Week One Primer: Colts Vs. Raiders
By Corbin Smith
It's been almost eight months since the Indianapolis Colts suffered a bitter defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Wild Card round, and the sting has lingered throughout the offseason. The Colts managed to win 11 games with a rookie quarterback and the league's youngest roster last season, but the loss in Baltimore left the team with unfinished business entering the new year. After a long offseason and a challenging training camp, Indianapolis will finally have the opportunity to begin the long march back to the playoffs as the team opens at home against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
Saying the Colts exceeded expectations last season would be a tremendous understatement, but the team won't be sneaking up on the rest of the league this year like it did in 2012. Quarterback Andrew Luck should only get better as he enters his sophomore season in Indianapolis, and management aggressively pursued veteran bargains to fill holes on both sides of the ball, so the franchise now faces heightened expecations. After making a surprise playoff run with a team coming off a two win season, however, the players believe the Colts can and will meet these expectations.
The loss at Baltimore this past January hovered over the team all summer, but it served primarily as a motivation for returning players to take the team even further this season. Months of intense training and preparation have gone into making this upcoming season a special one in Indianapolis, and the players are anxious and eager to put the pads back on and play meaningful NFL games once again.
As the Colts get set to host the Raiders this weekend, they will be facing off against an inferior team that continues to rebuild and lacks a franchise quarterback. However, the Raiders have some weapons on offense and the game won't simply be handed to Indianapolis. Strong gameplanning comes into play each week in the NFL, and this week will be no different for Chuck Pagano's squad.
Here are some of the biggest keys to an opening day victory for the Indianapolis Colts:
1. Indianapolis needs to get off to a fast start.
When playing against a significant underdog, the favorite doesn't want to let the other team hang around and keep the game close. This would be especially critical for the Colts, who struggled early in games for most of last season. Luck led Indianapolis to come-from-behind victories in seven games last year, but that can't be expected to happen again. The team will need to prove itself capable of putting together successful drives during the early stages of games this season, or making it back to the 11 win plateau will be near impossible against a much tougher schedule.
Oakland will be starting one of the most inexperienced teams seen in recent memory, and putting together a couple quick scoring drives to start the game could throw the Raiders into a black hole early. But if Terrelle Pryor and company manage to keep within striking distance well into the 2nd half, that could give the team confidence and potentially allow them to upset Indianapolis at home. The Colts clearly have the better team, but they must show that superiority early and make sure Oakland has no hope for winning the game.
2. Containing Terrelle Pryor should be top priority for the defense.
The Raiders acquired Matt Flynn from the Seattle Seahawks during the offseason, and he was expected to be the team's starting quarterback entering training camp. However, he didn't play well enough in camp to keep his job safe, and Pryor showed enough promise that coach Dennis Allen opted to go with potential over experience. The Colts shouldn't be concerned about the ex-Ohio State star causing problems with his arm, as he completed only 47% of his passes in limited action last season and barely managed to complete over half his attempts in the preseason this August. Pryor hasn't been able to find consistency as a passer since being drafted in the Supplemental Draft three years ago, and the team won't be counting on him to lead the offense with his arm.
His mobility, however, could be a major problem. Like most other teams across the league, the Colts have been preparing dilligently all summer to face teams running spread option attacks. With San Francisco and Seattle on the schedule in the near future, Pagano knew his team needed more exposure to read option plays and how to defend it. Pryor won't be mistaken for Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson, who are vastly superior passers, but he does possess similar athletic ability and can be a nightmare if he finds running room. Indianapolis has to keep him from extending plays with his legs and prevent him from leaving the pocket. If he's unable to use his legs to make plays, the Raiders offense shouldn't be difficult to handle. If the Colts 32nd ranked rushing defense from last year stays true to form, however, Oakland could put some points on the board and stay in the game.
3. Establishing balance on offense will be crucial.
Luck put together one of the best statistical seasons for a rookie quarterback in NFL history, as he tossed for 4,374 yards and threw 23 touchdown passes in 2012. Despite his success, however, the Colts may have been too reliant on his arm at times last season. While fellow rookie counterparts Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III had the luxury of having strong running games behind them, Luck ended up throwing more than 40 passes in a game seven different times last year. In comparison, Wilson and Griffin never threw more than 39 times in a single game last year.
The Colts ended up becoming one of the league's most one dimensional teams, which could play a major role in Luck's turnover problems. He simply tried to do too much sometimes in an offense that lacked a running game. New offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton wants to establish a physical running game like he employed at Stanford in recent seasons at the college level, but the Colts might not have a true feature back on the active roster. General manager Ryan Grigson tried to shore up the running game by signing former Giant Ahmad Bradshaw during free agency, and he could make an impact if he manages to stay healthy. Chronic foot problems have hindered his production in recent seasons, which explains why the Giants were so willing to let him walk.
Vick Ballard and Donald Brown both have talent, but neither have the skill sets to be an every down back. Ballard has proven himself as a reliable short-yardage back, but he's struggled with fumbles and doesn't have great speed. Brown, a former first round pick, has never lived up to expectations despite getting numerous opportunities to prove himself and might not see much time in the backfield barring injuries to Bradshaw and Ballard. None of these three backs would be an ideal feature back, but if used properly in combination, a running back-by-committee approach would generate much-needed balance on offense and take some pressure off of Luck. Igniting the running game early against the Raiders would be a great sign for Colts fans.
4. A revamped offensive line must protect Andrew Luck.
A lack of balance on offense played a critical role in Luck's interception problems from a year ago, but poor performance by the offensive line also can take some of the blame. The Colts employed an odd mix of youngsters and castoff veterans along the offensive line last season, and Grigson aggressively combed through the free agent market looking for upgrades this spring. The coaching staff remains high on Anthony Castonzo at the left tackle spot, but Indianapolis signed former Lion starter Gosder Cherilus to take over as the starting right tackle and also brought in Donald Thomas from New England to start at left guard.
Neither Cherilus nor Thomas would be deemed "elite," but both should be steady improvements from their predecessors and should mask the fact that the Colts still have major holes at the center and right guard positions. Luck ended up being sacked 40 times last year, and the Colts cannot afford to have him take that many hits again. Hamilton will be instituting a west coast offense that revolves around short passes and screens, and that change on its own should lower that sack total. Luck will also need to show better pocket awareness this season and make sure to get the football out to his receivers quicker than he did at times last year. His tendency to hold on to the football too long not only led to sacks, but it also led to critical, drive-ending turnovers.
5. Tight ends must show up and stay healthy.
Hamilton made a name for himself at Stanford by playing an integral role in the development of NFL quality players, and he quickly helped turn the school into a tight end factory. In just the past two seasons, four tight ends from Stanford have made NFL rosters, including Colts tight end Coby Fleener. Fleener came to Indianapolis with plenty of hype last year, and many believed he'd put up monster numbers playing with Luck after the two formed a strong duo in college. However, he never really became a focal point in the offense a year ago and managed to snag just 26 catches while battling a shoulder injury.
A concussion and knee sprain during the preseason kept Fleener out of action, and fellow 2nd year tight end Dwayne Allen also missed significant time over the past month with a foot injury. Both players have great upside, but injury problems have stunted development to this point. Hamilton loves using multiple tight ends in his west coast passing attack, and each player could potentially put together strong campaigns and form one of the league's best tight end duos. Reports indicated Allen had a strong offseason and could be a breakout candidate for Indianapolis, while hopes remain high for Fleener despite a rough rookie season. For the Colts offense to truly blossom, the tight ends have to stay healthy and be productive in the passing game. A great first game from Fleener and Allen would have the Colts sitting pretty at the beginning of the season.