Five Things to Watch: Giants v. Colts (Week 2)

When the Colts take the field against Brother Eli and his Giants buddies, they will be attempting to bounce back from a week one performance that left the team in last place in their division, and left fans worried.  Will they play like Super Bowl contenders and get their first win of the season, or were last week’s miscues a sign of real trouble and not just a bump in the road?  Here are five things I’ll be looking for on Sunday night:

1. Bullitt Points

Melvin Bullitt is one of my favorite Colts players.  He’s hard working, humble, and he never complains about playing time.  All that said, Bullitt struggled last week, especially against the run.  While he was not alone in his struggles, he has to be better if the Colts’ defense is going to rebound from that bad performance against Houston.

One thing I’ve noted in the past, both in “print” and in the podcast, is that Bullitt seems to struggle in weeks where he is not the clear starter.  I do not know if the problem is Bullitt’s lack of reps as a starter in practice, confusion from practicing multiple positions, or the coach’s inability to alter the game plan to better suit Bullitt after Sanders has left the game.  Whatever the case, I expect Bullitt to be much better this week, helping with the run, and continuing to be a factor in the passing game.

2.  The Invisible Men

In 2006, then-starting linebacker Gilbert Gardner was dubbed by some fans as “The Invisible Man,” due to his lack of physical play, especially in the running game.  In the first week of 2010, the Colts defense seemed to feature three Gilbert Gardners, as the Colts trio of linebackers rarely made the plays we’ve come to expect from them.

Some of this can be explained away by the Texans offensive line’s ability to reach “the second level” and block those linebackers.  Still, there were plays to be made, and all three consistently failed to make them.  Making matters worse this week is the fact that Gary Brackett and Clint Session, their two best linebackers, have made an appearance on this week’s injury report.

Brackett is being hampered by a back injury, while Session missed most of this week’s practices with a hamstring injury.  Philip Wheeler, for those wondering, is hampered by a lack of skill and ability.  There’s no known cure for this problem, but like 2006, when Rob Morris eventually took over for Gilbert Gardner, I’m hoping that a steady dose of Pat Angerer can fix our strong-side linebacker position.

Despite their injuries, I expect all three to play, and, in Brackett and Session’s case, play well.  Gary Brackett is the emotional leader of the defense, he knows the linebackers had a bad game, and he’ll take it on himself to lead by example.  Session, on the other hand, is the defense’s big hitter, and I expect him to lay some wood to Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs before the night is over.

Look for all three to be active, fast, and swarming.  With varying degrees of effectiveness, in the case of Wheeler.

3.  Diemed if You Do, Diemed if You Don’t

It’s no secret:  The Colts offensive line was bad in week one.  The Texans rarely blitzed, but were able to get constant pressure on Peyton Manning, laying more hits on the star quarterback than any game since the 2005 playoff game against the Steelers.

Some of the issues could be blamed on injuries, as Jeff Saturday and Charlie Johnson were clearly rusty from their time off with knee and foot injuries, respectively.  Other problems, such as turnstiles Ryan Diem and Jamey Richard, are a bigger concern.

Starting right tackle Diem has seen his skills steadily decline over the past few years, while Richard, normally the backup center, has been unable to secure a starting spot along the offensive line before this year, mostly due to his inconsistent play.  Diem’s bad play is workable, as Manning can see the pressure coming from the right side and can usually step up to avoid that rush.  Guard play, on the other hand, provides different problems.

If the pocket is being pushed inward, it forces Manning to shuffle left or right, instead of allowing him to step up.  This can affect footwork and throwing motion.  While Manning does not get enough credit for his mobility or his ability to throw the ball while on the move, it’s still a situation the Colts would like to avoid.  Increased inside push also results in more batted balls at the line of scrimmage.

That brings us to the Giants, who, just three seasons ago, had one of the most fearsome pass rushes the league has seen.  While future Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan is no longer with the team, the Giants can still pressure the quarterback, and they will test the Colts offensive line early and often Sunday night.

Unlike 2007, however, when their front four could dominate any offensive line, the Giants rely more heavily on the blitz nowadays.  This should allow Peyton Manning to find some holes in the coverage and exploit a young secondary that is dealing with some injuries.

