INDIANAPOLIS – The funny thing about having a blueprint to deal with a heavily-favored opponent on the road with a high-powered offense? It’s only a blueprint if it works.
Otherwise, it’s dumpster material.
That brings us to the Indianapolis Colts’ Saturday visit to Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. for a first-round AFC wild-card matchup with the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills are the heavily-favored (roughly 7 points) bunch with the high-powered offense (38.2 points per game during their current six-game winning streak).
“This is a heck of a team we are playing,’’ Philip Rivers said
The Colts are the ones in need an appropriate blueprint.
“Everybody’s counting us out, so we just go in there and just be us,’’ insisted Darius Leonard.
We’re not dismissing the three-phase aspect of any game – offense, defense, special teams – but this seems to be one of those situations where more onus falls on the offense. Coach Frank Reich, coordinator Nick Sirianni and their staff must accentuate their strengths – the run game complemented by an efficient Rivers-led pass game – to ease what will be demanded from their defense.
We’re not talking about utilizing a conservative, four-corner, keep-away approach for 60 minutes, but it’s imperative to limit the number of plays, possessions and opportunities for Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs.
At the risk of riling up Leonard, they’re going to get theirs. Allen is coming off an MVP-caliber season. He’s the first player in NFL history with at least 4,000 passing yards, 30 passing TDs and eight rushing TDs in a season. Diggs led the league with 166 targets, 127 receptions and 1,535 yards.
Just limit their opportunities.
And that brings us back to the blueprint.
‘Stay true to who you are’
Listen to Reich.
“There is a balance there, and you’ve gotta stay true to who you are,’’ he said Thursday on a Zoom conference call, “but everything is always tailored. It’s on a continuum where you kind of move it along that continuum based on situations.
“Will factor all those things in: playoff game against the team we’re playing, conditions we’re playing. All of those things move those buttons the way they need to be moved. That’s the art of it that we as a staff really try to work together on how we do that.’’
That obviously lacks specifics on how the Colts plan on attacking the Bills’ defense. But this isn’t necessarily about dealing with what has been a middle-of-the-road unit: 14th in yards per game, 17th against the run, 26th in rush yards per attempt, 13th against the pass, 16th in scoring.
It’s about doing as much as possible at containing Allen and an offense that is tied for 2nd in yards and 2nd in points, and has rattled off 48, 38 and 56 points in its last three games.
Perhaps it’s about attempting to duplicate the offensive blueprint from two signature moments of Reich’s brief stint as Colts head coach.
Remember that week 5 visit to Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium last season? Patrick Mahomes, fresh off being named MVP and a 50-TD season, and his video-game offense loomed.
Remember the Colts’ trip to Houston for a 2018 wild-card playoff match-up with the Texans? Deshaun Watson hadn’t blossomed into a top-3 QB yet, but he nonetheless was coming off a 4,100-yard, 29-TD season, and had all-world wideout DeAndre Hopkins in his huddle.
Different venues, different opponents, but same approach.
Here’s where we cue Quenton Nelson: Run the Damn Ball.
Not just run it to eat minutes, but run it aggressively and effectively.
Against the Texans, the Colts piled up 200 rushing yards with Marlon Mack accounting for 148. Each was a franchise playoff record. Andrew Luck staked Indy to a 21-0 halftime lead by passing for 192 yards and two TDs, then leaned heavily on Mack and the ground game – 19 carries, 115 yards in the second half – and returned home with a 21-7 victory.
The game plan against Mahomes and the Chiefs might represent the finest moment for the Reich, Sirianni, Matt Eberflus triumvirate.
Mahomes did his damage – 321 yards, one TD – but was under constant duress. He was sacked four times, hit another half-dozen times and seldom given a clean pocket.
The offense? Aggressive and relentless. It rushed a season-high 45 times and pounded the Chiefs for 180 yards, 132 from Mack. They needed no more from Jacoby Brissett than they got: 151 yards and just one mistake.
