Five keys for Sunday vs. Cowboys

Aside from keeping Andrew Luck upirght, Colts' defense must play fast and smart to slow down the Cowboys in Dallas.

The Indianapolis Colts (10-4) venture to AT&T Stadium Sunday to take on the Dallas Cowboys (10-4) in Arlington, Texas. Here are the Colts keys:

1. Keep Luck healthy — Sometimes, it’s about the big picture. While the Colts will play to win, what matters most is that quarterback Andrew Luck gets through the game healthy. The risk of playing regulars in games that won’t impact playoff position is losing anybody to an injury. That’s why the Colts must protect Luck better than they have been doing recently. He’s been sacked 26 times this season, 99 for his three-year NFL career, and hit too often. He’s committed turnovers trying to make plays, especially in the first quarters of the last four games, opposing defenses scoring touchdowns on an interception return and fumble recovery in the past two starts. So don’t take any chances. If the Cowboys get pressure on him early, be prepared to go with more maximum protections. It might impact how effective the offense moves the chains and scores, but losing Luck would be unacceptable. The Colts are going to be a third or fourth AFC seed regardless of what happens in this game.

2. Double Dez Bryant — If Colts cornerback Vontae Davis doesn’t play due to a groin injury, the secondary will be thin, which means the Cowboys’ star wide receiver will be looking to take advantage of single coverage. Even if Davis plays, Bryant is still too capable against any single cover. Just look at last week’s game film. Bryant torched Philadelphia three times for touchdowns. Leaving any cornerback on an island with Bryant one-on-one is asking for trouble. So limit him as much as possible by having a safety over top to discourage the deeper routes. That might be difficult if Bryant is running those fade routes along the sidelines, but the Colts’ defense must account for him on every play and paying extra attention to him makes the most sense. Sure, Tony Romo can find other targets, he’s got plenty, but the goal is to make the Cowboys earn their yards in small amounts as opposed to large chunks.

3. Blitz Romo — When the lowly Washington Redskins managed to knock off Dallas on the Cowboys’ home field, it was because the visitors were able to get to Romo with an array of timely blitzes. While Dallas has a solid offensive line and can block hat-on-hat as well as anyone, the weakness exposed by the Redskins was blitz protection. So blitzing one extra guy at ideal times might not be enough. Be prepared to line up several guys in the box and force Romo to make quicker decisions. Even if the end result isn’t sacks, the Colts’ 3-4 scheme must get steady pressure on the Cowboys quarterback or this will be an exercise in futility for the defense. The Colts have been solid on defense lately, but it’s fair to remind this team has struggled against the big-name quarterbacks. This won’t be rookie Tom Savage, journeyman Charlie Whitehurst or rookie Blake Bortles, the guys the Colts have been beating in AFC South matchups. Romo might not be an elite quarterback such as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, but he’s a lot better than the passers the Colts have been handling. Get pressure on him and you have a chance in this game.

4. Stay in your gaps — If running back DeMarco Murray plays despite his recent hand surgery, he’s been the best back in the league by far this season. His 1,687 yards rushing are 409 more than the next closest guy. That means tacklers must be smart in sticking to their assignments and not over-running plays. And that also means staying close to him when he doesn’t get the hand-off because Romo likes to throw to him a lot. Murray has caught 54 passes, second on the team, so they use this him more than anyone. He’s fast enough to elude linebackers so it won’t be easy just shadowing him with inside linebackers D’Qwell Jackson or Jerrell Freeman. Murray will require a team defensive effort to prevent him from taking control of this game. The Colts are tied for 16th in rushing defense. They’ve been decent in most games with one glaring exception — New England’s 245 yards rushing on Nov. 16. The Colts have allowed 111 yards rushing or fewer in nine games. That’s an acceptable number against the likes of Murray.

5. Ball security — It’s been preached non-stop most of the season and will continue to be a key every time the Colts play. They’ve turned it over 12 times in the last four games, 28 for the season. They’ve had six turnovers in the first quarters of the past four games. That leads to lousy starts. The Colts have been outscored 34-19 in the last seven games. If the Colts are going to have any chance of taking down a Dallas team that can’t afford to lose, don’t make it easier on them by fumbling or throwing interceptions. Eight of the dozen turnovers in the past four games have been lost fumbles. The Cowboys defense has come up with 25 takeaways, 11 fumble recoveries and 14 interceptions. They will be looking to make game-changing plays should the Colts get careless. The Colts are 3-1 when they have zero or one turnover.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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