The Indianapolis Colts were reminded in their opener of what they need to do against the New York Jets on Monday Night Football.
While quarterback Andrew Luck and the passing game creates the most buzz, the Colts are still defined by the rushing game — specifically, how well they run and stop the run. They faltered in both departments in a 27-14 loss at Buffalo last Sunday.
The Jets, with first-year head coach Todd Bowles, will roll up their sleeves with running backs Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell to take pressure off journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. It’s not that Fitzpatrick can’t make plays, especially to wide receiver Brandon Marshall, but the visitors realize it’s important to have an advantage in time of possession and keep that Colts’ offense off the Lucas Oil Stadium field.
Bowles came to the Big Apple from Arizona, where he was Bruce Arians’ defensive coordinator. He was voted NFL Assistant Coach of the Year by the Associated Press last year. Bowles also has history with Colts head coach Chuck Pagano — they were assistants together in Cleveland. Both are defensive-minded coaches.
When Bowles turned on the Colts-Bills game film, he saw how Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan brought extra pressure to force Luck to throw. Perhaps more telling, the Bills loaded up the defensive box, which prompted Luck to want to throw more because he didn’t see an advantage to sending running back Frank Gore into eight-man fronts.
Expect the Jets to show those similar looks. But the Colts have to show some faith in Gore, who has made an NFL living against eight-man fronts. The Colts called 17 consecutive pass plays in the first half at Buffalo. Gore ran for 31 yards on just eight carries. The Colts can’t settle for this kind of production again. Gore still has life in those 32-year-old legs.
“Vital, I think. Vital,” Luck said Thursday about generating a ground game. “And that will help pass protection, that will help the passing game. That helps everybody. That helps us get in a rhythm. We’ve been working on it and hopefully we can do it.”
Sometimes, those runs won’t work. But even then, it keeps the Jets’ defense honest and guessing, and not blitzing all the time against Luck. If the Colts can achieve some sort of balance, that should give Luck a couple more seconds to throw.
“I think this team, ever since I’ve been on it, ever since we’ve played under coach Pagano, I think we’ve handled bouncing back well,” Luck said. “Guys always come to work ready to roll and hungry. At the same token, I think guys have managed success well as well. I think our mind frame is in the right place and we know we need to go out and try to get a win at home on Monday night on a great stage.”
Two Colts question marks who could impact the game are outside linebacker Robert Mathis and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Mathis, who is coming off a left Achilles tendon tear, could make his season debut and play for the first time since 2013, when he lead the NFL in sacks. Hilton suffered a left knee bruise in the third quarter last week. If he can play, the Pro Bowl pass catcher will likely draw All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis in coverage.
Because Revis is one of the NFL’s best to ever play the position, the Colts need to get everybody involved in that passing game. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener should get their share of opportunities. Allen caught a TD pass and Fleener a two-point conversion pass at Buffalo.
On the other side of the ball, the Colts allowed 147 yards rushing against the Bills, including two rushing touchdowns. While they did a decent job against LeSean McCoy, the overall effort wasn’t acceptable. This shortcoming is why the Colts have been bounced out of the playoffs at New England each of the past two postseasons.
The Jets will test a Colts defense that missed too many tackles with Ivory, who ran for 91 yards and two scores on 20 carries against the Browns. Powell rushed for 62 yards on 12 carries. The Jets finished with 154 yards on 36 carries, 4.3 yards per carry.
Fitzpatrick completed 15-of-24 passes for 179 yards with two TDs and one interception. That’s his game. The Harvard passer has been in the NFL for 11 seasons because he’s smart and won’t beat himself as long as his teammates are doing their jobs. Marshall and Eric Decker caught the TD passes.
The Jets won 31-10 at home against Cleveland last week. They’re looking to start 2-0 for the first time since 2011.
Luck is making his third appearance on Monday Night Football. The Colts lost 19-9 at San Diego in 2013, then 30-27 at home to Philadelphia last season. That game was in Week 2, and dropped the Colts to 0-2.
“Take a look at what transpired in the last ballgame, good or bad, get it fixed and then move on,” Pagano said. “I think just like a game, good play or bad play, you’ve got to put it behind you and you’ve got to move on.
“It’s one game, it’s not an entire season. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. You can’t ride the ebbs and flows. You’ve got to stay consistent. You’ve got to keep it right on the highway and look at things objectively and subjectively. Make the corrections and move on. You can’t dwell on it. You can sit there and dwell on it or you can sit there and read your press clippings after a win, take your foot off the gas and start thinking you’re really the cat’s meow. And the next thing you know you get taken to the woodshed.”
The Colts can ill afford another woodshed visit on Monday night.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.