Areas of interest for the Colts at Buccaneers game

Colts

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – NOVEMBER 17: Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts runs for a touchdown during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Raymond James Stadium.

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4.

Help for the offense:

Marlon Mack and Parris Campbell are back, fractured right hands and all. That should represent a needed spark for the offense, which will be without T.Y. Hilton for the fifth time in six games. The dearth of front-line playmakers was becoming a serious issue for Frank Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni.

The Jacoby Brissett-led offense ranks in the top 10 in third-down efficiency (9th), in the red zone (tied-8th) and total first downs (5th), but it’s a middle-of-the-road 17th in scoring (21.8). And that, after all, is the bottom line. It’s scored two touchdowns or fewer in five of the last seven games. Losing four of their last five has put the Colts’ playoff hopes on life-support, and it’s no coincidence they’ve averaged just 17.5 points in the four losses.

“We want our points to be in the 26-point range, a little bit higher than what we are,’’ admitted coordinator Nick Sirianni.

It’s been a season-long issue, which can be attributed to Brissett’s occasional hesitancy to push the football down the field and into tight coverage – ball security clearly is his to priority – and injuries at the skill positions (Mack, Hilton, Campbell, Eric Ebron, Devin Funchess and most recently Chester Rogers).

We’re not expecting Reich and Sirianni to dial-up 40-plus passes for Brissett unless the situation warrants, but the offense probably is going to have to do some damage to the Raymond James scoreboard. Bruce ‘No risk-it, no biscuit’ Arians’ Bucs rank 4th in scoring (28.3 points per game) and have topped the 30-point mark five times. Their 340 points are a franchise record for the first 12 games of a season.

About Mack:

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – NOVEMBER 17: Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts runs for a touchdown during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

All eyes figure to be on Mack, and that certainly includes those of Buc defenders. He fractured his right hand in week 11 against Jacksonville, but experienced a quicker-than-expected rehab. He did everything possible during practice to test the readiness of his right hand, and to determine whether ball security might be an issue. He’s yet to suffer a fumble despite handling a team-high 204 “touches’’ (192 rushes, 12 receptions) in 10 games.

Reich mentioned the plan is to keep all four backs up for the game – Mack, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins and Jonathan Williams – and continue to use a rotational system. But he also made it clear Mack will get the bulk of the carries.

And why not? Mack’s 862 yards in 10 games rank 10th in the league, and his 86.2 per-game average ranks 8th. He brings the blend of power and explosiveness lacking among his cohorts.

Here’s where we remind everyone the Colts are 1-7 without Mack in the lineup and have lost seven straight. They average 120.3 rushing yards with him, 89.4 without him.

While Mack’s return could be huge, it also comes against one of the NFL’s nastier run defenses. The Bucs are 2nd in yards per game allowed (76.3) and yards per attempt (3.4), and much of the credit can be traced to a three-man front of Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and William Gholston.

And lest anyone think Tampa Bay hasn’t faced quality backs this season, consider a few of the previous challengers: Christian McCaffrey (twice), Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara (twice), Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette. McCaffrey leads the NFL in rushing with 1,175 yards. His two shots at the Bucs netted a total of 68 yards on 38 carries.

Only three teams have cracked the 100-yard mark this season. The only 100-yard rusher has been Seattle’s Chris Carson (105 on 16 carries).

About Winston:

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 01: Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates a touchdown during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on December 01, 2019 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

It shouldn’t be a boring afternoon. Things are seldom boring when Jameis Winston is on the field. He once again is putting up big numbers: 2nd in the league with 3,659 yards, tied for 6th with 22 touchdowns, 10th in yards per attempt (7.84). He’s on pace to eclipse his own club records for yards (4,090 in 2016) and TDs (28) in a season.

“Watching film, he is a great quarterback in the pocket,’’ defensive end Justin Houston said.

Aiding Winston’s statistically-strong season has been a stellar receiving corps. Only three players in the league have piled up at least 1,000 through 12 games, but two catch passes from Winston. Chris Godwin has 1,121 yards and 9 TDs on 74 receptions while Mike Evans has 1,096 yards and 7 TDs on 66 catches

The issue with Winston is and has been taking care of the football. He leads the NFL with 25 turnovers, including a league-high 20 interceptions. Since entering the NFL as the 1st overall pick in 2015, Winston has suffered a league-high 101 turnovers. He’s also absorbed 162 sacks in 68 games, including 40 this season, the 2nd-most in the league.

That type of erratic play has brought into question his future in Tampa. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and Arians recently was noncommittal regarding Winston.

“There’s been really, really, really good and there’s been some really, really bad,’’ he said. “I’m gonna pass until it’s over and then we’ll make a decision.’’

This season has been a microcosm of Winston’s career. He’s thrown at least three TDs three times, but he’s suffered at least three interceptions on three occasions. Winston had five interceptions in the second meeting with Carolina and four in a second meeting with New Orleans.

The bottom line: regardless how effective Winston is, he’ll likely provide a handful of opportunities for Malik Hooker, Pierre Desir, Khari Willis and Darius Leonard to make plays.

About the new kicker:

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 17: Place kicker Chase McLaughlin #5 of the San Francisco 49ers kicks a 43 yard field goal against the Arizona Cardinals during the first half of the NFL game at Levi’s Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

For now, the Colts’ kicking chores rest with rookie Chase McLaughlin. An injury to Adam Vinatieri’s left knee will force him to miss his first game due to injury since Feb. 7, 2010. That was Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 season.

Vinatieri’s erratic season is well-documented: 17-of-25 on field-goal attempts (a career-low 68 percent) and 22-of-28 on PATs (a career-low 78.6 percent). Reich described Vinarieri’s status as week-to-week.

Well, this week, the Colts will be relying on McLaughlin, who was claimed off waivers from San Francisco on Wednesday. He has appeared in 10 games with the Chargers and 49ers and converted 13-of-17 field goals and all 15 of his PATs. He has a long of 50, and Reich will take McLaughlin’s brief history into account when it comes time to decide whether to attempt a long field goal or go for it on 4th-and-whatever inside Bucs’ territory.

And the winner is:

Buccaneers 27, Colts 24: The return of Marlon Mack and Parris Campbell will help, but nickel corner Kenny Moore II is out with an ankle injury. We see too much Jameis Winston-to-Mike Evans-to-Chris Godwin. And we anticipate not enough from Jacoby Brissett, even with a bolstered supporting cast. We won’t bore anyone with the game’s playoff ramifications for the Colts since they pretty much took themselves out of the picture with last week’s loss to the Titans.

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