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5 questions with Stampede Blue: How far can the Indianapolis Colts go with a healthy Andrew Luck?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Oakland Raiders Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Jacksonville Jaguars head up to Indianapolis this week to take on the Colts for the first of two meetings this season. Both teams are looking to improve on a 3-5 record and get a big divisional win in order to keep playoff hopes alive.

Following an off week, we are back with our weekly Q&As with the enemy, and this week we talked to Chris Blystone of Stampede Blue — SB Nation’s premier blog for all things Indianapolis Colts. I asked Chris about Andrew Luck, Indy’s improved running game, the struggling defense and more.

1. The Indianapolis Colts are playing well right now with two straight wins and strong offense, however the level of competition hasn’t been great during this stretch. What are your realistic expectations for the Colts in the final half of the season?

This Colts offense is a bit of a work in progress at the moment. They have looked like a totally different unit since getting starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo back and healthy after he missed the first five games with a hamstring injury. Additionally, the return of Marlon Mack from a hamstring injury provided a huge boost in the running game.

Over the last three games, Mack has averaged 115.7 yards and a touchdown. That might be expected against the worst-in-the-league Raiders, but he also did well against the Jets and the Bills who rank 18th and 11th respectively against the run. In addition the unique contributions our two rookie running backs make to the running attack has really brought a balance to the offense that has in the past relied far too much on Andrew Luck to make something happen. Can they sustain that against top teams? That’s tough to say, but they have been able to put up points all season, so that is not really in doubt.

What will hold them back is their issues on defense. The Colts’ defense is trending in the right direction, with hits across this draft. Darius Leonard is one of the more exciting Colts defenders to take the field in a very long time and has far exceeded anyone but maybe Chris Ballard’s expectations.

The defensive line has a lot of talent along it, but much of that is very young. The Colts may get to see the debut of second-round pick Tyquan Lewis Sunday, and the hope is that he can provide a boost for a pass rush that has dwindled a bit over the last three or four games as injuries and the greater reps those require have taken their toll on the line’s effectiveness.

The biggest issue remains in the secondary. The Colts are not very skilled at the cornerback position, and it is an area that will need to be addressed in the offseason. They have a pretty strong safety group, but injuries have been an issue there as well. It looks as though their starters will be ready to go Sunday, which should be a major boost.

As with any very young defense, this team just lacks consistency. If they can develop that, and if their rookie class can continue to grow over the back half of this season, the Colts could go on a nice run and realistically expect to finish with an eight or nine win season.

2. Looking at the statistics, Andrew Luck is second in the NFL in passing touchdowns, and has looked pretty good so far. Are there any signs of Luck’s shoulder injury slowing him down at this point? Has he looked comfortable in the pocket? What are your thoughts about the quarterback this season?

Luck has been fantastic this season and seems like the best version of himself again. There has been a lot of talk about his yards per attempt and somehow attempting to connect that with shoulder issues, but realistically, his numbers are pretty similar to Carson Wentz’s from last season. When you factor in the injuries on the offensive line and the skill of the pass rush that the Colts have faced, it has meant shorter passes in general.

His pocket movement has been as good as ever, and the offensive line has been great, only allowing 10 sacks on the year, which is especially good considering that the Colts are fifth in passing attempts for the season. With that kind of time, Luck has looked incredibly comfortable and has made some really great throws. As the running game has developed, the play action pass has started to become a bigger part of the offense as well. He has continued to look more and more comfortable and confident as the season has gone on, and his relationship with Frank Reich has undoubtedly aided that. With Luck under center, this team is in every game they play.

3. Defensively, Indianapolis has had its struggles. The Colts currently rank 23rd in total defense and passing defense, and 25th in terms of points allowed per game. What is the best way for a struggling Jacksonville offense take advantage of a seemingly weak Indianapolis defense?

The Colts defense struggles to get consistent pressure on the quarterback. If the Jaguars want to be successful against this Colts team, they need to take advantage of the gaps in the zone left by soft coverage from the corners. Slot receivers and tight ends have eaten up those zones all season long.

If the Jaguars’ offensive line can keep Bortles clean, it will be virtually impossible for the cornerbacks to consistently win their battles. The safeties are a solid group, so attacking the Colts deep is likely to be less successful, but it also isn’t really necessary.

Given the bend-don’t-break style of play, the question will be whether the Jaguars can score touchdowns instead of field goals. That is an area where the Colts are much better, allowing touchdowns just 50 percent of the time, which is tied with Jacksonville for seventh in the league. Additionally, they are averaging two takeaways per game, which is tied for third in the league.

If the Jaguars can score touchdowns in the red zone, minimize the impact of Darius Leonard, and take care of the ball, they’ll do well against this defense.

4. The Colts have also seemed to have found a running game on offense, averaging 117.6 yards per game (12th in the NFL). Marlon Mack has been on a tear since returning from injury and the offensive line seems to be a much stronger unit compared to last season. Why would you say the Colts have found more success on the ground in 2018?

There are many reasons, but first and foremost it is about the offensive line. The addition of Quenton Nelson was huge, but Braden Smith, their second-round pick at guard, has found himself to be a very solid starter at right tackle. In addition, Ryan Kelly is having a great year at center, and Anthony Castonzo playing as well as he usually has. The result is huge holes for the running backs to run through and a clean pocket for Luck.

Frank Reich’s play calling definitely plays a part as well. In the past, the Colts were a very predictable offense. Andrew Luck was brilliant, but buried under a mountain of incompetence. Reich’s creativity and understanding of the offense has been a huge difference this season and has aided the running game.

Most significantly has been having Marlon Mack healthy. Mack played all season with a torn labrum his rookie year. This year he has seen major growth in terms of vision and his ability to take what the blocking gives him. His ability to change gears when he gets to the open field makes him dangerous, and he has put that on display over the last three weeks. If he can continue that on through the back half of the season, this offense could be something truly special.

5. Frank Reich is 3-5 in his first eight games as Colts head coach. What were the feelings about Reich when he was initially hired following all of the Josh McDaniels drama, and moving forward to present day, would you say the general consensus from the fanbase is positive regarding the new coaching staff, or is more of a wait-and-see approach?

The hiring of Reich was overwhelmingly supported, both because he just helped win a Super Bowl with Nick Foles, and because he did so against the team Colts’ fans hate more than any other. The McDaniels fiasco just made that hire liked even more.

As training camp and preseason got underway, it was clear that Reich was the perfect coach for the Colts. He is a teacher, and put together a staff of coaches that emphasizes development of young players. With such a young roster, that is what the Colts desperately needed, and we have seen the results in terms of play from our young guys.

Reich brings a gutsy approach to his play calling that we haven’t had in a long time, and he always plays to win. If he had been coaching the Broncos this weekend, you can bet the Texans would have another L to their name.

While the results this season haven’t always been what Colts fans would like, ultimately we knew going in that this season was still about development, with so many pieces still missing for this team to be a legitimate contender. Frank Reich has brought guys along in very tangible ways, and given another draft class and further development, this is a team that is prepared to contend for a long time into the future.

Bonus: score prediction?

I think this Colts offense has really found its rhythm and the defense will be able to do enough to limit the Jaguars’ offense to field goals rather than touchdowns. On the road this on might play out differently, but at home this one is a win: 27-18 Colts

Thank you to Chris for taking the time to provide great analysis and thoughts on the Colts and Sunday’s matchup. Give him a follow on Twitter, and if you want to keep up with news on the rival Colts, be sure to follow Stampede Blue as well.

Check out the crossover piece over on Stampede Blue.