What to watch for: Colts, Andrew Luck face stiff challenge vs. Vikings

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 16: Percy Harvin #12 of the Minnesota Vikings runs with the ball while defended by Jerrell Freeman #50 of the Indianapolis Colts during the NFL game at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 16, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium.

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

Broadcast: CBS4

Playoff pulse: It’s there, but so very faint. We only mention the Colts remain in the playoff picture as a public service. As far as we’re concerned, the postseason went Poof! in last Sunday’s loss to the Houston Texans. They have less than a 10 percent chance of slipping in, and that hinges on finishing with wins over the Vikings, Raiders and Jaguars. And that probably won’t be enough. The Texans and Tennessee Titans would also have to offer serious assistance. If the Colts pull the upset against the Vikings, their playoff hopes remain alive for another week.

By the way, there’s ample motivation for the 7-6 Vikings. They’re currently seeded 8th in the six-team NFC playoff picture. They trail Detroit by two games in the NFC North, and are battling Tampa Bay (8-5), Washington (7-5-1) and Green Bay (7-6) in the wild-card race.

Stay alert, Mr. Luck: The good news is Andrew Luck will be under center after absorbing heavy punishment in the Texans loss. Soreness in his right shoulder and right elbow kept him out of Wednesday’s practice.

The bad news is twofold: 1) Luck will be facing a Vikings defense that ranks 2nd in fewest yards allowed and 3rd in sacks, and 2) playing behind an offensive line featuring three rookie starters. The last time that happened, Jacksonville roughed up Luck with a career-high six sacks and seven other hits.

Chuck Pagano was defiant when quizzed about the veracity of his offensive line.

“They’re up for the challenge,’’ he said. “Yeah. Hell, yeah. They’re going to play great.’’

Color us skeptical. Rookie Joe Haeg is expected to slide to right guard to replace Denzelle Good, who remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol. LeRaven Clark is expected to make his debut at right tackle, replacing Joe Reitz (back). Clark’s experience consists of six offensive snaps in five games. He’s been inactive eight games.

The third rookie, of course, is center Ryan Kelly. And Jon Harrison will his second career start at left guard in place of Jack Mewhort, who’s on IR with a knee injury.

Luck will be playing behind the 35th different starting combination in his 68th regular-season start, and the seventh this season. So far, the mixing and matching up front has yielded nasty numbers. Luck has been sacked 37 times, and is bearing down on his career high (41 as a rookie).

Here’s where we point out the Vikings routinely rough up QBs. They have piled up 35 sacks behind ends Danielle Hunter (10), Everson Griffen (8) and Brian Robison (7).

That relentless pressure has the Vikings pass defense ranked 3rd in yards allowed (202.2), third in opponent’s passer rating (77.0) and third in completion percentage (58.6).

Be efficient: Despite the apparent mismatch – Colts’ O-line vs. Vikings D – it’s up to offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski to come up with a game plan that’s aggressive while keeping Luck out of harm’s way as much as possible. We know, it ain’t gonna be easy.

Luck’s receivers need to get off the line of scrimmage against Minnesota’s coverage and get open early. It’s hard to imagine Luck having time to take deep drops and wait for routes to develop downfield. T.Y. Hilton has had trouble when pressed at the line, but Chudzinski has been doing a good job of moving him around and getting him in motion. The absence of Donte Moncrief (hamstring) increases the importance of Phillip Dorsett to start playing like a first-round draft pick.

Also, this might be a good time to target tight end Jack Doyle, especially if Dwayne Allen is kept in to buttress pass protection. The Vikings’ run defense ranks a pedestrian 16th, so there might be opportunities for Frank Gore if the Colts can keep things close.

Dilapidated D: You’ve got to feel Ted Monachino’s pain. Heading into his 14th game as a defensive coordinator, he’s without five frontline players: Art Jones (groin), Clayton Geathers (on IR with a neck injury), Kendall Langford (IR/knee), Patrick Robinson (IR/groin) and D’Qwell Jackson (suspension).

The silver lining Sunday is Minnesota’s offense has been categorically one of the NFL’s meekest: 31st in yards per game (303.0), 32nd in rushing (73.4), 24th in passing (229.6) and 24th in scoring (19.8). Quarterback Sam Bradford has been efficient, completing 71.2 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions. But he’s run a low-risk attack, averaging just 6.9 yards per attempt and 9.9 yards per completion.

All-world running back Adrian Peterson is expected to see his first action since undergoing knee surgery Sept. 22, and that will get the sellout crowd geeked up. But it’s doubtful coach Mike Zimmer will overuse Peterson. Sunday will be more about getting Peterson enough work to knock off the rust so he’s ready for closing games against Green Bay and Chicago.

And the winner is: Vikings 27, Colts 13. In a weird way, we won’t be surprised if those wacky Colts pull the upset. For all the talk of their vaunted defense, the Vikings are as offensive-challenged as any team in the team. It’s just that the Colts have been impossible to predict. And the latest offensive line combo has us really concerned.

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