3TFO: Colts at Chiefs, Week 16
Win and they’re in. This concept probably felt very foreign to Colts fans after the 2011 season, but Andrew Luck has changed a lot of things in Indy. With the Colts (9-5), Bengals (8-6) and Steelers (7-7) the only teams really in the running for the last two AFC wild-card spots, Indianapolis has to feel good about their chances of making it back to the playoffs. After a 2-14 season, a lot of people wrote them off as a rebuilding team. Even I called the Colts’ Super Bowl aspirations unrealistic in my Week 1 preview of their matchup against the Bears. They surprised everybody, though, with their ability to win close games, and there is no reason to think that ability will go away this weekend.
While Indianapolis has turned things around since 2011, Kansas City is languishing in a very similar position to last year’s Colts team. The Chiefs have only two wins and are likely to win tiebreakers over the Jaguars for the first overall pick if they lose their last two contests. Poor play from the quarterback position has spoiled their solid running game and made it impossible for them to legitimately compete. Unfortunately for Kansas City, there is no Luck waiting for them at the top of the draft. Brady Quinn is starting at quarterback this Sunday, but if the result is anything like last week we may see Ricky Stanzi get his first snaps as a professional.
In a game that means everything to one team and very little to the other, here are the three biggest things to focus on.
Brady Quinn vs. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis
Last week made it clear that Quinn isn’t going to win games all by himself. The Raiders knew this and executed perfectly by keeping plays in front of them and making Quinn look to the middle of the field. The Raiders let Quinn have all the checkdowns and short routes he wanted, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to consistently make every throw. This led to 15 of his 18 completions coming in the middle of the field, and 16 of his 18 completions coming within 10 yards. Without Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs have no receiver Quinn trusts to get consistently open on short and intermediate routes.
If the Colts are going to replicate this success, they have to get pressure. The transition to a 3-4 hasn’t gone as smoothly as they had hoped for pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Both have struggled to return to the form that saw them top our 4-3 defensive end rankings in 2009. This year, Mathis and Freeney are eighth and 13th among 3-4 outside linebackers in Pass Rushing Productivity. The down linemen haven’t done much either for the Colts and the team is 21st in PFF’s overall pass-rushing grade. The best chance the Colts have is Freeney going up against left tackle Donald Stephenson, who has been a liability in pass protection since replacing Branden Albert, and has a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 91.1.
Andrew Luck vs. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston
Luck has struggled this season when facing pressure. That is not uncommon, especially for a young quarterback. What is uncommon is how mightily he has struggled and how frequently he faces pressure. Luck has faced pressure on 247 drop-backs, the most in the league by 41. Even though he has succeeded by not turning those pressures into sacks (15% sack rate), he has thrown the most picks under pressure (8) and has the 24th-best completion percentage under pressure. Last week he faced pressure on 19 of his 34 drop-backs. On those plays he did manage two touchdowns, but he completed only four passes and the offense sputtered.
The good news for the Colts is they know exactly where the pressure will be coming from against the Chiefs, who also have received no pass rush from their down linemen. All their down linemen have combined for five sacks, seven hits, and 16 hurries for the season (for comparison, J.J. Watt bested the sack total by Week 3, the hit total by Week 9 and the hurry total by Week 12). The Chiefs’ pass rush comes from Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, which is why getting Winston Justice back will be big for the Colts, if he can go this weekend. Houston is fourth among 3-4 outside linebackers in Pass Rushing Productivity and rushes mainly from the left side. Even though Justice’s Pass Blocking Efficiency is a little above average at 94.3, he is considerably better in pass protection than his replacement, Jeff Linkenbach. Linkenbach’s Pass Blocking Efficiency is a lowly 89.8, third-lowest among tackles with 100 pass-blocking snaps.
Chiefs’ Offensive Line vs. Colts’ Defensive Line
The strength of the Kansas City offensive line is on the right side, and they will need to utilize that to beat the Colts. The Chiefs are averaging 4.8 yards per carry on 198 carries running right of center, and 4.3 yards per carry on 190 carries running left. This should be no surprise as Eric Winston and Jon Asamoah have been starting all year, whereas Stephenson and left guard Jeff Allen have filled in as backups for most of the season.
There are a few reasons that running to the middle right is so important for the Chiefs. On all runs inside the tackle to the right side, the Chiefs are averaging 5.4 yards per carry. When the Chiefs only utilized those gaps five times last week against the Raiders, we saw what happened. The Colts’ defense also is weakest against the run there. Left end Cory Redding and nose tackle Antonio Johnson have run grades of -4.5 and -4.9 respectively. If the Chiefs have a chance in this game, it is going to come on the ground, and the best chance they have to do that is on the right side.
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