The Indianapolis Colts venture to Ralph Wilson Stadium Sunday to take on the Buffalo Bills in a 1 p.m. season-opening kickoff.
Here’s five Colts keys to this AFC matchup:
1. Protect Andrew Luck — New Bills head coach Rex Ryan is sure to dial up extra pressure on the Colts quarterback. As the New York Jets’ head coach, he always devised creative schemes to get pressure on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. If the Bills are going to have any chance to win, it’s imperative that they bring the heat on Luck, a three-time Pro Bowl passer who has the best arsenal of targets around him. It’s not always about getting the sack. It’s about forcing a quarterback from his comfort zone. That’s when mistakes can happen. The onus is on the Colts’ offensive line to be mindful of surprise blitzes. Blocking the Bills straight up will be difficult, considering the challenge from defensive ends Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes as well as defensive tackle Kyle Williams, but failing to respond to extra blitzers would cause a serious problem for the visitors.
2. Containing Tyrod Taylor — The Bills’ quarterback, who is making his first NFL start after four seasons as a Baltimore Ravens backup, is an effective scrambler who can create plays when the pocket breaks down. While the Colts are sure to be aggressive off the edge in their 3-4 defensive scheme, it’s important that pass rushers don’t overrun the quarterback on their angles. Colts outside linebackers Trent Cole and Erik Walden, and hopefully Robert Mathis if he plays, have to be disciplined. Taking an inside angle allows Taylor to get outside, which buys time for receivers to get open as well as provides him room to run. His first instinct will be to run, and Colts head coach Chuck Pagano knows this. He was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator in 2011, Taylor’s rookie year.
3. Stopping the run — It’s the same concern the Colts have had for most games during Pagano’s three-year era. New Bills running back LeSean McCoy rushed for 1,319 yards in his final season with Philadelphia. He’s a three-time Pro Bowl star who can create something out of nothing, a constant threat whose elusiveness makes tacklers miss. The Colts are expected to start two rookies in their defensive front, defensive tackle Henry Anderson and nose tackle David Parry. But solid run defense is a team responsibility. It starts up front, but also requires outside linebackers to push hard outside to force McCoy inside to the tacklers. That’s called “setting the edge,” and it’s vitally important. That’s why the Colts signed Walden in free agency two years ago. He’s especially effective in this regard. McCoy is sure to get his share of yards. The Colts just can’t let him take over the game. That enables the Bills to monopolize the clock, which keeps Luck off the field for long stretches and inhibits his ability to get into a rhythm.
4. Isolate mismatches — The Bills are expected to start rookie cornerback Ronald Darby, which smells of opportunity when looking at Luck’s vast array of weapons. Seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson and rookie wide receiver Phillip Dorsett join Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton to create coverage issues for any defense. Presuming Luck has time to find them, someone is going to be open. Johnson uses his 6-3, 229-pound frame well to get separation and he's impossible to jam because of his blend of size and speed. Hilton and Dorsett have blazing speed. Luck could start out with a quick-hitting pass attack to help neutralize the pocket pressure. When in the red zone, he likes to look for his tight ends, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Because the Bills are expected to blitz, that means a lot of single coverage on pass catchers. Even if the Colts keep Allen back to help block, Luck’s other targets should provide enough opportunities to make big plays.
5. Establish Frank Gore — The Colts’ new running back, at 5-9 and 217, is hard to find among the big bodies. He slithers through holes that don’t seem to be there, makes tacklers miss and has a tenacity to take on defenders when necessary. At 32, he’s lasted a decade in this league, amassing 11,073 rushing yards 64 TDs and five Pro Bowl selections. He chose the Colts in free agency because he sensed he could provide a missing piece to the NFL’s No. 1 passing offense. Because the Colts are so explosive when throwing, that should open up running lanes for Gore. He's so instinctive in recognizing holes, he doesn’t need much of a crease to make things happen. And the Colts will be eager to utilize him in light of the Bills’ defensive aggressiveness. An effective run game helps neutralize a defense looking to get after Luck. And it takes the pressure off the passer to always have to make a play to keep drives moving. Perhaps most importantly, it provides advantageous down-and-distance situations. Gore will be fired up to make a positive first impression in his Colts’ debut.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.