Last week didn't exactly turn out the way I envisioned it. A couple of turnovers, some bad defense, and a 59 yard field goal sank the Colts. Now they face a must win game against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. As the Colts try to get back onto the right side of .500, be watching for:
1. Watch the linebackers. The Colts' linebackers have been wildly inconsistent from week to week. They played a good game against Denver, but were a mess against the Jags last week. They say "it all starts up front" and that might be true, but the Indy defense depends upon disciplined play by the backers. Clint Session has struggled with injuries and looked lost on the field in both games he's played. Brackett has been active, but has just missed coming with game changing plays. Phil Wheeler was great against Denver and invisible last week. We need more from this unit.
2. Watch the Haitian Sensation. Pierre Garcon is coming back to the lineup this week, and in the nick of time. With Collie wearing a boot all week and out for Sunday, we need Garcon to be productive. He had a brutal first game of the year before being slowed by injuries. With Gonzo coming back in a couple of weeks, Garcon needs a strong showing. More importantly, the COLTS need a strong game from him.
3. Watch the needle. The decibel meter should be tilting toward the danger range on Sunday. While the Colts' slow start may only be a fluke of the schedule, to the naked eye, it looks like there has been some erosion on defense. The Colts desperately need to win all eight home games this year if they want to claim a playoff spot. The crowd simply must come through and be loud to help the defense and disrupt the Chiefs offense.
4. Watch for max protect. Part of the problem the last two weeks for the Colts has been an inability to get pressure on the quarterback. The Jags and Broncos were determined to keep Freeney and Mathis off of their QBs. That should have meant fewer receivers for the Colts to cover. Unfortunately, some truly horrid corner play kept Indy from taking full advantage. The target is squarely on Kelvin Hayden this Sunday who has to hold up in coverage.
5. Watch the fourth quarter. The FootballOutsiders tell us the Colts have the best offense in football in the fourth quarter. They tell us they have the worst defense in football in the fourth quarter. No matter the score late, stay tuned. Something crazy is going down.
6. Watch Cassel. It's a hot show about a former crime novelist who helps the cops solve real life mysteries. It stars Jessica Lansbury as Richard Castle. It happens to my brother Luke's favorite show. Oh wait. That's Castle. Sorry. I meant to say, Matt Cassel is a huge question mark with a weak completion percentage and a penchant for taking sacks. In the first two years of his career he took 89 sacks in 1009 attempts. To put that in perspective Peyton Manning took 89 sacks from 2004 to 2009. He had 2265 attempts in that span.
7. Watch special teams. The Colts once again field one of the worst units in the league. The Chiefs are among the best. KC leads the league in punt return DVOA and is 3rd over all in special teams. Indy is 25th over all, and punting is the worst category of the group. If KC is going to score a big upset, it's going to come on the heels of a big return or two. Given the number of injuries the Colts have had, this is where you should see some slippage.
8. Watch the steady improvement. The offensive line isn't a work of art, but not only is it better than it was early in the year, I think it's better than last year. The big gain has been by Saturday who is rounding into form. Pollak continues to play credibly at guard. Diem isn't making as many mistakes either. The Adjusted Sack Rate has dropped by nearly a percent over last year. Adjusted line yards are basically the same, but the power rate is up and the stuffed rate is down. Both rank in the top 10 in the NFL. As they get more time together, the line should keep getting better, though CJ will always be a project at tackle.
9. Watch the return of Romeo and Charlie. Our friends at CHFF think Crenell is the kryptonite to Peyton. I think he's a clown. Romeo never shut down Peyton in the Dome, and he's not going to in the Luke. Still seeing Weis and Crenell back as opposing coaches again, should get the venom flowing from Colts fans. We don't just hate Weiss for the Pats days, but for making it impossible to like Notre Dame for all those years too.
10. Watch the deep threat. The Colts are so banged up at safety, that Polian hired Simon Cowell to hold auditions with random people off the street. This is a bad week to have safety problems because the Chiefs have three players averaging more than 15 yards a catch. Matt Cassell hasn't been efficient this year, but when he does connect, it's gone for big yardage. The Colts have to limit the big gains in the air by the Chiefs, because they don't have the kind of passing game that can sustain long drives.
11. Watch for the Kings of Kansas City. Indy hasn't lost to the Chiefs in a long time. The Colts dropped a game to the Chiefs in 2004 in Kansas City, and before that KC hadn't beaten Indy since 1985. The Indianapolis Colts are 9-2 all time against KC, including three playoff wins (1995, 2003, 2006). We slapped them down so hard, we even forced Whitlock on them for a decade or so.
12. Watch the star in the making. Brandon Flowers is having a breakout season for the Chiefs. The third year corner with a penchant for big plays has already had an impact on this season, with key interceptions in back to back weeks. The problem for the Chiefs is that one corner is not enough against the Colts. The way Indy moves players around within formations, there's no guarantee he'll be covering the primary option on any play. KC needs turnovers to win this game, so if Manning can stay away from Flowers, the offense should thrive.
13. Watch the corks pop. The Chiefs are undefeated, sure, and their win (in the rain, at home, on MNF) over the Chargers was impressive, but since then, they beat the Browns and winless 49ers. The truth is that we have no idea if this Chiefs team is any good. I'm inclined to think they aren't. They may be the last undefeated team in the NFL, but I'm betting the '72 Dolphins have some champaign on ice.
14. Watch the big play back. Shake already covered Jamal Charles yesterday, but it bears repeating: this guy could destroy the Colts. If Indy doesn't stay disciplined on D, Charles could be running free in the secondary. He doesn't get used often, but when he does, the result can be devastating. He averages 80 yards a game rushing on 12 carries. His five catches have gone for nearly 20 yards a pop.
15. Watch the rest of the staff. I'm going to a work conference for the weekend. I leave tomorrow and won't get back until Monday afternoon. Shake is going to mind the chat, and my elusive younger brother who founded this mess in the first place will be posting the picture and writing the recap. I'll check in later on Monday.
16. Watch the return of Lilja. Ryan Lilja was cut from the Colts this past offseason in a move that made little sense at the time. Indy's line struggled early, but has rebounded well, while Lilja found a soft landing in KC, who always coveted him after letting him get away shortly after signing him as an undrafted free agent. The KC native has played well in his return to the Chiefs. It remains to be seen which team gains the advantage on Sunday because of him. Will the Colts DTs know how to attack him or will he get the better of Muir, Foster and the Johnsons.
17. Watch the depth chart. We can't afford to lose any more players. We've lost running backs, wideouts, linebackers, safeties, corners, tackles... The Colts are running out of interchangeable parts. The only guys left to get hurt are mission critical players. Winning is essential, but if that win brings another spate of injuries, the Colts might wind up sinking to the bottom of the division.
18. Watch for the right track. I can't see Indy losing at home to a mediocre team. If it happens, we'll all know something is seriously wrong. Colts roll, and it isn't close: 30-17.