The Colts dominated time of possession (37:15-22:45) and total plays (74-57), and converted 7-of-16 times on third and fourth down. It was more than enough to compensate for the Chiefs averaging 5.7 yards per play, 8.2 yards per pass attempt and 14.6 yards per completion.
The bottom line: Colts 19, previously-unbeaten and eventual Super Bowl Champion Chiefs 13. It remains the fewest points scored by a Mahomes-directed Chiefs offense.
“We do what we feel like is best to win the football game,’’ Sirianni said of preparing for any opponent. “If that is grinding it out, we do that. If that’s maintaining the ball by grinding it out or if that’s throwing it – we just do what we feel like is best so we can score points. The goal and the mission is to score one more point than the opposing team.
“Really, we’re thinking about how can we score the most points we possibly can to help our defense.’’
More from the rookie
The blueprint against the Texans and Chiefs worked because the Colts’ offensive line exerted itself, Luck and Brissett made plays in the passing game when needed, and Mack established himself as a game-long threat.
That brings us to Jonathan Taylor. For any pound-it-at-‘em approach to work, the rookie out of Wisconsin must serve as the head of the hammer.
“He is just getting stronger,’’ T.Y. Hilton said. “It’s incredible. His work ethic, his grinding, he’s spending more time with (position coach Tom) Rathman on his ball security, how he can get better watching film, picking up blitzes.
“He’s just an all-around package and just watching him and watching him grow from training camp to now, he’s just awesome.’’
Reich has described Taylor as being in ‘Beast Mode,’ and has the stats to back him up.
Over the last seven weeks of the season, Taylor has piled up 741 yards on 119 carries (6.2). Yes, that includes his franchise-record 253 in the season finale against Jacksonville, but he also missed one game while on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Only Tennessee’s Derrick Henry (1,081 yards) had more.
Taylor anticipates being in the Bills’ crosshairs on the heels of his 253-yard outburst against the Jaguars, and he’s right. But so what? Again, the Bills have been susceptible to the run, allowing 119.1 yards per game and 4.6 per attempt.
In its three losses, Buffalo was a defensive sieve. Tennessee finished with 139 yards on 34 carries, Kansas City 245 on 46 and Arizona 217 on 35. Those are averages of 200.3 yards per game, 5.2 per attempt.
It’s clear Taylor heads to Orchard Park with the proper mindset. He played in a slew of high-profile games at Wisconsin – Big Ten championship games, bowl games – but understands Saturday will be something else entirely.
“You’re talking about the NFL wild card,’’ he said. “So this is not only elite talent in the NFL, this is one of the elite, better teams in the NFL. It’s obviously going to be tough just because the stakes are so high. Everyone is going to be dialed in, tuned in.
“It’s another level. It’s the highest level of football that we’re talking about. Everyone’s going to bring their ‘A’ game and everyone has elite talent, everyone is smart. It’s definitely going to be tough going into this week, but those are the things you live for. Those are the games you live for.’’
Taylor insisted he’s surprised how strong he feels at the end of his rookie season. He’s done the work in the weight room and adhered to the team’s nutritional guidelines.
“You hear a lot of talk when you get into the league about how long the season is,’’ Taylor said. “To be able to feel like I do now, it’s a blessing. I know there are a lot of guys who don’t feel like this right now.’’
If Reich and Sirianni are able to author a workable blueprint and the players execute it, it must include heavy doses of Jonathan Taylor. He’s coming off a career-high 30 carries against Jacksonville, and a similar workload shouldn’t be casually dismissed.
“Yeah, and I don’t think he’ll complain about that, either,’’ Sirianni said with a laugh.
Consecutive 30-30 games, though, would be rare for Taylor and the Colts.
Taylor was an absolute workhorse at Wisconsin: 926 attempts in 41 games (22.6 per game). But he only shouldered more than 30 carries in a game four times and never in consecutive games.
And only two Colts have had back-to-back games with at least 30 carries, neither in more than three decades. The only ones: Eric Dickerson (games 8-9 of 1987) and Lydell Mitchell (games 13-14 of 1975 and games 13-14 of ’73).
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.