A detailed look at the key players to watch for the Indianapolis Colts, and the Kansas City Chiefs’ keys to victory leading up to their Week 8 game at noon Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.The game will air on CBS (Ch. 5 in Kansas City).
Coach: Chuck Pagano (44-27) is in his fifth year as an NFL head coach, all with the Colts. Pagano, 56, led the Colts to three consecutive 11-5 seasons from 2012 to 2014, with the high-water mark being their appearance in the 2014 AFC Championship Game, which they lost to the Denver Broncos. Pagano has a reputation as a good motivator with a defensive pedigree. He served as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator in 2011 and guided a unit that finished third in the NFL in total defense, second against the run and fourth against the pass.
Offense: Rob Chudzinski, 48, is in his first full year as Pagano’s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis. Chudzinski, who was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2013, is in his third NFL stint as an offensive coordinator. The Colts currently rank seventh in passing and 22nd in rushing. The Colts have gone shotgun on approximately 43 percent of their offensive plays this season and are primarily a three-wide team, though they’ll mix in a healthy amount of two tight end sets.
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Defense: Ted Monachino, 50, is in his first year as Pagano’s defensive coordinator and his first overall as an NFL defensive coordinator. The Colts currently rank 25th in passing defense and 24th in rushing defense under the longtime Baltimore Ravens linebacker coach, but Pagano has some input. Prior to their 34-26 with over the Titans on Sunday, the Colts blitzed around 31 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats and Information, which ranked ninth in the league. The Colts only rank 24th in the NFL with 11 sacks, but the Chiefs remain wary. “That’s Chuck’s forte,” Chiefs co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress said. “He knows what he can get done.”
Special teams: Tom McMahon is in his fourth year as Pagano’s special teams coach and fifth overall as a lead NFL special teams coach (he spent 2012 in the role for the Chiefs). Kicker Adam Vinatieri, a potential Hall of Famer, is still rolling strong at 43 years old — he’s converted 43 straight field goals. Punter Pat McAfee has also impressed Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub with his ability to manipulate onside kicks. “He’s a magician with the ball,” Toub said. “They’ve kicked a number of surprise onside kicks over the years successfully so we have our work cut out for us. We’re going to have to have a plan for what he does.” McAfee is also a good punter. The Colts’ units rank around the middle of the pack when it comes to covering and returning kicks and punts.
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Target the running backs
Not only should the Chiefs pound the rock against the Colts’ defense — Indianapolis has surrendered at least 124 rushing yards in its last three games — they should throw to them, as well. The Colts’ linebackers struggle to tackle in space — as evidenced by this embarrassing catch-and-run touchdown by Houston’s Lamar Miller — and they’ve surrendered a four receiving touchdowns to running backs, the most in the league. That means Spencer Ware, and to a lesser extent Charcandrick West, should be poised for big days. Both are effective receivers out of the backfield — they’ve combined to catch 35 passes for 322 yards and a touchdown — so don’t be surprised if they’re routinely targeted on screens, angle routes and flat routes.
2. Get Maclin and Kelce involved
Over the past two weeks, No. 1 receiver Jeremy Maclin has caught seven passes for 89 yards on a mere eight targets while tight end Travis Kelce has caught five passes for 56 yards on a mere five targets. For two of the better players at their respective positions in the NFL, that’s not nearly enough. The Chiefs have been winning, which will curb any resentment, but both had visible moments of frustration during last week’s win over the Saints. The Colts’ defense is wobbly, so the Chiefs should be able to scheme up some ways to get the ball in their hands of their top pass catchers early. By the way, quarterback Alex Smith knows the two have been itching for more targets. “When you’re young, it’s really hard (to do that),” said Smith, 32. “But when you get older, you get better at balancing all that.”
