punt return experience throughout his football career (Non-Bowl stats only show three official punt returns for Gonzalez during his college career at THE Ohio State University)

On one hand, it makes sense to have Gonzalez return punts.  He has great hands, is smart, and is good after the catch.  Truthfully, he cannot be any worse than previous Colts’ returners, also known as the “Fair Catch Brigade.”

On the other hand, the Colts only have four wide receivers on their roster, so risking one on punt returns seems risky.  On top of that, I firmly believe that Gonzalez is the second-best receiver on the roster in terms of skill and ability.  He may not have the upside of, say, a Pierre Garçon, but a receiver’s first job is to catch the ball, not stiff-arm defenders in the face.

In the end, the NFL is a true meritocracy, and the best players will rise to the top.  Because of that, I expect Gonzalez to have a big say in what happens with the Colts this season.  At some point he’ll be called upon, and I believe he’ll answer in stellar fashion.

As for Sunday, what could he bring to the table?  I expect to see the Colts unveil their four-wide package at some point, with Reggie Wayne, Garçon, Austin Collie, and Gonzalez on the field at the same time, putting the Texans’ secondary to the ultimate test.  I think Gonzalez will shine in these situations, where his route running and after-the-catch ability will be put on display against a spread-out defense.

If he returns punts on Sunday?  I think he’ll do great there, too.  And maybe he’ll give me a chance to use the ‘Gonzo is gonzo’ pun, I’m sure no one else will think of it.

Finally, my boss has informed me that I have to give a prediction before I go, so here it is:

31-21

Oh, you want the teams?  I believe the Texans win and have their first lead in the history of the AFC South.

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