Things can change really fast in the NFL. The best example is the Colts and the Jaguars. 11 months ago on Week 15 these two teams played the AFC South Championship game (Indy won that game 34-24). Now the two team has a combined record of 2-15, and the Colts is the only team still looking for their 1st win in the ’11 season. Some say this game belongs to the ‘Suck for Andrew Luck’ tournament. For the Colts maybe that can be true, but for the Jaguars this will be a very good barometer how there team (and most of all) there offense progressed in the last few weeks. Until recently, the Jaguars played against 4 very good teams in a row. All 4 (Bengals, Steelers, Ravens, Texans) have elite defenses. But now Jacksonville will play probably the worst team in the league right now. The Colts defense is ranked 31st in the league on offense (the only team behind them are the Jaguars…) and defense. They allowed the most points in the first 9 weeks (but sadly the Jaguars scored the least on offense as well). Colts and Jaguars played closed games, even when one of the team (Yeah the Jaguars) was often not belonged to the very best of the NFL. I have the feeling we will see a similar story on Sunday, no matter how bad the Colts are. Let’s dig deeper.
Based on ’11 performance 2 things is clear about the Colts. 1. Peyton Manning is the most valuable player of the NFL. This team offense and on defense as well are clearly not the same without him. 2. Some say the Jaguars built there roster very badly (I thinking here first of all the Shack Harris era). Well it turned out, that the great Bill Polian also capable to screw his team in a very bad way (with bad drafts, starting with his 1st round busts and not signing experienced veterans to correct this errors – But to say good things about the Polians- the ’11 Colts draft looks very soild). For Peyton Manning thing here’s a little explanation. I often heard, ‘Well Peyton Manning not playing on defense, and that’s bad as well”. Well, although he of course is the motor of the offense, but the Indy defense is built to protect the lead Manning and the offense always put together in the past. Now that they are almost always fall behind, they can’t use there best defensive players (Freeney and Mathis) the way the Colts want to. Teams can run the bowl more often because of time management, and because Colts still have issues to defend the run (despite some promising corrections this year). the whole theam looks like out of sync. And that leads directly to my second point. The Colts have very serious talent issues in many positions. Despite drafting 2 offensive lineman this year in the first 2 rounds (Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana) the offensive line is a mess without Peyton(and I wonder how would they protect him now, if he’d be healthy… Their secondary starting to look like what the Jaguars and the Texans had last year, especially at safety. And of course there’s the question at QB. Although I saw sometimes very promising things from Curtis Painter, we can easily ask the question about the Colts front office why they didn’t prepared better for a ‘playing without Manning’ period? I always think about the Patriots, a team which was still very competitive without Tom Brady, they still won 11 games with Matt Cassel at QB(who is talent wise I think is the same league as let’s say David Garrard are). Not to mention Jim Caldwell. I always see Tony Sparano and Jack Del Rio being mentioned on the hot seat. What about Caldwell? It’s clear to me that he has no real answers crisis the Colts are in right now. I don’t know what will happen after the season with Manning and and don’t know if Andrew Luck will be a Colt, but it’s clear to me, that Caldwell will not capable to make him or this team better at all.
But with all this problems I just don’t advise any Jaguars fans to see this game as an automatic win. First of all, there is no such things existing for the ’11 Jaguars (at least for now) as ‘automatic win’. This offense had major issues in the passing game, and even the not so frightening Colts secondary could cause major problems for Blaine Gabbert and his receivers. But you can find the biggest threat for Gabbert elsewhere then the secondary. I’m talking about Robert Mathis. No, not Dwight Freeney. He will face Eugene Monroe, who silently haveing a very good season so far, and once again I think he developed himself to the best offensive tackle of the ’09 draft. He played against Freeney 3 times sofar, and after the first (very ugly) game in Monroe’s debut in the NFL, he didn’t allow to the great DE a sack or a hurry last year in 2 games. I expect the same, because Freeney is not playing for anything this season. Robert Mathis in the other hand is. He is in his contract year, and he will face somebody who never played against him in RT Guy Whimper. Although Whimper had good games in this season the last 2 not belonged to them. And if he can’t stop Mathis, the pass rusher threat will made Blaine Gabbert’s day very, very miserable, which is the last thing the rookie needs. Also behind Mathis and Freeney the DE depth is quite good. Of course I’M not talking about the Colts 1st round bust from ’10, Jerry Hughes… I think here experienced veterans like Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton, who trying to prove that they have future with the Colts. if the Jaguars offensive line could keep the Colts rushers away from Gabbert, he could have a good day. Because the Colts secondary is very awful these days. The best player is Antoine Bethea by far, but his production is falling back(he is one of those veterans who have really nothing to play for now). At strong saftey the Colts look very similar like the jaguars looked in the last few years. David Caldwell or Joe Feleged should be backups at best. And for the rookie Lefeged considered as a backup (and sometimes he is starting) maybe bit too much… The corners, Kevin Thomas and Jerraud Powers are average. They are just guys, but sadly the Jaguars receivers are in the same category. At Jacob Lacey is struggling lately, so maybe that could be an advantage. I read many articles which advised to the jaguars to let Gabbert loose. Yes I think more freedom and more opportunity would be welcomed (if not now, then when)? But Dirk Koetter must find the good balance between run and pass. And he should find more WRs like Dillard and maybe Osgood as well. And of course same goes to the Marcedes Lewis. The newest addition for the WR group, Brian Robiskie was on the injured list on Thursday, I wonder -if he will play- can he help elevate the passing game, like Jason Hill did arriving the same way (and time)?
