INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the Chiefs Sunday night at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium:
Kickoff: 8:20 p.m.
Ready or not
Marv Levy, the Buffalo Bills’ Hall of Fame coach, had a great response when asked about rookies. “The best rookies,’’ he said with wry smile, “are last year’s rookies.’’ He also believed a team lost a game for every rookie it started. In other words, they were important to have around as rookies, but the less you had to rely on them, they better.
That brings us to the Colts’ defense and the task of dealing with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ explosive offense. Injuries will sideline All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard (concussion), starting safeties Clayton Geathers (concussion) and Malik Hooker (knee) and backup lineman Tyquan Lewis (ankle).
Next men up? Chris Ballard invested seven of his 10 picks in the April draft on defensive talent and six figure to experience the hostile environment that is Arrowhead Stadium. More to the point, three are likely starters: safety Khari Willis, linebacker Bobby Okereke and corner Rock Ya-Sin, although Ya-Sin is questionable after missing Friday’s practice with a hip injury. The team added another corner Saturday. That would be Shakial Taylor, another rookie.
Ben Banogu has been involved in the d-line rotation, E.J. Speed is getting more and more reps at SAM ‘backer and Marvell Tell III most certainly will be on the field now that injuries have depleted the back end of the defense.
“There’s a part of me that’s really excited about that because I really think our young guys can play,’’ Frank Reich said. “You never want it to come because of injury, but it is a chance for them to learn and grow. You know some of it’s going to be a learning on the run. There are going to be mistakes, you’ve got to accept that.’’
Mahomes is the NFL’s hottest QB and reigning MVP. Since the start of 2018, he leads the league with 6,607 yards, 60 TD passes and a 115.2 passer rating. He’s undoubtedly noticed the injury-forced influx of young talent on an Indy defense that struggled through the first month of the season.
The future is now for the Colts’ youngsters.
Back home again colts
At some point, his past will demand his immediate attention. How could it not? Justin Houston was one of Ballard’s most significant and expensive offseason free-agent acquisitions (a two-year, $23 million contract), in large part because of his eight-year career with the Chiefs. He established himself as one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers with 78.5 sacks in 102 games, including a league-high and team record 22 in 2014.
“I’m trying not to think about it,’’ Houston said. “I don’t want it to get in the way of what I’ve got to do. I’m going there to play a game and not really worry about my past.’’
The plan, he insisted, is to treat Sunday night like any other game on the schedule.
“Focus on me and not them,’’ Houston said.
Most players stroll onto the field hours before a game to get loose and get caught up with friends and former teammates on the opposing team. Houston’s routine includes warming up in the locker room.
Still, there will be a moment when memories of his K.C. days seep in.
“I’m pretty sure they will,’’ Houston said. “I was there eight years. I’m human. I know some type of memories are going to come back to my mind when I step back on that field.’’
Re-create the past
The memory that needs to motivate Houston involves all the times he buried quarterbacks at Arrowhead Stadium. He generated 38 of his 78.5 sacks as a Chief at home.
After an encouraging start – 4 sacks in each of the first two games – the Colts’ pass rush has disappeared. It has managed only 1 sack and 5 quarterback hits in the last two games even though Matt Ryan and Derek Carr attempted 65 passes.
That’s got to change Sunday night. If Mahomes is allowed to sit back, pat the ball and wait for someone to work open, he’ll do serious damage. And pressure alone won’t be enough. Mahomes is one of the league’s best at buying time with his legs, waiting for someone to lose converge and exploiting the lapse. Houston, Kemoko Turay, Denico Autry and others must get to him and get him on the ground.
Trouble is, Mahomes has been un-gettable thus far. He’s been sacked just three times.
“We know they’re going to throw the ball. They love to throw the ball,’’ Houston said. “They’ve got times when they get rid of it quick, and they’ve got times when they hold it. Hopefully, when they hold the ball, we can punish them for it.’’
As a reminder, the Colts got to Mahomes for 4 sacks in the January playoff loss and held him without a TD pass for just the third time in his 23 career starts. Yet Mahomes passed for 278 yards and the Chiefs scored on four of its five first-half possessions en route to the 31-13 win that wasn’t that close.
Atone for the “blur’’
Ask Ryan Kelly about that January 12 business trip to Kansas City and prepare yourself for a blank stare.
“The Kansas City game last year is probably the one I remember the least about,’’ the veteran center said. “To me it was such a blur. We just couldn’t get anything going. I totally erased it from my memory.’’
The worst game of the season by one of the NFL’s best offensive lines?
“Maybe it was. I don’t know,’’ Kelly said. “I remember (fans) throwing ice and stuff at us from the stands (but) don’t actually remember the game.’’
We’re not buying that. The offensive line is a prideful bunch, and there’s no doubt in our mind it’s hell-bent on making amends for an awful outing. After dominating the Texans in the wild-card round of the playoffs – the ground game piled up 200 yards led by Marlon Mack’s team playoff-record 148 – the o-line was ineffective in round 2 against the Chiefs. The Colts couldn’t run (18 yards in the first half), couldn’t pass or protect Andrew Luck (203 yards, 3 sacks) and couldn’t convert on third down (0-for-9 after leading the NFL in that category during the season).
Go on the offensive
We envision a tough evening for the patchwork defense, so the offense must hold up its end. That doesn’t mean stressing a ball-control/keep-away approach, although it would be beneficial to limit Mahomes’ possessions. Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni are aggressive by nature, and we expect them to be in attack-mode. But for that to be successful, the offense must exhibit some semblance of balance and take some shots in the passing game. And for that to work, Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton and running back Marlon Mack need to be available and active. Hilton missed the Oakland game with a quadriceps injury, but returned to practice on a limited basis this week. Mack exited the Raiders game with an ankle injury and was limited in practice Friday.
Jacoby Brissett has joined Peyton Manning and John Unitas as the only Colts QBs to have at least 10 TD passes and no more than two interceptions in the first four games of a season. We’re not asking him to get into a slingin’ battle with Mahomes, but he’s going to have to be cautiously-aggressive (whatever that means).
One last offensive-related issue. We don’t anticipate Reich settling for too many field goals or punting around midfield. Again, being timid only will fuel the Chiefs.
And the winner is: Chiefs, 42, Colts 24.
We initially expected a closer finish, maybe a touchdown loss. But the news of Leonard still being in concussion protocol and the absolute mess that is the defense makes it awfully difficult to envision anything positive coming out of Sunday night. We expect the offense to play well. And it won’t matter.
And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast: