Make ‘Shady,’ Sproles work — It’s unrealistic to expect the Colts’ defense to stop the Eagles’ powerful ground game all game. LeSean “Shady” McCoy led the NFL in rushing a year ago and he got some help this season with the addition of veteran running back Darren Sproles. The Colts won’t stuff them every time, but get as many of the important stops as possible, don’t let the Eagles just pound away and run clock. Expect the Colts to crowd the defensive box, blitzing linebackers into gaps early, to discourage the Eagles from relying on the run. Granted, that’s still just half the battle with quarterback Nick Foles capable of picking the Colts apart in the pass game, but an early adjustment could be the most important. No resistance in the ground game means the Eagles can do whatever they want, and that will spell trouble for the home team.
Score early — The Colts can’t afford another slow start. They drove into position to score early at Denver, then self-destructed in what would become a continuing trend for much of the three quarters in the 31-24 opening loss. Expect Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to spread his passes around to test the Eagles’ secondary, then mix in the run game. When it comes to third downs, the Colts can’t misfire. That also means the Colts have to be smarter and, if necessary, more aggressive in play calling. Look for the sure-handed pass catchers on third down, and don’t be afraid to go for it on fourth down if the down-and-distance is short. Conservatism as well as a lack of execution victimized the Colts early against the Broncos. Don’t make the same mistake twice.
Speed up Foles’ clock — Jacksonville sacked Foles five times in the opener. The Colts probably won’t have that many sacks in any game this season, but the key isn’t necessarily tackling the Eagles quarterback but speeding up his internal clock. The Colts might tinker with exotic defensive coverage schemes at times, but expect coordinator Greg Manusky to blitz more than usual, especially on obvious passing downs. Foles can’t be permitted to just sit back there and wait for routes to develop. It’s all about timing. If he has that extra second or two, guys will get open. But if the Colts’ secondary can jam receivers and disrupt those routes while Foles faces blitz pressure, those defensive stops can be just as important as a sack.
Trust the run — The Colts averaged 3.9 yards per rush against the Broncos. Problem is, they only ran it 14 times, and that included Luck scrambling five times. Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 35 yards on nine carries (3.9 ypc). The simplest way to prevent the Eagles’ up-tempo offense from wearing out the Colts’ defense is to occupy the ball for long stretches. That means running the ball when it’s there, and sticking with it, even if it doesn’t always produce the desired result. The bigger picture is running clock, giving your defenders a chance to rest. A 50-50 balance between passes and runs seems unrealistic, but a 40-60 split would help the cause. And if the run just isn’t working, get Bradshaw and Richardson isolated in space on short passes that can turn into decent gains. Those high-percentage throws can be just as good as a run.
Stay hydrated on defense — This might sound like an obvious expectation, but ideal hydration starts long before the players wake up on game day. The Eagles like to run a two-minute offense with snaps as early as 10 seconds into the playclock. They’re not going to give the Colts’ defense time to adjust or substitute. So the guys who are locked into playing when tired must drink plenty of fluids to avoid cramps and possible injuries. Count on Eagles coach Chip Kelly testing the Colts’ fitness throughout. If a play has been made, hurry back to the ready position for another snap. The time to celebrate is when the Colts defense leaves the field after a third-down stop.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.