Rookies Ebon Britton and Eugene Monroe had a rough game against Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in Week 1, but they have improved considerably throughout the course of the season. They have made bigger strides in the running game, but have definitely gotten better in pass protection.
Miami's Reggie Torbor and Joey Porter had a great deal of success against them in Week 14, though, with two sacks, three tackles for loss, and three quarterback hits between them, so there will definitely be opportunities for Mathis and Freeney to get to the quarterback. It is very likely that Freeney and Mathis will get their stats and pressure, but the issue with defending the Jaguars for the Colts has always been on the interior.
Jacksonville has a league-leading 212 rushing attempts up the middle and they have averaged 4.38 yards on those attempts. In Week 1, the Jaguars ran the ball up the middle on 15 of their 26 total rushing attempts and averaged 4.73 yards per carry.
Indianapolis has made huge strides up the middle on defense since the early part of the season, though, so Jacksonville may find yards to be more difficult to come by on Thursday night. The Jaguars have averaged 7.31 yards per attempt running to the left side behind guard Vince Manuwai and Monroe.
They will probably try to probe the middle of the defense early on, find that Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir have stepped up their games since the first week, and look to exploit Freeney, who has the reputation in some circles of being an undersized defender that only plays the pass. Freeney has held up quite well thus far this season, though, allowing 4.14 yards per carry on 108 attempts, versus the 3.95 yards per carry the Colts are giving up on runs up the middle.
Slowly, throughout the course of the season, the interior has become a strength of the front seven — with Gary Brackett contributing heavily as well — and opponents started to run the ball to other areas of the field after they discovered that they couldn't get all the yards they wanted by running straight up the gut.
Indianapolis went from facing the most attempts up the middle through Week 4 to now facing the 14th most attempts in the league through Week 15. It has been a significant season-long endeavor and the work that Larry Coyer and his charges are doing to get better is finally paying off.
Mathis is allowing an average of 4.56 yards per carry to his side of the field, but the Jaguars are averaging only 4.36 yards per carry to Britton's and right guard Uche Nwaneri's side of the field, so Jacksonville will most likely focus on the left side of the field where they have had more success overall and were more effective in the first matchup.
Center Brad Meester will be essential to the success of the Jacksonville offense because he will need to pull and trap on both sides of the formation and get his hands on either Johnson or Muir, allowing fullback Brock Bolen — starter Greg Jones will likely sit out — to flow through the hole and block Clint Session or Brackett, giving Maurice Jones-Drew a clear path to the second level.
The Colts have done an exceptional job of crowding the middle of the formation with bodies and Brackett and Session have been able to pick their spots and explode to the ball carrier. They need to continue their roll on Thursday if they are going to stop Jacksonville's running game.
Britton and Monroe will need help regardless, but if Freeney and Mathis are able to pin their ears back and not worry about the running game, then the help that Britton and Monroe get will be less effective.
When the season opened, Torry Holt and Troy Williamson were the starters at receiver for Jacksonville and Mike Sims-Walker had zero catches for zero yards with one target against the Colts in Week 1. Williamson is no longer with the team and Sims-Walker leads the Jaguars in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns.
Holt is still in the starting lineup and making a solid contribution to the team, but his current totals — 46 receptions for 661 yards and zero touchdowns — pale in comparison to the level of production that he has grown accustomed to throughout the course of his storied career.
Still, Holt has a few tricks up his sleeve and is usually the player that Garrard looks for deep, not Sims-Walker. Holt was actually able to get behind the coverage against the Dolphins in Week 14 for a 63-yard completion, but that was primarily as a result of veteran awareness than blazing speed. Holt noticed that Miami cornerback Vontae Davis was paying too much attention to Garrard and simply ran behind him. He was ten yards past Davis when he caught the ball but was not able outrun pursuit and get into the end zone.
The Jaguars settled for a field goal on that drive in a game which they ultimately lost 14-10. Basically, Indianapolis — and Jacob Lacey in particular — just needs to keep from having similar lapses in concentration and they will be fine.
Jerraud Powers, Tim Jennings, and Kelvin Hayden are all probable for this game, so this may be the first time in a long time that the Colts don't need to worry about Lacey. Jim Caldwell said after the game on Sunday that he was going to play his starters if they are healthy and this will test his resolve. Holt has the potential to abuse Lacey, but, ultimately, no longer has the top end speed to make Indianapolis pay for that abuse with a long touchdown.
