Biggest Questions the Colts Must Answer Before 2014 NFL Playoffs
Unfortunately for the rest of the AFC, they were the only ones. As New England, Denver and Cincinnati all dropped games to divisional opponents, the Colts kept their bye hopes alive and managed to instill a bit of confidence in the fanbase with the 25-3 victory.
Yet, despite the win, the Colts are littered with questions and flaws. Of course, what team isn't at this point? Still, the Colts will have to earn their seed over the next two weeks as well as the respect of opponents. This is still the team that got blown out by St. Louis, Arizona and Cincinnati.
However, a playoff run is always possible. With a quarterback like Andrew Luck and the wacky nature of the playoffs, anything is possible.
If the Colts were to luck (no pun intended) into a deep playoff run, what needs to go right over these final two weeks of the regular season? What should fans and coaches alike be looking for, and what do the Colts desperately need to figure out prior to the playoffs?
What Is the Deal with the Offensive Line?
The Colts' offensive line is seemingly the biggest (literally) thing keeping them from a deep playoff run, and thus fixing it could power a deep Indianapolis run.
During the last two weeks, the Indianapolis offensive line has been fairly successful, allowing just one sack between the two games. While the run-blocking hasn't been phenomenal, it's been good enough, opening enough creases for yards to be available. As a result, the Colts have scored 53 points during the last two weeks.
More importantly, the Colts actually were able to move the ball in the first half this past week, scoring 20 first-half points in their dominating win over Houston.
Can this offensive line success continue? It seems to be partially a personnel thing. It's no coincidence that the Colts have gotten one of their two worst linemen (Samson Satele, Mike McGlynn) off the field in these games. Against Cincinnati it was McGlynn, who sat in favor of Joe Reitz. Against Houston it was Satele, who was benched in favor of McGlynn.
In all honesty, the difference between McGlynn and Satele is negligible, and I'm not convinced that McGlynn at center is an answer to anything. But any time you can avoid having both of those two players on the field at the same time, it's a good sign.
Where Is the Pass Rush Going to Come From?
Congratulations to Robert Mathis, who, with his strip-sack safety against Houston, set a new franchise record for career sacks (108) and single-season sacks (16.5). Mathis continues to be the Colts' best pass-rushing weapon, and it's really not close.
But a few other Colts were able to get to QB Case Keenum on Sunday, as the Colts' pass rush picked up four sacks, six hits and eight hurries, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Can it continue? That seems unlikely, at least not in the Colts' base package. Yes, the Colts were able to get three sacks from base rushers (Mathis, Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner), but they weren't getting consistent pressure from those sets. Werner in particular looked weak in pass rush, neither strong enough to direct linemen to his spots nor quick enough to get around them.
The Colts had some success through blitzing packages, however, with S Antoine Bethea picking up a sack and a hit and Josh McNary and Andy Studebaker picking up three quarterback hits between them. Those specific packages will likely continue to be used, and if they can land, the defense will be okay.
Can Andrew Luck Get Hot?
While the other questions are nice, the one factor that will ultimately bring the Colts success or failure is Andrew Luck.
Luck has played decently well over the last two weeks, putting together two impressive halves in particular (Second half vs. Cincinnati and first half vs. Houston). Luck was 15-of-22 for 158 yards and two touchdowns against Houston before an uber-conservative second-half plan deflated his final numbers.
For Luck to really succeed, he needs to have a rapport with his young receiving core. Fortunately, we've begun to see that over the last few weeks. Griff Whalen's touchdown reception in the first quarter against Houston was one of the more impressive timing routes we've seen since Reggie Wayne went down with an injury.
Considering the Colts' offensive line, those kinds of quick plays are going to be the most successful for Indianapolis if they can pull them off.
To Fullback or Not to Fullback?
With FB Stanley Havili injured on Sunday, the Colts actually opened up on offense.
Interesting aspect today: Colts playing w/out injured FB Stanley Havili. Forcing them to be more creative and wide open, and it's working— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) December 15, 2013
The assessment isn't a new one. Havili was hurt against Seattle as well, and the Colts notably opened up and went three-wide for much of that game, scoring 34 points.
Havili has some use, a flexible player who can take a checkdown pass for a few extra yards with his speed and quickness. But overall, the Colts move the ball best when Luck is finding receivers open down field and Indianapolis is picking up chunk yardage.
With Havili coming back soon, the Colts have to figure out their identity. Are they going to force a power-run scheme, or can they open it up consistently to be an explosive downfield offense?
Can the Secondary Perform Against Better Quarterbacks?
The #NoFlyZone has been in full effect in the last two home games, as the Colts picked off opposing quarterbacks five times and limited Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum to 317 combined passing yards. In both games the secondary looked impressive, with cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Darius Butler playing particularly well.
However, this is the same defense that got torched by Kellen Clemens and just last week allowed Andy Dalton to go 24-of-35 for 275 yards and three touchdowns. Of course, this is partially linked to pass rush, but the fact is that as impressive as the secondary looked against Houston and Tennessee, Fitzpatrick and Keenum are simply bad quarterbacks.
Now the Colts should get a bit of a boost when CB Greg Toler comes back from a groin injury, assuming that he does soon, but will it be enough against the top AFC quarterbacks in the playoffs?
The secondary played well at the beginning of the season, making big plays when the team needed them. They'll need every ounce of that ability in the playoffs because Tom Brady and Peyton Manning aren't going to gift the Colts interceptions like Keenum and Fitzpatrick have.