Of course the Colts can be attacked on the ground, and that would be the obvious choice since Indy’s run defense ranked 31st. On the middle they have some, young promising players, like 3rd rick rookie DT Drake Nevis, or LB Pat Angerer who leading the NFL in tackles, and producing 10+ stops per game. But even with those players the DT and LB units are average. The Jaguars offense (and the line) faced much better players in the last few weeks then DT Fill Moala and Antonio Johnson. Maurice Jones-Drew also saw much better play makers at LB then Kavell Conner and Philip Wheeler in his last 3 games. And I mentioned the Colts strong safeties are playing terrible, so pounding the rock with the best Jaguars offensive player would make a lot of sense on Sunday. In conclusion: no matter how bad the Jaguars offense were so far in the season, this weekend they must be effective this time. Because if they can’t dominate this defense, I’m sure the second half of the ’11 season will look like so bad for them as the 1st half did.
The Jaguars defense must be awake. I know Curtis Painter is not Peyton Manning’s league, maybe not even starting material. But don’t be fooled on him and I hope the Jaguars defense is taking him very seriously. I saw Painter in a couple of games, and he is not afraid to taking chances. Of course some times there brave throws or moved ends up as a turnover, but he has a good enough WR unit to represent threat to the Jaguars secondary. His biggest problem is consistency, sometimes even in a game. And to make things more interesting Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon are having a contract year. For Wayne this is an audition not just for the Colts but the 31 other teams. And Garcon, well since he was a late round pick, his salary is very low considering that he could be a pretty decent target. He wants to be payed around 10 times more, and that makes him a serious threat. Austin Collie in other hand clearly miss Manning, and he is shown less play maker ability in this season, compare to last year. Good news for the Jaguars, that the Colts will miss 2 out of the 3 standard TEs. ‘Jaguars Killer’ Dallas Clark and Brody Eldridge will both miss this game(which is good news considering the Jaguars still have issues covering good TEs). Jacob Tamme will most likely start at the position and he will backed up by Mike McNeill and Anthony Hill. Both players spent their time on the (Colts and Eagles) practice squad so far. McNeill was promising in the preseason,
In the ground game (which is more effective in my opinion then how looks on paper – 23rd) the Colts could use 3 backs, but basically they rotate just 2. I think Indy (very wisely) try to keep out Joseph Addai from duty this season. He dealing with injuries all season long, plus he had a secure jobs to the years to come. That means ’09 first round pick Donald Brown and rookie Delone Carter are carrying the ball most of the time. Brown showing very little improvement so far (but let’s not forget what he did with the Jaguars run defense when the 2 team meet other last December). Carter in the other hand ais very reliable, he consistently showing signs that he can be a good backup back behind Addai. Since the Jaguars defensive line could be a little banged up (Kampman didn’t practiced, Knighton and Chick was limited and we know Alualu had a bad knee), it will be interesting to see, how the the Jaguars run defense can stop or limit the Colts backs. Speaking of the Jaguars defensive line, I don’t know how healthy the Jaguars pass rushers are, but if show up to play (I’m sure Mincey and Roth – two players in their contract year- will give full effort -again), they could have a pretty good day. Because I think the Colts biggest weak point (next to Jim Cladwell) is there offensive line which is a mess. The Jaguars might face Mike Tepper and Quinn Ojinnaka at tackle(Castonzo is injured, and Jeff Linkenbach- well he is not very good)! Joe Reiz, who didn’t have a team last year start at LG! Ryan Diem is injured and you can always count on him for at least a false start a game. But as I said he is offen injured, and his backup Mike Pollak is a clear step back talent wise. The only decent lineman is center Jeff Saturday (who will be a free agent next offseason), but you can see some signs on him that his enthusaism are starting to fall back. That can be said to all key Colts players, who have nothing(I mean a new contract here) to play for (Dwight Freeney, Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark and Antoine Bethea are showing signs like that lately). That could be an advantage, if the Jaguars can strike early and take (and keep) the lead.
Special teams wise, the Colts are traditionally not good at. Their return game are non existing. And they have issues to tackle the returners. But Adam Vinatieri is still reliable kicker and their punter Pat McAfee playing really well in the other hand, some in the Colts fan base thinks he is so far the season MVP – which says everything about the current season of the Colts…
Bottom line is, when I see te Colts I see just a few players who still interested to play in this very messy season. Most of them very young players who want to prove themselves (Angerer, Carter, Nevis) or those who are in their contract year (Garcon, Mathis, Wayne). The others, especially some veteran key players are starting the show the signs of quiting. That why the Jaguars must start playing well for the very first minute. If they can -somehow- lead after the 1st quarter with 7 or 10 points, and their defense can continue where they left of in the first half of the season (They ranked 5th now overall), this game should be no problem. I expect another Ravens-ish game, with low score, and a lot of punts.
One more thing: although of course I have concerns that the Colts with this loss are getting another step closer to Andrew Luck, the Jaguars simply cannot afford lose this game. This Colts team was blew out 62-7 by the Saints couple of weeks ago, and 31-7 by the Falcons at home last Sunday. If the Jaguars lose this game, then this coaching staff (at least the most part of) must go, not after the season, but after the game. Because if a team, which goal was winning the division still just a couple of weeks ago can’t beat the -right now- worst football team of the NFL, then it’s time to blow everything up, and start from the scratch.
Prediction: Jacksonville 23 – Indianapolis 17
(I want to thank Adam Herczeg to contribute to this article)