The Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts meet for the second time this season on Sunday. The Jaguars are spiraling out of control with seven straight losses, while the Colts have won five games in a row.
1. The Colts have now won five games in a row following a 1-5 start. What do you attribute most to the turnaround?
Chris: The major turning point was definitely the return of starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo. He returned in the Colts game against the Jets, and though that was a loss, the difference in the offense was noticeable.
The offensive line with their best lineman back has allowed just 1 sack in that time, and it has made a difference in the passing game, but also helped the run immensely. It is hard to overstate how critical the loss of a very good left tackle can be, but it is certainly something that helps the team when they come back.
Apart from Castonzo, there were a slew of other players who were either playing injured or out, who were able to return around Weeks 5-7. Then having a bye week to further recover has really allowed the Colts to enter this stretch of the season remarkably healthy compared with their normal. All those things, plus a defense that continues to grow within DC Matt Eberflus’ system are leading to a better Colts team.
2. With Indianapolis now sitting at 6-5 and nipping at the heels of the Baltimore Ravens for the No. 6 seed in the AFC, do you expect to see the Colts in the playoffs come January? Why or why not?
Chris: I do. This is a team that hasn’t put up less than 27 points since Week 5, and they have done it against some very good defenses. Not only that, but they can do it by going to a wide variety of playmakers. While Colts teams of the last few years have had to rely heavily on T.Y. Hilton as the only really reliable target to threaten downfield, they now have tight ends in Eric Ebron, Erik Swoope, and Mo Alie-Cox who have to be accounted for as well. When you add in that their running game has more juice than it has in a long time, this is one of the most balanced Colts offenses since Peyton Manning was under center.
On defense they give up lots of yards and they have struggled at times. However, they also do relatively well at creating turnovers. With an offense functioning as well as theirs has been that is really what they need the defense to do to have a little run and make the playoffs. Their favorable schedule over the next few weeks certainly helps as well.
Once they get into the playoffs? Who knows. But I think they’ll be there by season’s end.
3. The last time the Jaguars and Colts played each other, Indy scored 29 points in the first half and led by 13 at halftime. The Jags shut out the Colts in the second half and drew close, but Indianapolis held on for the win thanks to a Rashad Greene Sr. fumble deep into Colts territory at the end of the game. What do you think Indianapolis did well in that game, and what would you like to see improved this time around?
Chris: I would like to see the Colts be aggressive and mix up their offensive looks against the Jaguars’ defense again. There were obvious instances where miscommunication played a role in some big plays, and if Reich can dial up some plays to try to keep the defense on their toes, it would be a big plus.
The real focus needs to be in two areas to improve upon. First, the offense needs to remain consistent. They lost focus in the second half, dropping passes and missing on opportunities to extend drives. You should simply never score 29 in one half and none in another. If they can’t be more consistent on offense they’ll likely struggle.
The other area that needs to show major improvement is in defending explosive plays. The big play to Donte Moncrief was a killer, and the Colts defensive scheme is designed to prevent those kinds of plays. You can’t let those happen if you’re running a scheme that is designed to give up yards already.
Last, they need to be sound tacklers. Far too many plays went for yards after the catch last time, and that is an area this defense needs to improve on greatly.
4. One player who carved the Jaguars up in the first meeting was Eric Ebron (three catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns, plus a rushing touchdown). Ebron has scored 12 touchdowns this season and has had a bit of a career renaissance in Indianapolis. As a person who lives in Detroit, I was well aware of his struggles with drops and inconsistencies with the Lions. What has worked for him with the Colts, and how has his presence helped Andrew Luck?
Chris: Eric Ebron’s redemption has been a thing of beauty for Colts fans, and probably relatively infuriating for Lions fans. I attribute it to a relief from the pressure of being a top pick, but more importantly, to the brilliance of Frank Reich.
Ebron has talent, but Reich hasn’t tried to make him a focal point of the offense. He is in on an average of 30-40 percent of the snaps, which both keeps him fresh, and makes the sample size smaller for defenses studying his film. Having watched every one of Ebron’s touchdowns, the remarkable thing is that the scheme from Reich has left multiple players open on those plays.
That makes them tough to defend because Luck could go just about anywhere. This schematic brilliance has been evident with regard to tight ends, because the whole tight end room has benefitted from it. Ebron and Luck developed an early chemistry though, and he seems to have a nose for the end zone. Of his 12 total touchdowns, 10 were caught in the red zone. He is exactly the kind of red zone threat this offense had been missing, and Colts fans are thrilled to have him there.
5. There have been a lot of changes in Jacksonville this week. The Jaguars have fired their offensive coordinator (Nathaniel Hackett), named Cody Kessler the starter for Sunday and placed Andrew Norwell on IR. Plus Leonard Fournette has been suspended for the game following an altercation in the Buffalo Bills game. All of this likely bodes well for the Colts, but if you were the Colts defensive coordinator, would you rather see Blake Bortles or Kessler under center? Why?
Chris: I think I prefer seeing Kessler. Bortles had a way of attacking the Colts that let him have pro bowl type numbers against them, for whatever reason. His games against the Colts were always frustrating for Colts fans because he would put up crazy numbers and make throws like he did to Moncrief in the last game.
Kessler seems more likely to throw short of the sticks and rely on his teammates to make plays. While this has been relatively effective against the Colts defense at times, it also means fewer explosive plays, which have been daggers for this Colts team in games they have lost.
I also think that given the loss of Andrew Norwell and the overall poor health of the offensive line, Eberflus would rather face a less seasoned quarterback and send a bit more pressure to try to throw him off his rhythm. If they can get him making mistakes and rattled, maybe they can force some bad decisions and get a takeaway, which is an area the defense does well.
Score Prediction: I think this game is too important to the Colts to take lightly, and I just don’t think the Jaguars are coming into it from a good place, so I don’t expect it to be a very competitive game. 34-17, Colts win.
For more, check out the crossover piece on Stampede Blue.