INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday road test with the Detroit Lions in Ford Field.
- Kickoff: 1 p.m.
- Broadcast: CBS4.
Remember who you are
We believe Frank Reich.
“We are committed to the run,’’ he said. “That’s who we want to be. We want to run the football.’’
Through the Colts’ 4-2 start, that’s not been the case. Oh, they’ve run it. In fact, their current run-pass ratio (44.1%-55.9%) is only a shade off last year’s pace (46.4%-53.6%). But after finishing 7th in the NFL in rushing in ’19 (133.1), there’s been a precipitous drop-off in production: 28th (98.0). Most alarming, the run game ranks dead last in yards per attempt (3.6).
If the Colts are going to work their way into the postseason for just the second time in the last six seasons, they’ve got to remember who they are, especially on offense. And that’s a group that leans on its offensive line and diverse running backs room, and uses 38-year old Philip Rivers as a complement, not centerpiece.
Rookie Jonathan Taylor has been used judiciously over the first six games with 89 carries. And let’s remember, that includes a 26-carry afternoon against the Vikings. He’s showing signs of getting better and more decisive as the season has unfolded, averaging 61 yards per game and 4.5 yards per attempt over the last four games.
The Lions haven’t exactly been a Blue and Silver wall, ranking 26th against the run (131.8). And the disparity in their wins and losses is striking. In their three wins, the Lions have allowed 73 yards per game and 3.2 per attempt. In the three losses, the numbers skyrocket to 190.7 and 5.4.
So, Run the Damn Ball, with some selective doses of Philip Rivers’ throws, of course.
Feed off of Leonard
This represents a best-case scenario for coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense. It enters the game ranked 2nd in the league in total yards (288.0), 3rd against the run (88.3), 2nd against the pass (199.7) and 4th in scoring (19.2). It has yielded a league-low 11 touchdowns and posted a league-best 10 interceptions.
And now that defense welcomes the return of Darius Leonard. The All-Pro linebacker has missed the last two games with a groin injury, and is amped to get back to what he does best. While he’s an unquestioned playmaker, no one should undersell his value as an energizing force.
That’s been an issue with him Leonard on the sidelines. In the two games he’s missed, the defense has allowed Cleveland and Cincinnati to score on each of their first four drives. That’s unacceptable.
Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner pointed to a lack of “juice’’ in the poor starts against the Browns and Bengals. That shouldn’t be an issue with Leonard back.
It seems easy to dismiss Matthew Stafford, or at least not give him his due. He’s carrying around a 72-82-1 record as a starter in his 12-year career, has taken the Lions to the playoffs just three times and has yet to win a postseason game.
But this guy can flat-out light it up. The 1st overall pick of the 2009 draft pushed his yardage total to 42,605 yards in his 155th start last week at Atlanta, becoming the fastest QB1 to 40,000 yards. He’s averaging 274.9 yards per game, 3rd all-time behind Drew Brees (281.3) and (sorry for the reminder) Andrew Luck (275.2). He’s one of eight QBs in NFL history to throw for at least 5,000 yards in a season, and has two of the top 13 totals.
So, dismiss Matthew Stafford at your own peril.
It’s imperative Eberflus dial up enough pressure to speed up Stafford’s internal clock or simply get him on the ground. He’s gettable. Stafford has been sacked 14 times this season and 361 times in his career. The latter total is 9th-most among active QBs. Stafford has been sacked at least 40 times in four of his last six seasons and, like with any QB, loses his efficiency when the pressure is turned up.
This would be an ideal time for the Colts to rediscover their pressure game. After generating 9 sacks in their first three games, they’ve managed just 4 in the last three. End Justin Houston and Buckner remain the catalysts, but Denico Autry needs to pick up his game. The return of Leonard could help. He’s adept at blitzing, as is nickel corner Kenny Moore II.
We harp on getting Stafford off his game because he’s got tons of talent around him. Wideouts Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones have combined for 39 receptions, 564 yards and three TDs. Tight end T.J. Hockenson leads Detroit with 22 catches and four TDs. The run game revolves around the old man (35-year old Adrian Peterson) and the young pup (21-year old rookie De’Andre Swift).
We’re going to keep track of this until it’s no longer an issue. And that means it’s still an issue.
We’re still waiting for T.Y. Hilton to approach T.Y. Hilton levels. He leads the Colts with 37 targets and 242 yards, but has only 20 catches and has yet to find the end zone. For those of you in the on-pace-for crowd, Hilton is on pace for 53 catches and 645 yards.
“I feel like I’m close,’’ Hilton said. “I’ve just got to play through calls.’’
Hilton believes – and the video backs it up – he’s being grabbed more this year. That’s certainly contributed to his lackluster start.
“Sometimes I get them, sometimes I don’t,’’ he said. “But I’ve just got to play through it, create my separation and make it clear for me. I’m definitely getting grabbed more, but I guess that’s what they’re game-planning. They will deal with the penalties as long as I’m not making explosive plays and I’m not able to change the game.’’
Hilton is averaging 12.1 yards per catch after averaging a career-low 11.1 in ’19. He ranks 3rd in team history with 33 100-yard games, but hasn’t hit triple digits in his last 19 games, including the postseason. For those who’ve forgotten, Hilton’s last 100-yarder was a 138-yard outing against the New York Giants Dec. 23, 2018.
At the risk of piling on, we offer some numbing context to Hilton’s non-100-yard game streak. Since his last 100-yard game – a stretch of 25 regular-season weeks – 109 different players have hit triple figures at least once. The leaders: Michael Thomas (10), DeAndre Hopkins (nine) and Julio Jones (nine).
The Colts need T.Y. Hilton to become a factor again. Since the start of 2019, they’ve only had five 100-yard receiving games – two each by Marcus Johnson and Zach Pascal, one by Mo Alie-Cox.
“I mean, they’ll come. You just have to be patient,’’ insisted Hilton. “We’re halfway through the season. They haven’t come yet, but like I said, all I need is one. When one comes, then they’ll start coming in bunches.’’
Sooner would be better than later.
Remember, Hilton turns 31 in November and is in the final year of his contract. He’ll need a strong closing kick to convince the Colts to offer him a new deal.
“My work speaks for itself,’’ he said. “If they want me back, they want me back.’’
And the winner is
Colts 27, Lions 25. This is one of the shakier endorsements we’ve offered this season. We expect the defense to play at a higher level with the return of Darius Leonard, but we’re still not totally on board with the Philip Rivers-led offense. We don’t see that changing until Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni fix the run game and find a way to squeeze more impactful plays out of T.Y. Hilton. Having said that, this is the type of game a team with serious playoff aspirations finds a way to win. Pretty, ugly, whatever.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.