INDIANAPOLIS – The most important advice the Indianapolis Colts could follow this week comes from the most popular fashion statement in the locker room this year: Run the damn ball.
Despite the ubiquitous hats introduced by left guard Quenton Nelson, the Colts have gotten away from their personality in recent weeks.
The franchise began to forge a post-Andrew Luck identity as a tough and physical group that’s more than happy to get down and fight in the trenches.
Then opponents began stacking the box, a war of attrition began on the wide receiver depth chart and the traffic in the running lanes became extremely congested.
But for all the rightful respect paid to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defensive front – one of the most accomplished and versatile in the NFL – it has struggled to stop the ground game this season.
The Jaguars rank 29th in the league, allowing an average of 4.9 yards per rush, and it is in Indianapolis’ best interest to take advantage in Sunday’s matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium (1 p.m., CBS).
The Colts (5-4) – trying to snap a two-game losing streak – again will play without three of its top receivers – T.Y. Hilton (calf), Devin Funchess (clavicle) and Parris Campbell (hand). Couple that with Jacksonville’s ferocious pass rush – it boasts the league’s fifth-highest sack rate – and the run game could become essential to protecting returning quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
The 26-year-old missed last week’s loss against the tanking Miami Dolphins because of a sprained MCL in his left knee, and a struggling offensive line is determined to keep Brissett upright and mobile this week.
“(We) haven’t played our best (the last two weeks),” center Ryan Kelly said. “We’ve had a few bright spots here and there, but (we) just haven’t had the efficient run game that we want to have. So it starts (Wednesday) in how we prepare.”
Brissett and the receivers also can go a long way toward helping the running game.
The threat of a big play in the passing game would loosen up the box, but it’s going to require a thin pass-catching corps to win more than its fair share of one-on-one battles.
Defenses have been playing physical, man-to-man coverage against Indianapolis in recent weeks and daring receivers to make plays.
Brissett consistently beat the scheme against the Houston Texans on Oct. 20, but Hilton still was in the lineup. Without the star wideout against the Denver Broncos a week later, the offense struggled.
Those woes expanded last week when Brian Hoyer replaced Brissett as the starter and completed just 46.2% of his passes with three interceptions.
Brissett has thrown just three interceptions in his eight starts and is completing 64.8% of his throws. But Indianapolis isn’t counting on his return alone to fix the passing game.
Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni spent the week challenging the quarterback. Brissett has displayed a tendency to lock on to a single target at times, and the delays associated with that approach almost assuredly will lead to sacks against the Jaguars (4-5).
“Things move fast and furious out there, it doesn’t always come up like you see it (in practice),” head coach Frank Reich said. “I felt we did a good job this week offensively. I thought Nick did a good job at putting Jacoby in situations.
“For instance, on pass routes, ‘Hey, let’s take away the first read. Let’s force him to get to the second or third read.’ During the week, as we did that, I thought the players responded very well.”
Now it’s time to see how that translates to game day.
It’s still a little too early in the season for games to truly carry a “must win” label, but this one is extremely close.
In an incredibly tight AFC South race, the Jaguars can’t afford another division loss. They’re just two games behind the division-leading Houston Texans (6-3), but they’ve been swept in the season series.
With former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles returning as the starting quarterback this week for the first time since the first quarter of the season opener, Jacksonville believes now is the time to begin a playoff push.
The Colts are better situated with a 2-0 record in the division, but they’re beginning a three-game stretch against AFC South foes that will define their season.
A win Sunday sets up a first-place showdown at Houston on Thursday night. A loss against the Jags makes the game against the Texans something close to an elimination contest for Indianapolis.
The Colts insist there’s no sense of urgency this week, but they acknowledge they have something to prove coming off one of their worst regular season losses in recent memory.
“Most definitely, not just because it’s a division game but it’s the next game,” linebacker Darius Leonard said. “Especially, coming off two losses. You’re eager to get back out there to prove that you’re not what you put on film.”