3TFO: Bills @ Colts, Week 12
The Indianapolis Colts have surprised fans and critics alike with their strong start to the 2012 season. Just one year removed from being the NFL’s worst team, the Colts have already tripled their win total from 2011, and are firmly in the race to earn a Wild Card spot in the dismal AFC. While their 6-3 record entering last week’s game in New England may have matched that of the Patriots, the blowout loss proved that the Colts still have a long way to go before they are ready to take their place back at the NFL’s top table. Nonetheless, Indianapolis has shown vast improvement in a relatively short time frame, and appear to have a bright future led by talented rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.
Buffalo’s season has been nearly an exact opposite of that of Indianapolis. Picked by many as a potential Wild Card team before the season began, the Bills have greatly underachieved on nearly every level. Though they have struggled through the first half against a difficult schedule, the Bills are still in the playoff hunt due in no small part to the aforementioned weakness of the AFC. Buffalo will need significantly improved play from their $59 Million man, Ryan Fitzpatrick, if they hope to earn a playoff spot. To say the least, Fitzpatrick has not earned that contract extension with his play this year. He is currently PFF’s third-lowest rated QB (78.86), better than only Mark Sanchez and Brandon Weeden.
Bills Defensive Line vs. Colts Offensive Line
The Bills’ highly-paid defensive line was expected to dominate opposing offensive lines, and carry the Buffalo defense. Over the first half of the season, however, the unit failed to live up to those lofty expectations, both in the run defense and pass rush departments. Though the Bills’ defense still ranks 31st in the NFL for rushing yards allowed, the defensive line seems to have turned a corner in recent weeks, particularly in terms of pass rushing. Don’t blame DT Kyle Williams for the line’s mediocrity, though — Williams has turned in another banner season both against the run and the pass, and his Pass Rushing Productivity (8.4) ranks third among qualifying tackles. Meanwhile, DE Kyle Moore has been outstanding since replacing the injured Mark Anderson. His PRP of 12.6 trails only star pass rushers Charles Johnson and Cameron Wake among 4-3 DE’s who have rushed the passer at least 100 times this season.
Indianapolis’ offensive line has been sub-standard in 2012. Though they did a better job last week defending Luck against a middling Patriots pass rush, the unit still ranks 26th in the NFL in Pass Blocking Efficiency (77.1). LT Anthony Castonzo has been the biggest culprit, surrendering 40 combined pressures for a poor PBE of 93.1 (50th among qualifying tackles). On the other side of the line, RT Winston Justice has been a pleasant surprise for the Colts. The former Eagle has yet to allow a sack, and his PBE of 96.1 is good for 16th best among tackles. Justice will be tasked with neutralizing DE Mario Williams on Sunday, who has rebounded from a disappointing start by performing well over the past month or so.
CJ Spiller vs. Colts Front Seven
Despite running behind pedestrian run blocking for most of the year, HB CJ Spiller has submitted one of the most impressive seasons in recent memory. He leads all running backs with 4.03 Yards after Contact per Attempt, and a ridiculous Elusive Rating of 115.1. His Breakaway Percentage (40.4) is third-best among HB’s, proving that Spiller is a threat to break a big run with every touch. Spiller has carried the ball only 109 times due to an early-season injury and splitting time with HB Fred Jackson, but Spiller’s play in 2012 has been All-Pro caliber.
Even during Peyton Manning’s heyday in blue and white, the Colts’ run defense was their Achilles heel. The defense was built to protect a lead by rushing the passer, and favored speed over size. While new coach Chuck Pagano’s scheme should help to make the unit more stout against the run, the team has not yet replaced many of the holdovers from the Dungy/Caldwell regimes. NT Antonio Johnson has been particularly poor, recording a cumulative run defense grade of -7.8. However, the Colts appear to have a player to build around in LB Kavell Conner, who has been far and away their best player against the run. Look no further than his Run Stop Percentage of 16.8, best among all inside linebackers.
Andrew Luck vs. Jairus Byrd
Andrew Luck has played admirably this season, given the near total lack of offensive talent that surrounds him in Indianapolis. WR Reggie Wayne is, as ever, the main focus for opposing defenses when playing the Colts but that doesn’t stop Luck feeding him the ball — Wayne leads the NFL in targets by 14, with 119. Given the difficult circumstances that often come with being the first overall draft pick and joining the worst team from the previous season, the Stanford product has done a fine job. Though he ranks among the league leaders in interceptions, Luck has recorded a respectable PFF QB Rating of 85.35. Luck’s skill as a runner should not be overlooked either. While Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton get more media acclaim as dual threat QB’s, Luck has shown, with his five touchdowns, that he is an efficient and dangerous runner when plays break down and teams cannot devote attention solely to his ability with the ball in hand.
Jairus Byrd is PFF’s highest-graded safety in coverage (+15.4), and it is not even close. He continues to display the playmaking ability that earned him a Pro Bowl spot as a rookie, with four interceptions in 2012. Teams have learned not to throw in his direction very often, as his 28.3 Coverage Snaps per Target proves. Byrd has yet to surrender a touchdown, and his impressive 0.34 Yards per Coverage Snap shows that opposing QB’s aren’t picking up much in the way of yardage even when throwing at him. Luck threw three ugly interceptions against New England last week, and Byrd will be there to capitalize on his errors this Sunday unless Luck demonstrates improved decision making and accuracy.