Colts at Eagles: What to watch for Sunday in Philly

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 09: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 9, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the Eagles Sunday at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Stadium.

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: FOX 59
  • D? Do it again: The defense had every right to puff out its collective chest after handling Alex Smith and the Redskins last week. It didn’t allow a touchdown for the first time since week 15 of the 2016 season, and the game served as a coming-out party for rookie linebacker Darius Leonard. His 19 tackles were the most by a Colts rookie – ever – and earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

All we’re asking is for them to do it again. The NFL is about stacking wins and stacking solid performances. Since we’re still early in the season and coordinator Matt Eberflus is relying on so many fresh faces, it’s hard to predict what we’re going to see from week-to-week. Of the 11 players who were on the field for at least 50 percent of the defensive snaps against Washington, eight have started 8 games or fewer in their career. Leonard and Kemoko Turay are rookies. Malik Hooker, Nate Harrison, Anthony Walker and Al-Quadin Muhammad are in their second seasons.

What we’re seeing is a work in progress. So far so good.

  • Wentz returns: We’ve witnessed first-hand the return of a franchise quarterback following a serious injury and prolonged absence. Andrew Luck ran out of the tunnel at Lucas Oil Stadium Sept. 9 to a thunderous ovation. It was his first appearance in 20 months.

Carson Wentz’s absence hasn’t been as long; he tore two ligaments in his left knee Dec. 10 against the Rams. He ran the scout team during practice the first two weeks of the season before gaining medical clearance for full-go work.

It’s fair to wonder how long it will take Wentz to regain his rhythm and confidence. As Luck discovered, there’s only so much that can be done during practice to simulate the full-speed, chaotic environment of a regular-season game. And Luck benefitted from exposure in three preseason games.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson admitted there might be times he offers maximum protection for Wentz, but generally he’s going to allow his QB to play the position.

“The thing is, I’m not going to coach scared. I’m not going to coach paranoid,’’ he told Philly media. “I’m not going to go in thinking, ‘Oh, no, we can’t do this, we can’t do that.’ We just have to continue to go play and I (have) to coach that way. That’s where the confidence with the team comes, by doing that.’’

Wentz is 6-5, 237 pounds and an outstanding athlete. He was a frontrunner for MVP honors last season before suffering his knee injury: 3,296 yards, 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions, a 101.9 passer rating, an 11-2 record. He also was Philly’s fourth-leading rusher (299 yards on 64 attempts) despite missing the final three games.

Frank Reich was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator the past two seasons, which coincided with Wentz’s first two NFL seasons. He’s expecting fans at The Linc to give Wentz a Luck-like ovation, and he’s expecting the very best from Wentz.

“I am not anticipating any rust,’’ he said. “If you look what he did his rookie year, he basically didn’t practice the whole time in training camp. He was a rookie and then was named starter a week before the season and came out the opening drive and went 80 yards.

“He’s an elite player. We are going to have to play good team defense to stop him and their defense and I think we will.’’

Wentz might be asked to carry a heavier load than the Eagles would prefer. He’ll be without running backs Jay Ajayi (back) and Darren Sproles (hamstring), and wideout Alshon Jeffrey is questionable (shoulder). Wideout Mike Wallace was placed on IR last week with a broken leg. The bulk of the running game falls to Corey Clement, who joined Philly as an undrafted free against in 2017.

  • Do enough on offense?: Luck and the offense have had their moments. They have mounted five touchdown drives in two games that have consisted of at least seven plays and navigated at least 58 yards. Each of the three TDs against the Redskins was 75-yard journeys. But there also have been four turnovers. Two of Luck’s three interceptions have been the result of poor decisions, and tight end Jack Doyle lost a crippling fumble in the closing minutes of the opening loss to Cincinnati.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the Luck-led offense needs to avoid aiding the Eagles. There are going to be difficult times considering Philly’s defense features a dominant front: Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Haloti Ngata. Michael Bennett and Chris Long come off the bench, for cryin’ out loud. Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham are outstanding linebackers.

The Eagles’ defense was a major contributor to the franchise’s Super Bowl championship. It ranked 4th in fewest yards allowed, 3rd in points and 1st against the run. It remains 1st against the run, allowing 58.5 yards per game and 2.9 yards per attempt.

The Colts need to accentuate rookie running backs Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines – Marlon Mack is out with hamstring/foot issues – to take some of the pressure off Luck, but that figures to be difficult.

  • Vinatieri Watch: Adam Vinatieri continues his march toward NFL history. He needs four field goals to break Morten Andersen’s all-time record (565) and 44 points to replace Andersen (2,544) as the league’s career scoring leader.

And since we’re talking Vinatieri, he’ll make his 340th regular-season appearance Sunday. That ties him with George Blanda for the fourth-most in league history. The top 3: Andersen (382), Gary Anderson (353) and Jeff Feagles (352).

  • And the winner is: Eagles 24, Colts 13. We’re 0-for-2, so Colts’ fans should feel encouraged by our prediction. We just don’t envision another road upset. We see tough sledding for the offense against Philly’s defense and Wentz doing enough in his season debut to make a difference.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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