Which Colts Players Are Most Important for a Playoff Run?
The Indianapolis Colts have been locked into the AFC South lead for weeks, and it's been a forgone conclusion that they'd make the playoffs for the second year in a row. But, for the second half of the season, the Colts haven't invoked much confidence, getting blown out by the Rams and Cardinals while falling behind big to teams like Houston and Tennessee.
But, with a strong second half against Cincinnati and convincing wins over Houston and Kansas City, the Colts have heated up over the last three weeks, and look as good of a team as any to make a run in January.
While the No. 2 seed is still in play, the Colts likely will be playing in the first week of the playoffs, with the Chiefs being their probable opponent. In a vulnerable AFC, the Colts can make a run, but will need big performances from certain individuals for that to happen.
The most important position on a football team is the quarterback, and the Colts' quarterback is one they've invested everything in.
Andrew Luck struggled after Reggie Wayne's injury, but has been much better over the last three weeks, as his chemistry with the young receivers has improved and Pep Hamilton has opened up the offense.
In Week 16 against the Chiefs, Luck finished with Pro Football Focus' fifth-best adjusted passer rating, fifth-best accuracy percentage and fifth-best accuracy percentage under pressure (subscription required). It was arguably his best performance since the Colts' win over Denver in Week 7, and it showed as the offense scored 23 points in the first three quarters.
Luck has had a rough year with all the injuries to the offense, but has kept the team afloat thus far. To go anywhere in the playoffs, a team just needs a hot quarterback and a few lucky bounces. Luck certainly could fulfill that first prerequisite.
Slated to be the third back prior to the season, Donald Brown now is a major key in the Colts' offensive success.
With his 33-yard touchdown reception and 51-yard touchdown run on Sunday, Brown provided the only two touchdowns of the day for the Colts offense, and long has been one of the team's best big-play threats. Brown has seven plays of 20 yards or more this season, more than any Colt not named T.Y. Hilton (11).
Brown's play has been predicated on making defenders miss if he's given even the slightest hole. Brown is first in Pro Football Focus' "Elusive Rating," which is based on missed tackles forced and yards after contact (subscription required). Brown is averaging 3.53 yards after contact per carry, the best mark in the league.
With Brown giving Luck and the offense a threat for big yards outside of the passing game and T.Y. Hilton, the Colts actually have a reason to run the ball. Pep Hamilton can't force feed Trent Richardson in the playoffs, not the way Brown has played this season.
Anthony Castonzo/Gosder Cherilus
The Colts offensive line has been much better over the last three weeks, giving up just two sacks and allowing Luck to be a lot more comfortable in the pocket.
Some have credited shakeups on the interior for the improvement, but with three different lineups over the last three weeks, the interior has still been noticeably bad. The untold reason for the improvement? The play of tackles Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus.
The two tackles have allowed just one hit and zero sacks between them over the last three weeks, per PFF, after allowing 2.25 sacks/hits per game in the first 12 games. Strong play from them allows Luck to avoid penetration up the middle with ease, extending plays and keeping his eyes downfield.
If the tackles can keep up the strong play, poor play from the interior (which will continue, the talent simply isn't there) won't make as much of an effect.
Basically, Robert Mathis is the Colts pass rush. When he's succeeding, the Colts defense gets big plays and changes games.
The pressure from Mathis often leads to pressure from the defensive line, as it did Sunday. After Mathis' pressure caused an interception (which likely will be changed to a sack/fumble after review this week), the Colts racked up four sacks and six hits.
It's incredibly important for the Colts to get pressure with their secondary. If they can get any pressure at all, the secondary generally does a good job of shutting down an opponent's passing attack. Unfortunately, when Mathis isn't getting pressure, generally nobody is, and that leads to big passing numbers for opposing quarterbacks.
Mathis is the alpha and omega for Indianapolis' turnover creation. When Indianapolis wins the turnover battle, they're 8-0 this season (2-2 when tied, 0-3 when they turn it over more than the opponent). So yes, Mathis is kind of important.
The best player in the Colts secondary is also the most volatile. Vontae Davis has been incredible for most of the season, having consistently tight coverage and rarely allowing a reception. Davis currently has Pro Football Focus' highest coverage grade, and is third overall (subscription required).
Unfortunately, Davis has also been a goat at times for the Colts, allowing big plays over the top when he struggles to locate the ball in the air. Davis tends to turn his head too slowly, and doesn't judge the ball in the air particularly well, so sometimes he's allowed over-the-shoulder throws down the sideline for big gains, even if he has good coverage.
Over the last four games, Davis has been fantastic, allowing just nine catches for 80 yards (on 23 targets), including just 12 yards after the catch. When he plays well, the Colts defense can shade help over to other areas of the field without worrying about Davis' side.