Almost saw a little bit of Luck's late-game aptitude on Sunday night. Down 31-10 to the Broncos with ten minutes remaining, Luck heaved two touchdown passes within the next seven minutes, and came 39 yards short of the tying throw.
In just two seasons, Luck is credited with eight fourth-quarter comebacks and 11 game-winning drives. Such memorable wins include righting the ship against Green Bay in October 2012 (an emotional win for a then-sick Chuck Pagano), beating the Lions as time expired two months later, and offing the Chiefs in last year's Wild Card round, after going down 38-10 early in the third quarter.
Last season, an exhausted Eagles defense nearly lost a number of games on fourth-quarter comebacks, three of which were to division foes: the Redskins twice, and the Cowboys in the critical finale. Big leads shrank without deep personnel to rotate on defense, and that plays into Luck's hands.
Chip Kelly's worked to fortify the bench rotation with Nolan Carroll, Chris Maragos, and heavier use of Brandon Graham, but getting Indy off the field will be crucial. Something tells me the Colts won't be held to two-of-14 on third down like the Jaguars were.
New Faces on Solid Offensive Line
It's hard to judge any line that Trent Richardson runs behind. Richardson's reached 100 yards in three career games (out of 32), and was entrusted with just four total runs in last year's playoffs (two games). Judging the Colts offensive line on run-blocking merit may not be fair, especially since Donald Brown averaged 5.26 YPA last season.
Through a combination of quality pass protection, and Luck's advanced pocket presence, the quarterback was only sacked 32 times last season on 633 dropbacks (570 passes, 63 Luck runs). Luck's Negative Pass Play percentage (sacks and picks) was a mere 6.84%, third best in the NFL.
The line, however, features two new interior blockers: left guard Jack Mewhort (rookie second rounder) and center A.Q. Shipley (journeyman who started five games with the Colts in 2012). The book-ends of Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus remain in tact, with Hugh Thornton moving from left to right guard.
Top Notch Receivers and Tight Ends
A little more than ten months after tearing his ACL in a freak incident against the Broncos last season, Reggie Wayne looked as good as new, hauling in nine passes for 98 yards on Sunday night. There was no indication that the 35-year-old, 14-year veteran is anything less than a future Hall of Famer in an extended prime.
Peyton Manning has, for years, easily emboldened his talented surrounding cast, a tradition that Luck has largely continued with the Colts. Along with Wayne, the likes of T.Y. Hilton and free agent signing Hakeem Nicks comprise a dangerous receiver trio that combined for nine 100-yard games last season (Nicks' three came with the Giants).
It takes safety help to ensure the corners, if they're not pressing, don't get badly burned by three world-class talents. The issue with that is that the safeties will be needed against a pair of talented young tight-ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. Allen missed almost all of last year with a hip injury, leaving Fleener to shoulder the load, to the tune of 608 yards and four touchdowns.
Pass Rushing Without Robert Mathis
All-Pro Mathis was due to miss Monday night's game while serving a drug suspension anyway, but now 2014 is out the window, after suffering a torn Achilles during a workout last week.
Mathis led the league with 19.5 sacks a season ago, nearly half of the team's 42. The next highest total on the defense: Jerrell Freeman's 5.5. Sacks and picks combined, Mathis made 19.5 of the 57 key plays, accounting for over one-third of the Negative Pass Plays.
It's difficult to gauge the ineffectiveness of a pass defense against Manning's Broncos, especially as Julius Thomas obliterated Freeman and veteran newcomer D'Qwell Jackson in coverage on his long touchdowns. Manning sets his line to protect well, leaving it up to his receivers to get open. Without a game-changer like Mathis to haunt the line, that's precious seconds for routes to develop into more-sure points.
Run Defense is Suspect
The Colts come off of a season in which they allowed 4.47 yards a carry, good for eighth most in the NFL. Five times in 2013 did the Colts allow a 100-yard rusher, two of which were quarterbacks: Terrelle Pryor (112) and Russell Wilson (102). Pryor's 112, interestingly, was the most ground yards they allowed for a single player.
Four other backs ran for at least 80 on the Colts, notably Giovani Bernard's 99 later in the season. Only in two of the overall nine cases did the Colts lose to a team with a 100-yard rusher: the Bengals, and to Ryan Mathews and the Chargers.
Five of the seven wins for the Colts were by a touchdown or less, so Luck's ability to counter-punch bails out the troubled run-stopping unit a year ago. Free agent signing Arthur Jones struggled against the run versus the Broncos, whiffing on a handful of tackles. To Indy's credit, though, the Broncos only broke three runs of 10+ yards on Sunday, none more than Montee Ball's early 15-yarder.
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