How have the Colts tripled their 2011 win total through nine games?
Their defensive production this season has not been that much different from a year ago, when Indianapolis struggled through a 2-14 season. They’ve allowed 4.7 yards per rush, fourth worst in the league, and the pass defense is slightly improved. Additionally, 42.7 percent of the Colts’ yards from scrimmage have been recorded by players drafted this year, the highest percentage of any team in the league. Yet, the Colts, featuring a rookie-heavy offense and mediocre defense, are tied with the Patriots, Steelers and Broncos in the AFC playoff picture.
Has Andrew Luck really made that much of a difference? In short, yes.
Here are three areas to watch on Sunday:
1. Luck's versatility: Andrew Luck’s rookie season has been outstanding. Luck ranks fourth in the league with a 77.6 Total QB Rating, trailing only Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan. In the last three weeks, Luck has averaged 8.5 yards per attempt, fourth best among quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts. This should be an interesting matchup for new Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, as Luck has a clear favorite target in Reggie Wayne. Wayne has the most targets (105) and catches (69) in the league this season, averaging 7.7 receptions per game. In addition to the passing success, Luck has been excellent at identifying when to scramble, with 13 of his 22 scrambles going for first downs. Luck’s 59.1 first-down percentage on scrambles is third out of 16 quarterbacks with at least 10 scrambles, trailing only Jay Cutler (8-of-12) and Jake Locker (6-of-10). Luck’s mobility isn’t limited to scrambles -- he’s been Indianapolis’ goal-line back, as well. Luck has five rushing touchdowns at or inside the five-yard line, third-most of any player in the league. No other Colt has more than one rush at or inside the five, with Delone Carter the only other Colt with a touchdown.
2. Aggressive defense: The Colts' defense looks a lot different from years past. Coach Chuck Pagano instituted a 3-4 base defense in the offseason, and the defensive play calling has been far more aggressive. Indianapolis has sent at least five rushers after opposing quarterbacks on 41.6 percent of dropbacks, third highest in the league. A year ago, Indianapolis sent extra rushers on 18.1 percent of dropbacks, the lowest total in the league. They’ve generated more pressure, averaging a sack every 15.6 dropbacks this season compared with 18.6 a year ago, but has the coverage improved? The Colts' defense has allowed a 58.3 Total QBR this season, 16th in the league and an improvement on last season’s third-worst 66.9 Total QBR. A weakness the Patriots may exploit is a susceptibility to big plays. Indianapolis has yielded a 30-yard play once every 37.1 passes after surrendering one every 41.1 attempts last year.
3. Trouble stopping run: The Colts' defense has had problems stopping the run as part of implementing their new defensive philosophy. Never known for their ability to stop the run, the Colts defense hadn’t finished in the top half of the league in yards per rush allowed in the last five years. But this is a bad rush defense, even by Colts standards, ranking 29th with 4.7 yards per rush allowed. The front seven has struggled in diagnosing the run and winning the line of scrimmage, with a 3.08 yards before contact per rush average that ranks 30th in the league. Given New England’s 3.00 yards before contact per rush average this season, seventh best in the league, it could be a big day for Stevan Ridley. Ridley also has 260 yards after contact this season, ranked 10th in the league.