The Indianapolis Colts must win their home opener this Sunday.
It may be early for such dire proclamations, but just as Jacksonville desperately needed a "W" against the Vikings, so the Colts need to win this week. This matchup is the AFC South Pressure Game of the Week.
If Indianapolis has any hope of being a middle-of-the-pack team in 2012, they have to capitalize on winnable home games. An early-season two-game stretch against Jacksonville and Minnesota gives the Colts the chance to enter their bye week at 2-1 and feeling good about themselves.
If they can't beat the Vikings and Jaguars, it's fair to wonder who on the schedule they can beat.
Here's how the Colts will attempt to de-horn the Vikings.
Protect Andrew Luck
The Colts' offensive line was a complete mess against Chicago, allowing three sacks and constant pressure on Luck.
Too often the line looked completely confused by the stunts the Bears ran. Indy receivers struggled to get open, and any time Luck had to hold onto the ball for more than two seconds, he faced a strong rush.
Right tackle was a major trouble spot as Jeff Linkenbach filled in for Winston Justice after he left the game with a head injury. Justice is questionable for Sunday's game.
The Bears got to Luck with just four rushers frequently, but would bring multiple players to the line in an attempt to disguise where the rushers would come from. The Colts linemen reacted with confusion, allowing pass-rushers to tee off on Luck.
The Vikings only landed two sacks on Blaine Gabbert, and both came via the blitz. They didn't run the same stunts the Bears tried. However, you can see from the still shot that they offered some of the same looks at the line of scrimmage.
Indianapolis doesn't need to keep more blockers in to help Luck. The Colts can improve protection by clarifying assignments in practice and by getting Austin Collie healthy.
The less time Donnie Avery spends on the field, the more open targets Andrew Luck will have to throw to.
Get Dwayne Allen Looks
Coby Fleener was excellent against Chicago, providing one of the few bright spots for the Colts. His fellow tight end was nearly invisible, however. He was excellent blocking in the run game, but saw little action as a receiver.
Is this a "must win" game for the Colts
Against Minnesota, the Jaguars picked up five catches from Marcedes Lewis, who abused linebacker Chad Greenway in coverage.
The Jags exploited the Vikings by throwing late to the tight end coming out of the backfield. If the Colts can protect just long enough to let Allen chip and slip out into the flat, they'll likely find good yardage.
Again, the emphasis has to be away from the wide receivers. Unless Collie and T.Y. Hilton are both healthy enough to see extended action, the Colts have to find targets for Luck who can get open. Utilizing Allen out of the backfield provides some blocking help, but then gives him an active safety valve if nothing materializes down field.
The Colts can't allow themselves to worry about last week. The worst thing this offense could do at this stage is get more conservative.
Luck threw two of his interceptions while looking long. Interceptions are of little concern to a developing offense. While his balls were slightly underthrown, the issue wasn't arm strength as much as it was about timing and placement.
Those are the kind of things that develop with more reps and time together. Luck can't, and won't, be afraid to keep throwing the ball long. In the long run, working on the timing with the deep passing attack is vastly more important than the short term gains that come from being conservative.
The Colts are never going to be able to run consistently with the offensive line they have, so their best hope for the present and the future is to continue to put pressure on the defense by attacking them down field.
Pressure Christian Ponder with Robert Mathis
One of the most shocking things about the Colts' play against Chicago was how often they dropped Robert Mathis into coverage. Mathis had two sacks on the day, but spent much of the game dropping into the zone.
That's a complete waste of a devastating rusher.
Against the Bears, Indy was content to sit back and flood the zone with defenders. Unfortunately, they don't have the corners to pull that off.
It's fine for Chuck Pagano to be cutesy with his best pass rusher, as long he doesn't expect to stop opposing offenses.
Mathis should be rushing the passer on nearly every play. Whatever benefit is gained by confusing the opposing line is more than lost by having him in coverage.
Bring Tom Zbikowski Into the Box on Run Plays
Adrian Peterson looked super-human against the Jaguars, and the Colts will have their hands full trying to contain him.
They did a very good job against Chicago keeping Matt Forte in check. Indianapolis frequently brought safety Zbikowski down to help out against the run. They were also treated to a very good game by Kavell Conner against the run.
The result was a Chicago run game that went nowhere.
Unfortunately for Indianapolis, Chicago has a top-flight quarterback in Jay Cutler who picked apart a terrible secondary.
The Vikings don't pose the same threat level. They don't have the depth of receiving talent the Bears do, and Ponder isn't at the same level as Jay Cutler.
Indianapolis is going to have to commit to taking away the run. If Ponder beats them, then so be it. They can't let Peterson run roughshod over them or they can be sure Ponder will take advantage of short yardage situations on second down to make big plays.
The Colts looked bad against Chicago, but Chicago is a good team playing at home.
Minnesota is a middling team playing on the road.
That's no guarantee the Colts will look like world-beaters, but there's every reason to expect a better overall performance.
Indianapolis ought to be able to get a close win at home.
If they don't, dreams of a seven-win building-block season will become nightmares of a two-win disaster.