The other player to watch is big tight end Marcedes Lewis. Lewis was drafted in the first round by Jacksonville in 2006 and has never quite realized his potential, but he is third on the team in receiving yards, is averaging 16.6 yards per reception, and does have two touchdown catches.
Garrard will look for Lewis in the red zone and will try to get him the ball deep in the seam, so Philip Wheeler will need to jam him at the line and be aware of where he is when the Jaguars get inside the 20 and Antoine Bethea needs to punish him if he tries to get behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties.
Garrard has taken on more and more responsibility over the past season and a half, but this is still an offense that lives and dies by the running game. Maurice Jones-Drew has performed extremely well thus far in his first season as the featured back in this offense with 251 carries for 1,136 yards (4.5 average) and 14 rushing touchdowns.
He has struck with the big play, has gained the tough yards between the tackles (and outside the tackles) in short yardage and goal line situations, and has been active in the passing game with 44 receptions. All told, that's 295 touches in 13 games from a guy that most experts considered too small to be an every down back when he came out of UCLA in 2006.
Jones-Drew is their most potent, most effective, and most consistent weapon, and Jacksonville will feed him the ball early and often in an attempt to keep their playoff hopes alive. He ran for 97 carries on 21 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 and added five receptions for 26 yards in the passing game. He gashed the Indianapolis defense for long gains when he had space in which to operate in the running game and the passing game, but the Dolphins were able to limit him to 18 carries for 59 yards in Week 14 by being aggressive at the point of attack, filling his rush lanes, penetrating the line of scrimmage, and forcing him to make a decision before he wanted to.
Whenever Jones-Drew is forced to make a decision, he generally goes sideways or tries to juke the defender. If he is going sideways or juking, he is not moving forward, which is exactly what the Colts want.
They have been very aggressive the past few weeks and are capable of shutting Jones-Drew down with this strategy. The less room he has to breathe, the better the chances of Indianapolis containing him and forcing David Garrard to beat them.
Garrard has been inconsistent this season to say the least, but the dominant theme for him thus far has been that he has been very effective at home and very ineffective on the road. He is 5-2 at home with 1,796 yards passing, nine touchdowns and only four interceptions and a 91.4 passer rating.
On the road, he is 2-4 with 1,191 yards passing, only one touchdown pass in six games, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 76.3. Since Indianapolis can't control the fact that this game is being played in Jacksonville, they must focus on what they can control. Primarily, they need to lock down on Sims-Walker and make sure that he does not start to get into a rhythm with Garrard.
When Garrard has done well, Sims-Walker has done well and vice versa. Sims-Walker had zero catches in Week 1 and Garrard threw for only 122 yards on 28 attempts. Against Miami in Week 14, Sims-Walker had one reception for six yards and Garrard finished with 139 yards on 26 attempts with only 11 completions — with 63 of those yards coming on one completion to Holt.
It could be that Sims-Walker was slowed by a calf injury, as he was listed as doubtful for most of the week heading into the game, but it definitely is the case that playing on the injury all Sunday, then turning around and playing another game four days later will not do the injury any favors.
Garrard will look to Sims-Walker, then Holt, then check down to Jones-Drew. With two rookie tackles that are still learning the nuances of pass protection, Freeney and Mathis should be able to Garrard before he is able to check down to Jones-Drew, provided Sims-Walker and Holt are taken away.
Garrard is not a running quarterback per se, but he is mobile enough and is very difficult to bring down. Once a team starts to lock down on him, though, he starts to go down easier and easier, as he did against the Dolphins in Week 14. If the Colts can turn up the heat on Garrard early and keep the pressure on him throughout the course of the game, they will eventually break him. At that point — if the run defense has done its job — the game is over.
One other thing to keep in mind: Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio is extremely aggressive and the fact that his season — and probably his job — will be on the line Thursday night will not make him any less aggressive. Expect him to take a few early shots down the field — especially to the middle of the field where Lewis is a matchup nightmare for any safety and the Jaguars have averaged 14.62 yards per attempt to the deep middle. The Colts have allowed 15.06 yards per attempt to the same area of the field.
The Colts really have nothing to play for or prove at this point, and a successful deep pass could get the home crowd involved and, if enough strikes are made and Del Rio's charges are violent and aggressive enough, it may inspire Caldwell to bring some of his more valuable starters to the sidelines.
This game will be all about surviving Jacksonville's best punch. It will be coming early and it will be fierce. But, if Indianapolis can sustain minimal damage from it, they can close out this game on defense as they have all year — with aggressive run and pass defense, stellar play in the red zone, and clutch performances by team leaders.
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