3. Run some games up front
You can get home on this Colts offense. Indianapolis’ beleaguered offensive line has surrendered 25 sacks this season, the most in the NFL by far. Though the unit has been better in recent weeks, teams have had success running stunts, twists and games up front to test this young group’s overall cohesion and communication skills. Although the tackles are older — Anthony Castonzo is 28 while Joe Reitz is 31 — the interior is inexperienced. Rookie first-round center Ryan Kelly is living up to expectations, but the guards — Denzelle Good (25) and rookie Joe Haeg (23) — can be had. Getting home is of special importance because of the brilliance of quarterback Andrew Luck, which leads to the next objective, which is to ...
4. Play tight coverage on the back end
Luck is on pace to complete 64.9 percent of his passes for 4,741 yards, 32 touchdowns and only nine interceptions this season, despite all the pressure he’s facing on a week-to-week basis. He is an elite quarterback in his prime, which means he can throw receivers open. He’s going to make some ridiculous throws, but the Chiefs’ corners can’t make it easier for him; they must play tight coverage to give their rushers time. “He’s just a better quarterback than what he was, which I think is a tribute to his work ethic and his talent,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He’s been an outstanding quarterback since the day that he’s come in. I just think he looks in complete command of the offense out there.”
Four Colts to watch
No. 12, QB Andrew Luck, 27 years old, 6-4, 230, fifth season
Three-time Pro Bowler who is ranked No. 92 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2016, which is voted on by players. Smart player who generally makes good decisions, though he threw 12 interceptions in only seven games during an injury-plagued 2015 season in which he battled kidney and shoulder problems. Has good arm talent — can make all the throws — and is tough and courageous; he stands in the pocket and delivers the ball downfield in the face of constant pressure. Also a very good athlete; he’s rushed for 1,250 yards and 13 touchdowns in his career and is a little Ben Roethlisberger-esque in his ability to sense pressure and shrug off tacklers in the pocket. “Probably the thing that goes unnoticed about him is his speed,” Sutton said. “He’s such a big man, but he has – I’m telling you – outstanding speed. If you haven’t played him, and all of the sudden you get on the field and you go, ‘Oh, my goodness — I didn’t know he was this fast. There’s nothing that you don’t like about Andrew Luck.” Has thrown for 2,074 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions this season.
No. 13, WR T.Y. Hilton, 26 years old, 5-9, 180, fifth season
Two-time Pro Bowler who has already caught 45 passes for 689 yards and four touchdowns and is on pace for a Pro Bowl season. He is dealing with a hip injury but remains a big-play threat with speed and elusiveness, ranking second in the NFL with 14 receptions for 20 yards or more. The Chiefs saw this first-hand in the 2014 wild-card game. His 64-yard touchdown on a post route ended up being the game-winner. Has consistently been Luck’s security-blanket; is fourth in the NFL in first-down receptions and has been the Colts’ most-targeted receiver for four years running. “Obviously, I think Andrew Luck has a lot of confidence in him, so he’s a dynamite guy,” Sutton said. “He’s another one of these guys that’s hard to cover. It’s going to be a great challenge for us. We’ve got to know where he’s at all the time. You have to try and keep him from getting one down the field on you.”
No. 98, OLB Robert Mathis, 35 years old, 6-2, 245, 14th season
Six-time Pro Bowler who is one of the last links to the Colts’ 2006 Super Bowl championship team. Has racked up 119 career sacks, which ranks 20th all-time, but doesn’t have the same juice he did as a youngster, of course. Teams have been able to run his way a bit, and he only has two quarterback hits and one sack through seven games while playing 60 percent of the snaps. To be fair, however, Mathis was battling an injured foot earlier in the season, and the Chiefs still respect his situational pass-rush ability. Their offensive tackles must stay on their toes, lest he surprise them with his famous finishing move. “He still has a great spin move that he can utilize inside,” Childress said.
