Can Bills rebound to cold-cock the COLTS?

The Colts were feeling pretty good about themselves after Week 1 and 2 drubbings of the Jets and Bills. Then following three straight losses – to New England, Oakland and New England again – they're suddenly a team on the edge of disaster.

 

Perhaps what they need is to face the Bills defense again, but this won't be the same Bills defense that squared off in Game 1. It should be vastly improved; not biting on the assortment of fakes that Peyton Manning and the Colts offense used against it.

Injuries to receivers Jerome Pathon and Terrence Wilkins have rushed rookie Reggie Wayne, second-year player Trevor Insley and street free agent Tony Simmons – an emergency pickup – into service. What bogs them down is that they don't have experience with Manning. On top of that, the defense is only effective when the Colts offense can get a multi-touchdown lead. It's not strong enough to win games when the offense is struggling – though it may be strong enough against a paltry Bills offense.

In recent weeks, Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison have been publicly criticized for not being emotionally-charged and fiery players who can spark their club out of the slump. Unfortunately, the Bills may be an elixir.

 

Colts on offense

The Colts' attack heavily relies on running back Edgerrin James. The Bills know that, perhaps, too well, because in trying to stop him cold during the first game, they bit on nearly every play fake to him and left giant gaps in the secondary for Peyton Manning to pass to Marvin Harrison and Jerome Pathon, who were then up against one-on-one coverage with Ken Irvin and Antoine Winfield. Buffalo seemed a little paranoid about James.

For good reason, of course: James is among the best NFL backs. After six weeks, he was the second-ranked running back with 560 yards rushing. He had scored three touchdowns, however, which is not great, considering he scored 13 rushing touchdowns each of the last two seasons. James also had 22 receptions for 184 yards, but he had not scored on a touchdown reception. Last year, he had five touchdown receptions. In fact, he scored a touchdown approximately every 13 catches. He should have at least one – possibly two – touchdown catches by now.

Marvin Harrison was the Colts' leading receiver with 30 catches for 447 yards and six touchdowns. He's having another outstanding season. Harrison scorched Buffalo for three touchdowns last time. After Harrison, however, the Colts tailed off. Number two receiver Jerome Pathon, who also scored on Buffalo last time, has battled a sprained foot and had missed two games. Rookie Reggie Wayne is still learning and the other receivers are just bodies.

Manning has been relying on tight ends Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard, who are usually in the lineup in Indy's standard two-tight end, two-wide receiver, one-back formation. They both can catch and sometimes they stay in to block. Dilger is usually a factor vs. Buffalo.

The offensive line is always good in protecting Manning. It only allowed 10 sacks, which was just outside the league top-10. Still, that's more than usual. Manning was sacked only 20 times last season.

Key matchup: Buffalo pass rush vs. Colts offensive line. The Bills' front four must be able to generate pressure on Manning. It didn't do it last time, forcing the Bills to blitz, and when they did, Manning smoked the defense for long touchdown passes. The front four must get greater, quicker penetration.

The way to win: Keep players in coverage. That's what the Patriots did in their two wins vs. Indy. Instead of letting Manning burn them when they sent rushers, they kept defenders back and burned Manning when he grew impatient in forcing throws. That doesn't play to Williams' pressure schemes, but it may be more sensible.

 

Offensive player to watch

QB 18 Peyton Manning

Ht. 6'5" Wt. 230

Manning had slumped after a 2-0 start. Still, after Week 6, his 89.9 passer rating made him the ninth-ranked NFL passer among players who've started at least five games. And he was tied for fourth with 10 touchdown passes. But he also was tied for second in the NFL with nine interceptions. He threw 15 interceptions last season! This season, however, he'd been completing more of his passes – 66.5 percent this year to 62.5 percent last year. Manning is still a whiz at taking advantage of defensive weaknesses, but the margin for offensive errors is slim because of the Colts' poor defense.

 

Colts on defense

Right end Chad Bratzke is someone to always watch. He's had big games against John Fina in the past. But he's battling an ankle injury and there is a possibility he may not be available, in which case, left end Brad Scioli will move to right end and Chukie Nwokorie would then be left end. Nwokorie was the lineman who picked up Vinny Testaverde's fumble in Week 1 and returned it 95 yards for a touchdown. He usually plays on short yardage defense.

But the Colts defensive line is not formidable. It's the linebackers who are the strongest unit on Vic Fangio's defense. Weakside linebacker Mike Peterson is a potential Pro Bowler. He's their sideline-to-sideline Sam Cowart-type of player, though he plays a different position. He had a team-high 54 tackles through five games. Last season, he made 160 tackles.

At middle linebacker and strongside linebacker, the Colts start a pair of second-year men in Rob Morris and Marcus Washington. Morris was a 2000 first-rounder and Washington a 2000 second-rounder. The two still make mistakes – much like how the Bills' young linebackers have been prone to error this season – but their athleticism and youth allow them to compensate for their mistakes.

Right cornerback David Macklin had a rough game against the Patriots in Week 6. He was the man who gave up the 50-yard bomb that produced David Patten's 91-yard touchdown. Macklin was just blown away by speed, though he's supposed to be the Colts' best coverage man.

In that game, the Colts, like the Bills did against them, had problems with play action. Tom Brady faked a handoff to a running back and threw a lateral to Patten on the left side. All alone, Patten flung a bomb to Troy Brown, who had built separation from Macklin following the fake, and it went for a 60-yard scoring play. The Colts' secondary can be picked on. Jeff Burris still mans the LCB spot. And former Bill Thomas Smith comes in on passing downs.

Key matchup: Bills RB Travis Henry vs. Colts LBs. Buffalo needs to possess the ball as long as possible so that the Indianapolis offense doesn't run away with the game. The Colts' linebackers are much better than the defensive line and if Henry can avoid their tackles, he should succeed.

The way to win: Slow, patient, choking, yards-eating, point-scoring drives. This is the only way. Buffalo needs to operate slowly and efficiently, being ball hogs, so that the Indy offense doesn't have it. And because after six weeks, Indianapolis only had only four takeaways, this could be a strategy that is within reason.

 

Defensive player to watch

SLB 53 Marcus Washington

Ht. 6'3" Wt. 255

After five games, Marcus Washington, a second-year man in his first year as a starter, led the Colts with three sacks. He's one of the team's most athletic defenders, with the ability to play standup linebacker over a tight end, or to line up on the defensive line, next to the end and rush the passer. Washington played some defensive end at Auburn. He's not the Colts' No. 1 pass-rusher – right end Chad Bratzke still is – but he's getting there with more experience. He didn't have any sacks on Rob Johnson during the first game, however. Washington was fourth on the team in tackles with 27.

 

Special teams

Mike Vanderjagt is a Pro Bowl kicker, but he had two attempts blocked by the Patriots Oct. 21 and consequently was only 6 of 9 after Week 6. Punter Hunter Smith took over for kickoff specialist Danny Kight, who was cut in the preseason. Smith doesn't kick as far as Kight, but the Colts have good coverage. They've allowed an average kickoff return of 19.8 yards, which was in the NFL top-10. Punt coverage was awful, however, as the team allowed a 14-yard-per-return average. The Colts were 16th in the NFL in kickoff returns with a 21.9-yard average. They've suffered since speedster Terrence Wilkins broke his ribs and missed Games 4 and 5. He should be back for Buffalo. Rookie Dominic Rhodes took his place and averaged 22.4 yards per return. Trevor Insley returned punts for Wilkins and averaged two yards on one return. He fair caught two others.


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