AFC South: Indianapols Colts
The Colts have offered nothing but praise for the young offensive linemen called into duty because of injuries this season. They've used eight different players, including seventh-round draft pick Jamey Richard, who's played two games at center and one at left guard.
Starting at two different offensive line spots in his first four NFL games is a lot to ask of a guy who's responsible for protecting Peyton Manning as he comes off of knee surgery.
I talked to Richard recently and asked him how things have gone and what kind of reviews he's gotten:
"I think things are going well. As a player you always want to be better and no matter how well you do you feel there are things you can improve upon and I think that's a good thing. You can never feel like you've made it, you need to feel like you constantly have to be working forward.
I've gotten good feedback from my coaches. And guys around me have said good things to me, so I am happy with the way things have gone up to this point.
This is not something I expected. I came in as a seventh round pick and I didn't think I'd see much of the field this year. I thought it would be a battle to make the team. But it's worked out the way it has and I can't be happier."
Veteran center Jeff Saturday spoke well of Richard, but I sense part of Saturday's leadership style is to pump up players when given the chance, thinking such reviews may have a bearing on their confidence.
"I think he's done a fantastic job," Saturday said. "He goes in every week no matter where he's playing and gives his best and has helped our offense."
Still, one scout in the division said Richard has to be counted as part of the Colts' troubles so far -- he's simply been asked to do too much too soon for a team so reliant on keeping people off their star quarterback.
Indy is still waiting on Ryan Lilja, the left guard who's on PUP and could still be a month away according to Bill Polian. Sunday against Baltimore, the Colts could be choosing from the most healthy linemen they've had since the start of the season.
UPDATE, 6:06: Did I speak too soon about healthy options? Richard surfaced on the injury report today with a shoulder problem. He did not practice.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
The Tennessee Titans remain at second in the Week 6 edition of the power rankings, trailing only the league's other undefeated team, the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Indianapolis came in at 11th, Jacksonville at 17th (despite having beaten Indy just two games ago) and Houston at 28th. The Texans rank as the best of the NFL's four winless teams. Hey, you take small victories when you've just blown a 17-point lead.
As always, here's a link to an excellent breakdown of the voting by NFC West maven Mike Sando.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Right from the start of their game last week in Minnesota, the Indianapolis Colts conceded they needed to stack things up to have a chance to slow Adrian Peterson.
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|The Colts will miss Bob Sanders' physical presence on the field.|
And so strong safety Bob Sanders crept forward, an eighth man in the box at the ready. It wasn't unusual. In Tony Dungy's Tampa Two, Sanders often looks like a fourth linebacker.
Even with Sanders, the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Year, it was a struggle against Peterson. Then Sanders went down in the second half with an ankle injury.
The Colts still found a way to win.
But doing so in the next month got a lot harder when president Bill Polian revealed a high ankle sprain will hold Sanders out four to six weeks.
That's a disastrous development for a defense that's struggled to stop the run and that, when it's at its best, gains a good dose of its personality from Sanders.
Melvin Bullitt got a lot of work in training camp while Sanders was on PUP awaiting clearance to return from a shoulder injury. But Bullitt was dealing with a thumb injury. (I wrote about him in mid-July.)
A small defense will actually gain some height with Bullitt, but it loses a major physical presence who sets the tone. Dungy will surely talk of plugging the next man in and moving on, and he'll likely use these numbers to support his case: The Colts are 39-9 in the regular season when Sanders plays and 20-5 without him. Still, outside of Peyton Manning there is no player the team can less afford to lose.
While opponents worry about Dwight Freeney, Sanders is the player offensive coordinators game plan around.
An optimist might ask how much worse things can be for a team that's given up 181.5 rushing yards a game so far. But rebuilding the run defense was going to be a big project with Sanders. It's a massive undertaking without him and the offense isn't currently equipped to but up huge points to buy the defense elbow room.
At 0-2, Jacksonville is desperate to establish its identity as a running team.
The Jaguars, who've got serious offensive line issues of their own, could be heading for Lucas Oil Stadium at just the right time.
Meanwhile, things are getting worse, not better, for the Colts on offense too.
Left tackle Tony Ugoh went out of the Minnesota game early with a groin injury. If he doesn't play, the Colts could have an offensive line that includes just one starter from the group the team intended to field -- right tackle Ryan Diem. Tight end Dallas Clark (knee) could miss his second game in a row.
Win or lose, the Colts will have a chance to regroup after playing the Jaguars. They have a bye after the Jacksonville game, then play at Houston and against Baltimore.
It's a brutal four pack after that, and if the Colts aren't healthy they'll struggle at Green Bay, at Tennessee, against New England and at Pittsburgh.
I've been reluctant to forecast a slip for Indianapolis and it's incredibly early. But if Indy's injuries continue to be an issue and the Titans can keep things going, we may see the best shot in six years for a team to overtake Indy at the top of the AFC South.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen talks about the injury to Sanders.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Jacksonville at Tennessee, 1 p.m. ET
In the wake of Richard Collier's shooting, the Jaguars probably will be in an all-or-nothing state. Are they drained from hospital visits and sleepless nights wondering whether their teammate would survive the night? Or do they rally on his behalf, calling on a reserve to help provide some good news for him and the city? I think we'll have a feeling for which way the Jags will go in the first five minutes of the game.