No. 21, CB Vontae Davis, 28 years old, 5-11, 207, eighth season
Two-time Pro Bowler whose greatest strength is playing bump-and-run man-to-man coverage. “Not everybody can do that,” Childress said. Very good athlete with solid strength and quickness for the position, which he matches with good ball production — racked up eight interceptions and 35 passes defensed from 2014 to 2015. Typically does not shadow the opposing team’s best receiver, but he did it in a 26-23 overtime loss to the Houston Texans a few weeks ago. He was effective, too, snatching a ball away from DeAndre Hopkins for his sole interception of the season and limiting the Pro Bowler to a mere 7.9 yards per reception (nine catches, 71 yards). Has also recorded 16 tackles and four passes defensed this year and has earned the respect of the Chiefs. “He’s probably as good as you’re going to find in this league,” Childress said.
Projected Colts two-deep
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, AP=2015 All-Pro, PB=2015 Pro Bowl, *=See “additional notes” section below for more info on player
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
12 Andrew Luck, 6-4, 230, 5 | 16 Scott Tolzien, 6-2, 213, 6
23 Frank Gore, 5-9, 217, 12 | 33 Robert Turbin, 5-10, 225, 5
*10 Donte Moncrief, 6-2, 22, 3 | 17 Tevaun Smith, 6-2, 205, R
13 T.Y. Hilton (PB), 5-9, 180, 5 | 81 Devin Street, 6-3, 200, 3
*15 Phillip Dorsett, 5-10, 185, 2 | 81 Devin Street, 6-3, 200, 3
*84 Jack Doyle, 6-6, 267, 4 | 86 Erik Swoope, 6-5, 257, 1
74 Anthony Castonzo, 6-7, 311, 6 | 62 Le’Raven Clark, 6-5, 319, R
73 Joe Haeg, 6-6, 304, R | 72 Jonotthan Harrison, 6-4, 300, 3
78 Ryan Kelly, 6-4, 313, R | 72 Jonotthan Harrison, 6-4, 300, 3
71 Denzelle Good, 6-5, 355, 2 | 63 Austin Blythe, 6-2, 298, R
76 Joe Reitz, 6-7, 325, 6 | 73 Joe Haeg, 6-6, 304, R
97 Arthur Jones, 6-3, 320, 7 | 91 Hassan Ridgeway, 6-3, 317, R
54 David Parry, 6-2, 310, 2 | 99 T.Y. McGill, 6-0, 310, 2
94 Zach Kerr, 6-2, 334, | 91 Hassan Ridgeway, 6-3, 317, R
*93 Erik Walden, 6-2, 250, 9 | 95 Lavar Edwards, 6-4, 275, 4
*52 D’Qwell Jackson, 6-0, 242, 11 | 44 Antonio Morrison, 6-1, 232, R
57 Josh McNary, 6-0, 251, 3 | 53 Edwin Jackson, 6-0, 230, 1
98 Robert Mathis, 6-2, 245, 14 | 56 Akeem Ayers, 6-3, 255, 6
25 Patrick Robinson, 5-11, 191, 7 | 20 Darius Butler, 5-10, 188, 8
29 Mike Adams (PB), 5-11, 205, 13 | 41 Matthias Farley, 5-10, 210, R
26 Clayton Geathers, 6-2, 220, 2 | 32 T.J. Green, 6-2, 205, R
21 Vontae Davis (PB), 5-11, 207, 8 | 30 Rashaan Melvin, 6-2, 193, 4
4 Adam Vinatieri, 6-0, 206, 21
1 Pat McAfee, 5-1, 233, 8
26 Jordan Todman, 5-10, 200, 4
*34 Josh Ferguson, 5-10, 200, R or 15 Phillip Dorsett, 5-10, 185, 2
45 Matt Overton, 6-1, 243, 5
Prediction: Colts 23-20
The Chiefs are the better team on paper, and their offense is tailor-made to eviscerate a wobbly defense. But the Colts’ pass defense has been a little better recently, and an NFL season rarely unfolds by the book. Most teams have a surprising loss somewhere along the line, and everyone is picking the Chiefs to win a road game against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, in the same stadium they experienced a devastating collapse three years ago. All that, plus a need, on general principle, to stand by my (on-point so far) preseason predictions — leads me to go with the upset. The Colts, however, will have to force a few turnovers to get it done.