The Colts (6-2), winners of their two previous games against NFC West opponents, will face their third opponent with a losing record this week. They won their previous two games (against Jacksonville and Houston), and will look to do the same against the Rams in order to keep pace with New England for the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
The Rams (3-6) are coming off of a disappointing 28-21 loss to Tennessee. In the loss, Kellen Clemens had a chance at a game-winning drive with the game tied 21-21 late in the fourth quarter, but was sacked and fumbled the ball with three minutes left. On the following play, Chris Johnson took a handoff around the right side for a 19-yard touchdown. The Titans defense held from there, and St. Louis fell to 3-6.
If the Rams are to have any shot at a wild-card playoff spot (not likely, but still possible), they need a win this week against Indianapolis, who has been vulnerable against lesser opponents (see losses to Miami and San Diego, coupled with near-losses to Oakland and Houston).
Meanwhile, the Colts are looking to shore up some consistency issues by convincingly beating a bad team with a serious quarterback problem. How exactly will they go about it? Find out in this week's Game Plan.
Offense: No More Identity Crisis, the Power Run Isn't Going to Work
Are we past this idea that the Colts can be a power-run team yet?
We have to be, right?
Despite what the Colts may or may not say, it's pretty clear that Indianapolis isn't going to be the Midwest's version of San Francisco (I mean, nobody can really be San Francisco but San Francisco). The Colts' offensive line is just too porous, especially on the interior.
Unfortunately, the Colts have still stubbornly attempted to establish themselves as a team that can push opponents around in the running game. Well, Trent Richardson has averaged 3.0 yards per carry behind that strategy, so I think it's safe to say it's not working.
This stubbornness is something that has hurt the Colts this season, even if they are 6-2.
Chase Stuart of the New York Times' Fifth Down blog and FootballPerspectives.com points to mule-headed attempts to establish the run as the Colts' biggest weakness heading into the back half of the season.
Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton could be his own worst enemy. He is committed to the running game, even though Indianapolis would be better off passing more. In the first half against Houston on Sunday, Indianapolis had 15 pass plays and 10 runs, and scored just 3 points. In the second half, Indianapolis called 29 pass plays and just four runs, and scored 24 points. The Colts are at their best when the ball is in Luck’s hands. They have a bad habit of wasting drives while trying to establish the run.
Sure, the Colts are winning, but they're winning in spite of this run-first mentality, not because of it.
Deep down, Pep Hamilton knows this. That's why, when the stakes are high, the Colts give the ball to Andrew Luck. Like Stuart references, the Colts ran just once prior to their final drive during the second half of the comeback against Houston, opting to give Luck a chance to create on nearly every play. This strategy was much more productive.
Now, that's not to say the Colts can't run the ball. They can. But trying to line up behind a fullback and running into the Terrible Trio of interior linemen is going to be about as productive as arguing politics with strangers on the Internet.
No, the Colts' best bet is to spread the field. If they're going to run the ball, the best way to do it is to get their backs in space, especially in this particular matchup.
The Rams are allowing over 125 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry, but it's important to know where those yards are coming from. The Rams are actually ninth in the league against "power" runs, and fifth in the league in "stuffing" runs (stopped for zero or negative yards), according to Football Outsiders.
The Rams interior defensive line does a decent job at controlling the line of scrimmage, but their linebackers and secondary miss tackles or take poor angles in space far too often. According to Football Outsiders, the Rams are in the bottom four in the league in rushing yards allowed at the "second level" (5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage) and the "open field" (10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage).
By running at the Rams' defensive ends on the edge, the Colts can both slow the Rams' pass rush and look for some big plays in the running game. If they want to use their running backs, they should be used on the edge and in screens, not slamming into Samson Satele's backside.
The main focus, though, should be Andrew Luck. I don't think I need to expand on that point.
But, I will leave this here: The Rams are 23rd in the league against the pass, according to Football Outsiders.
Defense: Make 'Em One-Dimensional, Then Shut Down That Dimension
Kellen Clemens isn't a good quarterback.
I don't think I need numbers and screenshots to convince you of that.
I mean, they're there if you need them: His DVOA in two full games is worse than every starting quarterback but Blaine Gabbert.
He makes passes like this:
|Colts' Run Defense by Half (handoffs only)|
|Time||Yards Allowed||Average||Touchdowns||Overall DVOA Rank|
|Pro-Football-Reference.com and Football Outsiders|
In fairness, Clemens has made a few plays as the starter, but he's not a dynamic downfield passer. Most of his passes are short and safe.
The Rams' biggest weapon is running back Zac Stacy, who has rushed for over 260 yards in the last two weeks. The Rams will try to establish the running game early and often. The Colts' job then, is to keep Stacy bottled up long enough to get a decent lead. We saw the Colts give up a lot of yards on the ground in the first half of the Seattle and San Francisco games, but were able to stuff a few runs early in the second half to scare the Seahawks and 49ers into relying on their passing game.
If the Colts can shut Stacy down early, rather than waiting for the second half, their job will be much easier.
It's not a complicated task for the Indianapolis defense; it's simply a priority thing. For the most part this season, the Colts have been able to stop the run when they focus on it. By sticking an extra man in the box and zeroing in on Stacy, they should be able to corral him.
The other thing the Colts must prepare for, yet again, is a mobile quarterback.
We've talked often in this space about the Colts using interior linebackers as quarterback spies. The Colts have had much success with this in the past, and on Sunday night, they couldn't stop Houston until they implemented this, as Gregg Easterbrook noted in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column.
Indianapolis adjusted. In the second half, the Colts kept a linebacker "home" on the opposite side to contain naked bootlegs -- on a key snap this resulted in [Case] Keenum hauled down for a loss, since after all, he was without a blocker. The Colts gave up a lot of yards, but figured out the weaknesses of the Houston offense in time to hold the hosts scoreless in the fourth quarter.
In the first half of the Houston game, Keenum was able to get loose and make big plays; the Colts can't allow Clemens (who is fairly athletic and moves out of the pocket often) to do the same. The Rams' targets through the air haven't played well all season (the top four receivers and all three tight ends have negative grades from Pro Football Focus), so if Clemens isn't allowed to move outside the pocket and extend plays, the Colts should be able to keep the Rams' air attack grounded.
On paper, this is a good matchup for the Colts, if they can keep Stacy from breaking out. The Colts' secondary should be able to keep the Rams' receivers in check, and Clemens isn't scaring anybody.
Couple that with a defense that has underwhelmed, and you get a game that the Colts should win.
Of course, this is the NFL. "Should" doesn't mean much here.