Never mind the players for a moment. Many of us are expecting another low-scoring, defensive battle like last year's 13-10 Tennessee win at Jacksonville on opening day. But it could amount to a coming-out party for two offensive coaches. Dirk Koetter, the Jags' second-year offensive coordinator, now has a better handle on what he's got and a better comfort level calling an NFL game. The Titans' Mike Heimerdinger is back for a second term in the same post. Neither coordinator was showing much in the preseason. Now we'll see some of the plays they rate as their favorites. That should make a big difference, shouldn't it?
While it's a huge game, it seems to me the Titans are the team that can better handle losing it. Jeff Fisher's teams have a history of starting slowly, and have often managed to dig out of it. The Titans couldn't get anything going offensively with their first team in the preseason, so it won't be a surprise if they don't move the ball effectively. Jacksonville, meanwhile, is a popular pick to catch or pass Indianapolis. They seemed to be gradually ramping up in the preseason. How will they handle a loss after a month of listening to all the big expectations? Maybe better than I imagine. They did, after all, lose their opener to Tennessee last season in Jacksonville and recovered just fine.
It has been a football lifetime since Gregg Williams was the defensive coordinator for the Oilers/Titans, so it's hard to imagine such a thing would carry over. But it's still worth a mention: While his defenses beat some very good quarterbacks, they also tended to go after young and unproven guys and see it backfire. Remember Ryan Leaf? With Young's questionable decision-making and ability to dodge a rusher, is it better to send extra people at him or to complicate coverages and await mistakes? Six of his 30 regular season interceptions have landed in the arms of Jaguars defenders.
Houston at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. ET
Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes averaged a ridiculous 18.1 yards per catch last year. For the Texans to cap that, they need to find a consistent pass rush and they need cornerback Fred Bennett to prove he can stick with Holmes. I'd also expect the Steelers to get a third wide receiver on the field in order to put Houston in nickel to get chances to test DeMarcus Faggins.
Against a 3-4, Houston's offensive line probably will need to cut more linebackers as part of Alex Gibbs' zone-blocking scheme. It's one thing to take down bigger linemen, another to get to the second level and deal with more athletic players.
Indications to this point are that the Texans may feel the need to pass to set up the run instead of vice versa. Either way, we find out if a couple of skill position players such as Steve Slaton and Kevin Walter can be factors or get cancelled out once the games begin to count.
The Texans won in Pittsburgh in 2002 despite gaining only 47 yards of total offense. The Texans forced five turnovers, returning three for touchdowns.
Chicago at Indianapolis, 8:15 p.m. ET
The Peyton Manning questions are twofold: How does he do on a left knee that kept him out of the entire preseason after he had an infected bursa sac removed from it July 14? And how does he do without his center, Jeff Saturday? Will Saturday's replacement, probably Jamey Richard, work to adjust things at the line of scrimmage the way Saturday did? Will another lineman? Will Manning take on even more responsibility?
Look for Manning to get rid of the ball even faster than usual with Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai looking to break a tackle and get yards after the catch. The Colts aren't going to ask Manning to stand in very long with three new offensive linemen working against a defensive front that includes Adewale Ogunleye, Tommie Harris, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Harris will surely work to make it a long night for Richard.
Lucas Oil Stadium makes its regular-season debut on national television Sunday night. Will the crowd be able to influence a game the way it did at the RCA Dome? It's a much more difficult task with all the additional square footage under the roof, be it open or closed.
Kick coverage is always a Colts issue. Will they kick to Devin Hester as they did to open the Super Bowl two years ago? Can Courtney Roby (kicks) and Keiwan Ratliff (punts) help the offense out with some field position on returns?
Spotlight issues, obviously: Manning's knee, Dwight Freeney's foot, Bob Sanders' shoulder.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Pierre Garcon looked shaky fielding the ball as a punt returner for the Colts Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
That became worse news when T.J. Rushing's knee injury from that game turned out to be a season-ender. Rushing handled the bulk of the return work last year, fielding 19 punts and 31 kickoffs. His punt return average of 13.1 yards would have been fourth in the league had he had one more and qualified for the list.
Against Buffalo, Garcon fielded four punts and took them just 22 yards and took two kickoffs back 46 yards. He had a fumble that he recovered and juggled at least one more.
Tony Dungy indicated he's got concerns over consistency.
"We wanted to look at our young guys and it was kind of feast or famine," he said. "We did some good things, we didn't handle the ball as cleanly as we would like. That's kind of how we've been this whole preseason. Those guys have some talent. We'll have to continue to work them. They are all pretty good string runners and each one of them has had some good returns, but we've got to make sure we're handling the ball better."
Garcon tried his best to shrug off a shaky night.
"It happens, you get it lost in the lights," he said. "You've got to bounce back and try to get better. Every day you're playing for a job, that's how the NFL is. They said 'You've got to catch it, you've got to catch it.' You can't drop it. There is no excuse for dropping it, you've just got to catch it."