[caption id="attachment_2186" align="aligncenter" width="594" caption="Without Peyton Manning, can the Indianapolis Colts defeat Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons?"]This is the ninth of 16 articles that I will post throughout the season, previewing the Colts' upcoming matchup. I'll attempt to analyze some strengths and weaknesses of both teams, a few areas to focus on, and a couple of key individual matchups. Overview: The Falcons and Colts last met in week 12 of 2007, resulting in a 31-13 Colts victory. The win improved the Colts' record to 9-2, and dropped the Falcons to 3-8. My, how times have changed. The Falcons are now 4-3, and are right in the middle of a crowded NFC South divisional race. Meanwhile, the Colts are 0-half a season. After stringing together a few competitive showings against the Steelers, Buccaneers, Chiefs, and Bengals, the Colts have been embarrassingly bad - losing their last 2 games by a combined 72 points. Will the Colts finally pull off their first win of the season? Or will we continue to see the same ugly football that has led to an 0-8 start? [/caption]
- Michael Turner. Atlanta is just 17th in the league in rushing yards, but that's not an indictment of Turner's play. He's having another fine season, as his 621 rushing yards are the 7th highest total in the league. Turner's a big running back (5'10", 247 lbs), so expect to see him rack up some yards after contact against Indy's undersized defense.
- Stopping the Run. Atlanta also defends the running game extremely well, as they're currently one of 8 teams surrendering fewer than 100 yards per game (98.4). Much like the Colts, they have a talented LB group with a young duo (Sean Weatherspoon and Curtis Lofton) leading the way.
- 3rd Down Efficiency. It seems that every team the Colts play are good on 3rd down, and the Falcons are no different. They're converting 45.7% of their 3rd down opportunities, 6th best in the league. The Colts must force Matt Ryan and the Falcons' offense into '3rd and longs' on Sunday to allow Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to attack up the field.
- Wide Receivers. With Julio Jones expecting to return to the starting lineup after the Falcons' week 8 bye, Atlanta sports one of the best receiving groups in the league. With 115 catches a season ago, Roddy White proved to be one of the league's best receivers. Throw in Harry Douglas, an effective slot receiver, and Tony Gonzalez, the most prolific TE in NFL history, and the Colts will have their hands full trying to cover all of Atlanta's weapons.
- 3rd Down Defense. As good as the Falcons' offense is at staying on the field, their defense is just as bad getting off of it. Opposing teams are converting 44.0% of their 3rd downs against Atlanta's defense, the 7th worst percentage in the league (Indy is the worst at 49.1%).
- Pass Defense. The Falcons are allowing 265.6 passing yards per game, which is 10th worst in the NFL, and their pass rush has generated just 13.0 sacks on the season (T-4th worst). Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson are both solid CB's, but the rest of their secondary has been exposed this season, and the Colts must do the same.
- Running the Football. It's hard to find a lot of positives when your team goes 0-half a season, but I've been impressed with the Colts' running game. Delone Carter might lack straight-line speed, but he's been illusive and powerful. Donald Brown has shown flashes of talent the past few weeks, and has earned some more carries. The Colts are just 22nd in the league in rushing (102.1 ypg), but as Kyle Rodriguez pointed out yesterday, the offensive line is playing extremely well (7th in adjusted line yards, 4th in "stuffed rank").
- Pat Angerer. Maybe Gary Brackett's season-ending injury was a blessing in disguise, at least for the Indianapolis Colts. Angerer has been noticeably better as the team's MLB, and he's been the lone bright spot on defense in 2011. Pat already has 90 tackles through 8 games, which is 22 more than any other defensive player in the league. It's safe to say that he'll be Indy's MLB of the future, which doesn't bode well for GB.
- Secondary. I could just as easily list "Defense" as a weakness, but I wanted to point out just how bad our secondary is playing. Opposing QB's are throwing for nearly 260 yards per game against the Colts, despite sporting a usually-comfortable lead. QB's are also completing 72.4% of their passes against our defense, easily the highest mark in the league. And to top it all off, our secondary is currently yielding a 111.2 QB rating to opposing quarterbacks - the highest mark in at least 10 years (I couldn't go back any further, but I'm willing to bet it's the highest mark in NFL history).
