In the midst of a backsliding second half of the season, the Indianapolis Colts were able to find some semblance of success against the Houston Texans in Week 15 with a 25-3 victory, including their first strong first half since their Week 7 win over the Denver Broncos.
Such is the advantage of playing the AFC South.
In Week 16 however, as the Colts fight for a chance at a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, Indianapolis won't have any such scheduling favors. The Colts will face the resurgent Kansas City Chiefs in Week 16, a team that got off to a 9-0 start before losing three straight division games.
But, in the last two weeks, the Chiefs have looked the part of a contender again, blowing out the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders behind surprisingly strong offensive performances. The Chiefs were carried by their defense in the first half of the season but have seen an offensive explosion lately, scoring 101 points over the last two weeks (80 offensive).
So how can the Colts, who have been incredibly inconsistent during the last seven weeks, take down the surging Chiefs?
Offense: Spread the Field, Attack Spaces
If you've followed my work here at Bleacher Report at all this season, you'll know that I've been a big proponent of using Andrew Luck's arm and the Colts receivers' speed to open up the offense and incorporate more downfield concepts into the offense. It's probably become a foregone conclusion that each week, this section will end in a plea for Pep Hamilton to change things up.
This week, that's not the case.
While the Chiefs certainly can be taken advantage of deep down the field (see their last game against Denver for an example; R.I.P. Marcus Cooper), their excellent secondary makes that difficult to do. Safety Eric Berry, Pro Football Focus' fourth-best safety in the league currently, leads the way, with cornerback Sean Smith and safety Kendrick Lewis adding some key support.
With their coverage, the Chiefs are fourth in the league against both No. 1 and No. 2 receivers in DVOA, as well as second against tight ends, according to Football Outsiders. So, the Colts have to be a little more creative in how they get their playmakers the ball.
One way is to spread the Chiefs out horizontally and then attack the space with shallow crossing patterns and running back screens, both of which are staples of Pep Hamilton's offense. This gets receivers matched up with linebackers and gets running backs in space with the ball, both of which are ideal against an aggressive Chiefs defense.
Take this play from the Oakland Raiders in their loss to Kansas City, for example.
Rod Streater, on the left side, is the one who the play is designed to free up here. Streater is running a shallow crossing route, and the safety Kendrick Lewis comes up to the line to cover him.
Prior to the snap, the Raiders shift, as the fullback goes out wide right and the two tight ends split off of the line to the right. The fact that the Chiefs subtly shift without any of the linebackers following the tight end or fullback out hints that they are in a zone defense.
Side note: A two-tight end set with a fullback splitting out wide (and running a streak) and a shallow crossing pattern as the primary option? Pep Hamilton is drooling somewhere.
With the corner on Streater's side falling back to cover the zone on the left and the opposite corner shadowing the fullback on his streak down the right sideline, the main focus of the play becomes the two inside linebackers and the three routes that go over the middle.
With the two tight ends' routes going a few yards deeper than Streater's, it pulls the two linebackers back far enough for Streater to have some space when Lewis passes him off into the linebackers' zone. Streater's speed comes into play here, and when Matt McGloin gets him the ball, he's able to outrace the linebackers to the right sideline and pick up 23 yards.
These kinds of plays are not unusual in the Colts' offense and will need to be used often to take advantage of the Chiefs' aggressive nature. The Chiefs love to blitz and will blitz players from anywhere on the field. Short routes like this could rack up big yards after the catch if used correctly.
With players like T.Y. Hilton, Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill, we know yards after the catch are there for the taking, the Colts just have to get them the ball.
Defense: Stop Jamaal Charles, Stop Kansas City
One of the few "Peyton Manning has like a million MVP awards already so let's find someone else to give the award to" MVP candidates, Jamaal Charles is the first, second and third weapon in the Chiefs offensive attack. Last week, Charles put on an offensive clinic, catching eight passes for 195 yards and four touchdowns. Charles added 20 yards and a touchdown on the ground on eight carries.
The Chiefs were able to disguise their looks on Sunday, getting Charles the ball from different formations, as BJ Kissel illustrates in his column earlier this week.
It's easy to say the Raiders should have known they were throwing it to Charles, but the Chiefs were doing a good job of window-dressing the plays they were running to get Charles in space. It's not as if they lined up in similar formations and ran similar plays.
The first two plays were out of the shotgun, and each had its own movements to get Charles in space. The first had him dive inside as if he were blocking while the second brought him across the formation after the snap.
Then this third play was a play-action screen from under center inside the red zone.
Alex Smith doesn't scare you throwing over the top, which is a good thing considering Colts cornerback Vontae Davis' struggles adjusting to balls thrown over the top down the sideline, but Charles' ability in space is absolutely terrifying.
The Colts inside linebackers have been huge liabilities this season when opposing receivers and running backs are receiving targets in space, and Charles is one of the best in the NFL in that regard, as Sunday showed. Indianapolis can't afford to allow him extra yards after the catch and will have to have Jerrell Freeman, the only linebacker they trust in coverage, assigned to him at all times, with the safeties watching for screens on every play.
In the past, the Colts have relied on Freeman to be a quarterback spy to shut down mobile quarterbacks; on Sunday, he'll essentially need to spy Charles all game.
But, Charles isn't only a receiving threat, he's one of the most effective runners in the game. The Kansas City running back has rushed for 1,181 yards this season, fourth in the NFL, and his 4.8 YPC makes the top 10 as well.
Charles is especially adept at rushing outside the tackles, as evidenced by this study by Pro Football Focus' Matt Claassen. According to Claassen, Charles rushes for 5.31 yards per carry on runs outside the tackles, the fifth-highest average in the NFL. Considering the Colts are worst in the league on runs around the left and behind the right tackle (per Football Outsiders), this could be a problem on Sunday.
Erik Walden and Robert Mathis will play key roles in setting the edge on such outside runs, and the Colts will need plays like this one from Walden against Chris Johnson and the Tennessee Titans to contain Charles.
Kansas City right tackle Eric Fisher does have a -7.1 run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) this season, so those kinds of plays should be available for Walden.
The Colts secondary should be able to take care of Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery, especially if Greg Toler returns, but Charles is a much different beast. If the Colts stop Charles, they'll stop the Kansas City offense.
The inside linebackers, Freeman, Kavell Conner and Kelvin Sheppard have to have a solid, smart game. That means don't over-pursue on runs, as Charles' agility and speed will kill you if you do. That means communicate and be careful in the passing game; Charles is far too explosive to give him any extra room there.
If the Colts are going to have a shot at the No. 2 seed in the AFC, and an all-important bye, then stopping Charles is the first step. If they can't, well, they'll likely get another shot in three weeks.