Regardless of the Indianapolis Colts' starting quarterback on Sunday, the home team needs to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium.
A 35-33 win at Tennessee Sunday gave the Colts a much-needed first victory after double-digit losses to Buffalo and the New York Jets. Another AFC South Division win would get the Colts even before a short week and a Thursday game at Houston.
The Jaguars (1-2) are coming off a 51-17 loss at New England. Despite the Jaguars allowing the most points in a game in franchise history on Sunday, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano has warned the visitors from the Sunshine State will get after the Colts’ offense with defensive pressure and test what has been inconsistent pass protection.
The Colts have kept quiet about if three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck will be able to play due to a sore right throwing shoulder that kept him limited in practice this week. Backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, a 17-year veteran, has received most of the first-team reps and is preparing like usual, as if he will start although he hasn’t done that since 2012 with Tennessee.
Even if Luck is able to play, expect the Colts to play it safe with him and use a lot of maximum pass protections to try to keep him safe from getting hit. Luck has taken 21 hits and five sacks in three games.
Luck is listed as questionable, which means his prospects for playing are 50-50. He hasn’t missed a start in 51 regular-season games and six playoff starts.
“It’s Andrew Luck,” Pagano said Friday. “If I was going to bet on anybody, it would be that guy. Now if he can’t, he can’t. Then we’ll deal with that when we have to cross that bridge.”
If Hasselbeck starts, it makes sense to stick with some max protections early because he could be rusty and require a little extra time in settling in to complete his throws.
Expect the Colts to rely upon a ground game with running back Frank Gore, who ran for 86 yards and two touchdowns against the Titans. Problem is, the Jaguars will be anticipating that. They’ll likely crowd the box a lot, especially on run downs, to force the Colts to beat them through the air.
That wasn’t a problem for the Patriots last week. New England quarterback Tom Brady picked apart the Jaguars’ zone pass defenses for 358 yards and two TD passes. But the Patriots also pounded the Jaguars’ run defense for 125 yards rushing and four scores on the ground.
Jacksonville has struggled to establish a ground game, putting more of the onus to move the chains on second-year quarterback Blake Bortles. That’s a lot to ask of the young passer, who has completed just 53.8 percent of his passes for five touchdowns with three interceptions, and he’s been sacked seven times.
Jaguars rookie running back T.J. Yeldon has rushed for 154 yards on 48 carries, an average of just 3.2 yards per carry. Opposing defenses have been able to slow him down so far. His longest rush is 14 yards.
The Colts’ secondary will get nickel back Darius Butler back after missing two games with a hip injury. That should enable defensive coordinator Greg Manusky to dial up more blitzes because he won’t have to rely on vanilla zone schemes with inexperienced players in the secondary.
The Jets and Titans moved the ball well against those zone looks, so it’s important that the Colts get back to what the defense is designed to do, and that’s pressure the pocket from a blitzing 3-4 scheme.
The Colts have a 14-game division winning streak, the longest such active streak in the league and one shy of the all-time NFL mark, set by Miami in 1972 and 1973. They’ve won five in a row against the Jaguars by an average margin of 23.6 points.
In the Pagano era, the Colts are 17-2 in division games and 17-15 against everyone else. That’s why Sunday is so important. If the Colts are going to continue to bounce back from an ugly start, they have to keep it going against the rebuilding Jaguars, regardless of who lines up as the Colts’ quarterback.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.