I expect the line to play much better on Sunday.  Saturday and Johnson will have another week of practice and treatment under them, which should hopefully allow them to get closer to last year’s level of performance.  I also expect to see all-world blocker Joseph Addai help out when needed, and I suspect we’ll see a healthy dose of rookie blocking tight end Brody Eldridge, as well.

Quarterback is the most important position in football, but the game is still won and loss in the trenches, and I expect the Colts offensive line to win their battles Sunday night.

4.  Hot Potato, Hot Potato.  Hot Potato, Hot Potato(e).  Potato.  Potato.  Potato.  Potato(e).

Despite the horrendous play of the offensive line and the run defense on Sunday, the Colts were still within striking distance of the Texans into the fourth quarter.  The unit that really put the nail in the Colts’ coffin was the wide receivers.

A position of strength entering the year, the receivers looked like contestants on “The Weakest Link”, and I expected that saucy British babe to start kicking them off one by one after dropped passes.  No British babe sightings, unfortunately, and, much to Peyton Manning’s chagrin, not even a tiki-torch voting ceremony to get rid of Pierre Garçon.

As noted by our own Brett Mock in this week’s podcast, the Colts first four offensive drives ended due to dropped passes by Colts wide receivers (and Dallas Clark).  Number two receiver, Pierre Garçon, finished the game with three catches out of 10 targets.  Fan favorite Anthony Gonzalez committed a bad mental error as he failed to extend a drive with a third-down catch when one of his feet was out of bounds.

The problems did not stop there, as Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark both had a couple of key drops that ended drives as well.   The biggest gaffe, however, came from Austin Collie.  On the stat sheet, Collie had a big game:  over 130 yards receiving, a touchdown, and a key fumble.

The fumble came in the fourth quarter with the Colts, who were trailing 20-10, in position to make it a one-possession game.  Manning hit Collie down the middle with a perfect pass between defenders, but the young receiver fumbled after receiving a vicious hit.  While it was a hard hit, this is the NFL, and you have to be able to hold on to the ball in that situation, and I think, if that situation comes up again, Collie WILL hold on to the ball.  He’s a good player that made a mistake, he’ll learn from it and move on.

That’s the theme that I think will define this game for the Colts’ receivers in general:  Learn from last week’s mistakes and move on.  Did they play bad against the Texans?  Yes.  Will it haunt them?  Only if they allow it to.  This is a unit full of youth and talent, and I think they are too confident to allow one bad outing define them.  Look for them to help Manning exploit the Giants back seven, especially against the blitz.

5. ♫ He has a powerful weapon, He charges a million a shot, An assassin that’s second to none, The man with the golden gun.♫

Thank God for James Bond, the one man that can erase Jon Gruden’s “Pew Pew”s from my brain.  There were few bright spots in the Colts’ loss to the Texans, and Peyton Manning was definitely the brightest.  The Colts’ best player was definitely that last Sunday, as he completed 40 of 57 passes under intense pressure, while receiving little help from his offensive line or receivers.

A lot has been made about Peyton’s performance last week:  can he keep throwing 60 times a game, can he take that kind of abuse, is he hurt?  I do not know the answers to any of those questions — yes, the kind of hard-hitting analysis you’ve come to expect from me — but here’s what I do know:  no one will work harder, no one will fight more, no one else will drag this team by it’s hair onto his shoulders and carry them where they need to go.

I expect Peyton Manning to do what he usually does in prime time games:  dominate.  If last week was any indication, this is a guy that is in the proverbial zone.  Out of 57 pass attempts last week, only one was even remotely close to being intercepted, and that was due to Manning being hit as he threw.  He’s reading the defense well, he’s making good decisions, and he’s hitting the open guy.  With a little help from his friends, this offense will be able to dominate teams as it has in the past.

And that’s what I think will happen, as I expect the Colts to dominate the Giants on both sides of the ball, winning 35-14.

No, I’m not drunk or on drugs.  Yes, I’m still Greg Cowan.  I do not buy into ‘this is a must win game’ type of talk until the playoffs, but I believe the Colts will wake up and remember they are the ****ing Colts.  I think they will put it together and show everyone they are not soft and they cannot be pushed around.  And they’ll do it on national TV, because they have a flair for the dramatic.

Go Colts!