Seahawks at Colts: What to watch for Sunday

Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest as the Indianapolis Colts open the season Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks in Lucas Oil Stadium:

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: FOX59

For openers

We won’t spend much time on this because everybody’s probably tired of hearing about it. The Colts haven’t won a season opener since 2013 and can tie the franchise record for opening-day futility – eight straight losses from 1984-91 – with Seahawks in town. Too much can be made of what will be the first step into the NFL’s first 17-game season, but Jim Irsay hasn’t hidden his desire for Indy to finally get its act together in week 1.

The owner’s wishes aside, a successful Sunday would erase what was a tumultuous preseason – significant injuries, COVID-19 issues, you name it – and provide momentum for a grueling start to the season. Looming after Seattle (12-4 in 2020) are the L.A. Rams (10-6), Tennessee Titans (11-5), Miami Dolphins (10-6) and Baltimore Ravens (11-5). The latter three are on the road.

A playoff berth can’t be secured in September, but the path to the postseason can become much more difficult with a poor opening month. Yes, the Colts started 1-5 and still reached the playoffs in 2018, Frank Reich’s first season, but we would advise against trying that route again.

Wentz debut

The 55-player game-day roster includes 12 players making their first appearance as a Colt. All line up in terms of interest and importance behind Carson Wentz. Can the latest franchise quarterback prove to be the long-term franchise quarterback?  He’s not only coming off that error-filled 2020 in Philadelphia but had to deal with Aug. 2 foot surgery and a brief stint on the COVID-19 list as a close-contact case that greatly limited his practice reps with the starting offense.

Reich conceded Wentz having just one full week of practice isn’t ideal, but that’s where we are. The Colts once again will accentuate their running game behind a veteran offensive line and a backfield that features Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, Marlon Mack and Jordan Wilkins, but Wentz still must handle his responsibilities without flinching. He’ll need to harness the adrenalin rush that’ll come as he trots into the huddle for the first time and simply make the plays – routine ones and those occasional chunk plays that will present themselves – when the situation warrants.

Reich’s message to his latest QB: “Just play the position and be yourself. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Just go out there and play a good football game.’’

For history buffs, Wentz is the fifth different opening-day starter in as many seasons.

Paye debut

Kwity Paye’s learning curve has been in an upward mode from the first day of his rookie training camp. It took the team’s first-round draft pick a day or two get become accustomed to the speed of an NFL practice and the full-bore demands of coordinator Matt Eberflus, but he’s been a quick study. Position coach Brian Baker noted Paye’s knack for learning from his mistakes and adapting from play-to-play, as well as his desire to be a “sponge’’ in the meeting room. In two limited preseason appearances, Paye flashes his pass-rush prowess with sacks.

Now, it counts.

And now, Paye gets to see how he measures up against one of the league’s better left tackles. He’ll spend much of Sunday sparring with Duane Brown. The 14-year veteran has started 186 games with Seattle and Houston and earned four Pro Bowl nods and three All-Pro selections, one as a first-teamer.

“The vet,’’ Paye said of Brown. “So, it’s going to be fun to play against him. He has a lot of experience. For me, I’m just trying to go out there and do my thing. I’ve been really keying in on his film.

“Coach (Matt) Raich has sent me so cutups I don’t even know what to do with them. For me, I’m just watching them every single day just trying to find any weakness I can on him.’’

The Colts need Paye to the type of play-after-play force he was during the preseason and during camp. That’s a tall order, but he must be the catalyst for a pass rush that lost Justin Houston and Denico Autry from a year ago. Also, Kemoko Turay will miss the game with a groin injury.

Priority 1 on defense is pressuring – and containing – Russell Wilson. More on that in a bit.

Taylor encore

Jonathan Taylor fashioned one of the best rookie rushing seasons in franchise history. His 1,269 yards ranked 3rd in the NFL and trailed only a pair of Hall of Famers – Edgerrin James (1,553 in 1999) and Marshall Faulk (1,282 in ’94) – in team history among rookies.

Now, do it again. And trust us, he’ll be given every opportunity to build on a rookie season that began slowly then ended with 741 yards in the final six games. Reich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady realize Wentz must make plays in the passing game, but they’re committed to giving him a robust running game. And that starts with Taylor.

Yes, Hines and either Mack or Wilkins will help ease Taylor’s workload, but the 2020 second-round draft pick is and will be the catalyst. For whatever it’s worth, he was the best player on the field throughout training camp.

Of course, the Seahawks have noticed Taylor’s presence leading up to the game, and generally have been stout against the run. They ranked 5th in the NFL a year ago in rushing yards allowed per game (95.6) and per attempt (3.9).

If the game remains tight, Taylor should brace himself for a busy day of the office.

Wilson threat

It’s impossible to pinpoint the most impressive part of Russell Wilson’s resumé. His 98 regular-season wins are the most by a QB in his first nine seasons. He’s directed the Seahawks to the playoffs eight times, been selected to eight Pro Bowls and voted second-team All-Pro in 2018. He’s covered up 81 interceptions with 267 touchdowns, and last year’s 13 interceptions were a career high.

Don’t go away, there’s more. Wilson already owns franchise records with 267 touchdowns, 33,946 yards and a career 101.7 passer rating. He’s also piled up 4,506 rushing yards – fourth-most in NFL history by a QB – and had at least 400 yards in six of his nine seasons. When the Seahawks last visited Indy in 2013, the Colts prevailed 34-28 but Wilson got loose for one of his four career 100-yard rushing games (102 on 13 attempts).

And it’s that elusiveness that will test the discipline of Paye and the rest of the Colts’ defense. Wilson is extremely gettable. He’s been sacked 394 times in 144 regular-season games – the most in the NFL since 2012 – and been sacked at least 41 times in each of the last nine seasons.

But Wilson seldom goes down when the first wave gets to him.

“He is obviously one of the best quarterbacks in the league,’’ defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “He does a really good job with extending plays. He’s one of the best at it. When he’s running and escaping the pocket, he’s looking to pass down the field and obviously when he doesn’t see anything, he can tuck it and run.’’

Secondary concerns

That brings us to the threat Wilson poses as a play-extender, and how that’s a major concern Sunday. The Colts’ top outside corner, Xavier Rhodes, is out with a calf injury. T.J. Carrie and Kenny Moore II are the likely starters in the base defense, but Eberflus undoubtedly will be use his nickel alignment a ton with Moore moving into the slot and Rock Ya-Sin going outside.

Seattle features one of the NFL’s better tandems. D.K. Metcalf – he’s a handful at 6-4, 235 pounds – and Tyler Lockett combined for 183 receptions, 2,357 yards and 20 TDs a year ago, and Wilson will find them if coverage breaks down. He’s averaged a robust 8.2 yards per attempt during his career. Last season, he had 45 completions that gained at least 20 yards and 11 – tied for sixth-most in the league – that went for at least 40. Metcalf was on the business end of five 40-plus yard receptions.

“He’s dangerous because of his ability to throw the ball down the field once he does scramble,’’ Eberflus said. “He’s a little unique that way where some guys look for the intermediate pass. This guy looks all the way down the field.’’

And the winner is

Colts 27, Seahawks 24. Just a hunch. Besides, all streaks have to end at some point, right? We don’t know what to expect from Wentz, but we trust the Taylor-led run game and a defense that should feed off of Buckner and Darius Leonard. Rodrigo Blankenship is coming off a perfect preseason. We’re expecting the Colts to need a late field goal from him to end their opening-day drought.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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