Colts Aim For Primetime Success Against Bolts
By Corbin Smith
One week after landing the biggest victory in the Chuck Pagano era, the Indianapolis Colts will head to the west coast for the second time this season looking to build on the team's current three game win streak against the San Diego Chargers.
On paper, the Colts appear to be heavy favorites over the Chargers in this Monday Night Football game. The Colts have beaten both the San Francisco 49ers and the Seahawks on the way to a rousing 4-1 start, while the Chargers enter Monday night's contest reeling after a rough loss to the Oakland Raiders and owning one of the league's worst defensive units. Indianapolis sits in sole possession of first place in the AFC South division for the first time since 2010, while San Diego sits three games behind the undefeated Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs and facing an uphill climb toward respectability. While both teams have encountered plenty of injuries, the Colts have better depth at most positions and should be better equipt to deal with these losses as the season progresses.
It looks like this matchup could be a major mismatch, but as college football analyst Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast, my friend."
Despite ranking 27th in the NFL against the pass and not faring much better against the run, the Chargers have the firepower on offense to potentially give the Colts problems this week. After two dismal seasons, quarterback Philip Rivers has bounced back in a big way in his first season with Mike McCoy as head coach, as he has tossed 16 touchdowns and thrown for more than 1,600 yards in the team's first five games. In the past few years, Rivers has struggled behind a poor offensive line and lacked the receiving threats to launch a successful vertical passing game like he had during the early stages of his career. With players like Vincent Jackson skipping town for big paydays, the offense went from being one of the best in the AFC to a mediocre unit that could no longer carry the team.
The organization went through a colossal overhaul this spring, as the team fired head coach Norv Turner and relieved general manager A.J. Smith of his duties. Once McCoy took the reigns, fixing Rivers became his first priority, and so far, the results have been stunning. After throwing more than 15 interceptions in each of the past two seasons, McCoy has opened up the offense for Rivers by shoring up the front line and rejuvenating the passing game with talented young receivers like Keenan Allen and Vincent Brown. The Colts secondary has improved leaps and bounds in recent seasons, but this could be the greatest challenge they've faced so far this year trying to slow down McCoy's fast-paced offense.
Entering Monday's game, here are three things that Colts must do to beat the Chargers in San Diego:
1. Pressure Rivers early and often.
Prior to the start of training camp this August, many experts speculated that this could be the last hurrah for Philip Rivers in San Diego if he failed to improve after two poor seasons. Rivers struggled mightily with interceptions in 2011-12, as he tossed a combined 35 picks during that span. His struggles helped pave the way for Norv Turner's dismissal, and another poor campaign would have put his status as the team's starting quarterback in jeopardy. McCoy has helped Rivers re-discover his game by limiting 5 and 7 step drops and forcing him to get rid of the football quicker. Sacks and defensive pressure played a key role in his problems the last two years, and he often times tried to force the ball into coverage and took too many chances throwing downfield. By shortening his drops and not relying on the vertical passing game so much, he's enjoyed one of his finest periods of production to start this season.
In just five games with McCoy in charge, Rivers has tossed 13 touchdown passes while racking up over 1,600 yards through the air. After being sacked 49 times in 2012, a "less is more" approach has limited his exposure to big hits this season and he's only been sacked eight times so far. When Turner coached the team, San Diego took a lot of shots downfield, which the offense couldn't effectively execute thanks to poor blocking up front and bad decisions by Rivers. Instead of trying to launch the ball deep several times a game, Rivers has excelled this season on mid-range passes. With tight end Antonio Gates playing like it's 2004 and players like Allen and Brown improving quickly, he's been able to find open receivers much more easily. He's been at his best throwing the football between 11-20 yards, as he's completed 34 of his 49 passes at that distance for 595 yards, five touchdowns, and a 136.0 passer rating. In that same department a year ago, he only managed to complete 50.8% of passes from that distance.
Protection has been part of the difference, and Indianapolis will need to find ways to generate pressure up front. Robert Mathis has been a human wrecking ball so far this season, but the Colts need other players to step up and put pressure on Rivers this week. Any quarterback will have a tougher time completing passes with a rusher in his face, but Rivers traditionally has struggled more than most in that department. Harassing him into quick, off-balance throws will allow the Colts secondary to jump routes and create turnovers. If he has a clean pocket and time to throw, it could be a long night for Indianapolis.
2. Get off to a quick start both offensively and defensively.
This has been a recurring theme for this year's Indianapolis Colts. Despite having a 4-1 record and sitting in first place of the AFC South, the Colts have struggled out of the gate in most of the games so far this season.
In the past two weeks, the offense has gotten off to a poor start against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Seahawks. Andrew Luck looked out of sync with his receivers during the early stages of both of those games, and it nearly cost them last week when Seattle jumped out to a 12-0 lead. The Seahawks were able to establish the run early and both Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson got off to fast starts on the way to rushing for over 100 yards a piece. A blocked punt nearly broke the game wide-open, but the referees ruled that Jeron Johnson didn't have possession of the football in the end zone and the Seahawks only managed to get two points out of the play.
To this point, Indianapolis has been able to overcome slow starts and come back to win games. Against teams like Jacksonville, they will continue to get away with this habit. But even average teams like the Chargers will take advantage of this problem if it continues to happen. Rivers has the weapons at his disposal to lead San Diego to quick points, and if the Colts can't respond with points of their own, Pagano's club can't expect to continue finding ways to come back from big early deficits. Indianapolis deserves credit for persevering and overcoming these rough first quarters, but it will come back to haunt the team eventually if they keep putting themselves into these predicaments.
3. Establish the run early and find success in the play action passing game.
Trent Richardson hasn't played especially well since arriving from the Cleveland Browns a few weeks ago, but the team has to be encouraged by his second half performance against Seattle. He only rushed for 56 yards on 18 carries, but he showed plenty of burst and power on a pivotal 16 yard run in the third quarter to help Indianapolis eventually take the lead. Seattle stuffed him throughout the first half, but he eventually found running room and ended up making several key plays in the second half. Heading into this game against the Chargers, there's reason to believe this could finally be the week he breaks out for the Colts.
As a member of the Browns last year, Richardson had his best game as a rookie against San Diego. He rushed for a career-high 122 rushing yards and a touchdown, and he could find similar success this time around against a run defense that hasn't improved much from last season. Injuries have played a role in that development, as San Diego lost Melvin Ingram to a torn ACL in the spring and rookie Manti Te'o hasn't played much this year thanks to a foot sprain. Regardless, the Chargers haven't been great against the run, and they should be much easier to move the ball on the ground against than the Seahawks were a week ago.
Luck has quickly become one of the league's best young play-action passers with Pep Hamilton coordinating the offense. While rushing stats don't have near the impact on win-loss projections that they used to, being more effective in the run game has given Luck better looks on play-action plays. On numerous occasions last week, Seattle's corners and safeties bit on play fakes and Luck made them pay dearly, with the biggest play coming on a 73 yard bomb to T.Y. Hilton to cut Seattle's lead to 12-7. Last year, opponents may not have respected Indy's ability to run, but improvements in that area have opened up much better scenarios in the play-action game. If the Colts can get Richardson and Donald Brown going early, the offense should be near unstoppable against a vulnerable San Diego defense.