With the bye week over, the Indianapolis Colts enter Week 9 with one of the league's weakest remaining schedules, a big boost to their campaign to retake the AFC South.
Their first task in that campaign is their game against the reigning AFC South champion Houston Texans.
While the Texans have struggled mightily this season, they match up well with the Colts and will be a sneaky-tough opponent, especially at home.
The Colts have multiple questions for the second half of the season.
Most importantly, how will they replace Reggie Wayne in the offense?
Where do the Colts really sit in the AFC? Are they top dogs, as Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has suggested? Are they somewhere between third and fifth, as their record would suggest?
This week's game will go a long way in deciding that.
If they really are a contender in the AFC, they need to find a way to take care of a reeling Texans team on the road.
|AFC South Standings|
The Colts maintain a two-game lead in the division as Tennessee and Houston both had byes last week. They can effectively end Houston's chances at winning the division with a win this weekend.
They continue to be the league's most depressing team and should finish the year with the No. 1 overall pick.
Every team generally has a chance to win at least a few games at home every year, but Jacksonville has been blown out every week and looks like a real contender to join Detroit in the 0-16 club.
The Colts are the clear-cut favorites in the division with Houston's downfall, both this year and in the foreseeable future, with Andrew Luck at quarterback.
|Week 9 Injury Report|
The good news for Indianapolis is that rookie outside linebacker Bjoern Werner could return this week against Houston. Werner would bring much-needed depth back to the position, along with, potentially, more pass rush.
The flip side to that optimism is the news that Greg Toler may not be able to go on Sunday.
While Toler has been the most inconsistent and the greatest liability of the Colts' top three corners, the gap between him and Cassius Vaughn is a stark one. Toler's ability to play man-to-man coverage is a key part of what the Colts do on defense, and his absence could prove costly.
Of course, these weekly injury reports don't really communicate how much injuries have ravaged this team.
Take a look at all of the players who were starters that are now on injured reserve: Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen, Donald Thomas, Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw.
What Needs to Improve
Last week, we talked about who was going to replace Reggie Wayne's production.
This week, we look to the defense and the one area that the Colts still struggle in despite an offseason dedicated to improving it: run defense.
The Colts put all their focus on stopping the run in the offseason, signing players who excel in run defense like Aubrayo Franklin, Ricky Jean Francois and Erik Walden in free agency.
Yet, despite the focus, the Colts have allowed a lot of efficiency on the ground this season, ranking 27th against the run, according to Football Outsiders.
According to Football Outsiders' numbers, the Colts are 27th in "2nd Level Yards" given up, meaning they allow an abnormally large amount of rushing yards to come at the second level, from 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage.
That trend hints at the fact that the linebackers aren't doing a good job of stopping runs if the defensive line doesn't completely clog the line of scrimmage, which is probably a fair assessment.
Jerrell Freeman and Pat Angerer both struggle to sift through traffic at times in run defense, and this issue is even more paramount when Kelvin Sheppard has been in the game.
But even Freeman and Angerer, who have played well for the most part (especially Freeman), have had issues with this.
In this particular play, Angerer gets swallowed up by the left guard, and Freeman doesn't take the shot at the running back aggressively (blue) but instead falls back and around.
He, along with LaRon Landry, makes the tackle here, but Denver gains nine yards on the play.
The Colts linebackers aren't asked to shoot gaps in the Colts defense, so if the defensive line doesn't wreak havoc, the opposing team will find that there are yards to be had.
Going into this week's game, which Case Keenum will be starting, the Colts know they have to make the game one-dimensional for Houston.
With Ben Tate and Arian Foster both having injury concerns for Sunday, the Colts need to shut the running game down early on Sunday.
Against San Francisco and Seattle, the Colts defense allowed both teams to run roughshod over them in the first half before shutting down the run game in the second.
If they can keep Houston from getting into a rhythm from the beginning, they may be able to stay in control of this game throughout.