- Forcing Turnovers. 1:46 on the clock, 2nd quarter of our week 3 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Remember how long ago that was? That was the last time that the Colts' defense has forced a turnover. 5 and 1/2 games without a single turnover. That's simply unacceptable for an NFL defense, let alone a defense that should be playing with nothing to lose.
- 3rd Down Efficiency. As I mentioned earlier, the Colts' defense is last in the league at getting off the field, but the offense hasn't fared much better. Painter and Co. have only converted 35.6% of their 3rd downs, which is just 18th best in the league. To put that stat into perspective: the Colts haven't averaged below 44.5% since 2004. The offense must do a better job on 1st and 2nd down to avoid so many '3rd and longs', but Painter must improve his decision making on 3rd down as well.
What to Watch For:
- 3rd Downs. Both defenses are terrible on 3rd down, so expect a lot of long, time-consuming drives on Sunday. Obviously, the Falcons' offense has been better on 3rd down than the Colts' offense, so the defense must improve dramatically if they want to keep this game close. The offense has particularly struggled the past 2 weeks on 3rd down, converting just 10 of 28 opportunities, but this is a good chance for Painter to move the ball against a beatable secondary.
- Play-Calling. Curtis Painter has struggled mightily over the past three weeks (1 TD, 5 Turnovers), but the running game has been excellent (136 ypg). So I'm baffled to see the Colts call 58 pass plays and just 19 run plays against the Titans a week ago. I know the Colts are traditionally a pass-first team, but Peyton Manning isn't playing. I have no idea why Clyde Christiensen and Jim Caldwell refuse to adjust their play-calling.
- 100-yard rusher. The Falcons are 14-3 over the past 3 seasons when they have a 100-yard rusher (Turner 15 times, Jason Snelling twice). Meanwhile, the Colts have had just two 100-yard rushers over that span, but they've won both games. I'm not expecting a 100-yard rusher for the Colts on Sunday, but it's imperative for the defense to contain the Falcons' rushing attack.
- The Colts' Offensive Line. The line has been in complete flux this season (no surprise), but they've managed to play well (a big surprise). Injuries to Anthony Castonzo, Joe Reitz, Ryan Diem, Mike Pollak, and Ben Ijalana have tested the line's depth. Castonzo and Pollak are tentatively expected back this week, so it will be interesting to see how the more talented line plays with practically no continuity.
- RedZone Efficiency. According to Stampede Blue's adjusted stats, the Falcons are the NFL's most efficient offense in the RedZone, while their defense ranks 6th best in the league. Both the Colts' offense and defense rank 27th in the league. If those numbers hold true in Sunday's matchup, the Colts won't stand much of a chance.
Matchup of the Week: Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis against the Falcons' Offensive Line. Over the past 3 weeks, Freeney and Mathis have combined for 5 total tackles, zero sacks, and 3 QB hits. That's not a typo. 5 total tackles in 6 combined performances for our defensive stars. Mathis is set to hit free agency this off-season, and Freeney is due $19 million (!) next season - I'm honestly not sure if either one of them are worth bringing back. Regardless, they'll have a tasty matchup against a Falcons line that has yielded 18 sacks in 7 games, and will be without starting LT Sam Baker. Much like the game against Pittsburgh (the last time our defense forced a turnover), Freeney and Mathis must be a constant terror for Falcons' QB Matt Ryan. If they are once again ineffective, expect more of the same - blowout losses.
Final Thoughts: It's adjustment time. Larry Coyer's Tampa-2 defense is playing embarrassingly bad. Can our secondary make the necessary adjustments to slow down Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, and Julio Jones? Our pass-heavy approach on offense has been head-scratching to say the least. Will Caldwell and Christiensen adjust the play-calling to our strength; running the football? We'll find out on Sunday, but I wouldn't hold my breath over it. Even if adjustments are made, I'm not sure it will make a difference in Sunday's matchup: the Falcons are simply more talented than our Indianapolis Colts. At this point in the season, I want to see young players step up (I'm talking to you Kevin Thomas, Joe Lefeged, and Delone Carter); and for our team to play inspired, motivated football. Hopefully that will be enough for our first victory of the season.