This Sunday, the Cleveland Browns will travel to Indianapolis for the second straight season to take on the Colts. It will be a battle of rookie quarterbacks when the Browns' Brandon Weeden squares off against the Colts' Andrew Luck. Heading into the game, let's scout the Colts with five key points to take into consideration.
#1 - Going All-In For Andrew Luck: The decision to cut ties with Peyton Manning and banking on Andrew Luck being "the next elite quarterback" in the NFL was a major storyline this offseason. This isn't a pick that can be evaluated fully in its first season. Luck has not shined above and beyond the other quarterbacks in this year's class; even Brandon Weeden is having a comparable season to Luck thus far. Here is an example of when Luck is at his best:
There are a few things to take into consideration with Luck: he is going to throw the ball...a lot. He is averaging 44 pass attempts per game, but he's only completing 55 percent of those attempts. He doesn't look to run first, but he is a mobile quarterback; a few weeks ago against the Jaguars, he had 4 rushes for 50 yards. Luck has also been taking a lot sacks lately. He's been brought down eight times over the past two games. By comparison, Weeden has been sacked twice over his past two games. Luck doesn't possess the type of arm that Weeden does, but when he's at his best, he doesn't really have any glaring weaknesses. Teams that have been able to generate pressure on him have been able to force some poor throws. Here is Luck at his worst:
#2 - Options on the Ground: The Colts' starting running back, Donald Brown, is still recovering from knee surgery. Stepping in as the starter last week was Vick Ballard, a fifth-round draft pick. Last week, Ballard only had 8 carries for 25 yards, but that low production could have been attributed to the Jets blowing them out. With that said, the Colts had been working Ballard in for about five carries per game prior to Brown's injury. On the season, Ballard has 29 carries for 67 yards, a 2.3 average. He only had 3 receptions for 21 yards on the year. With that type of production, you can imagine why the Colts tend to throw the ball 44 times a game. Mike Chappell from the Sporting News said the following in regards to Ballard's production:
Part of the problem was the inability of the offensive line to create much push or space. But on occasion, Ballard was indecisive and slow to the hole.
The Browns have had mixed results against the run. Three weeks ago, they held Ray Rice to 2.7 yards per carry. Two weeks ago, Ahmad Bradshaw exploded for 6.7 yards per carry. Last week, BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 3.9 yards per carry. In their matchup against the Colts, this will be the first time since week one that Ahtyba Rubin, D'Qwell Jackson, and Joe Haden, all good run stoppers, are in the lineup together.
#3 - Picking on the Colts' Run Defense: The Colts made some changes this offseason. In the process of going to a 3-4 defense, they moved former defensive end Dwight Freeney to outside linebacker. Freeney will play against the Browns, but he's still recovering from a high ankle sprain and is not at full strength. When you look at the Colts' defense as a whole, they rank 3rd against the pass and 29th against the run. Giving up 159 yards rushing per game on the ground, teams have made no secret about their intentions to run the football against the Colts.
Even the Jets' Shonn Greene, a guy I'd consider to be one of the least-threatening starting running backs in the league, busted out for 32 carries, 161 yards, and 3 touchdowns against the Colts last week. When Maurice-Jones Drew faced them a few weeks before that, he carried the ball 28 times for 177 yards and 1 touchdown. The Colts might be getting linebacker Pat Angerer back for the first time this year, but they'll still be without linebacker Robert Mathis. Defensive end Cory Redding has been missing practice with a knee injury and may not play. The Colts have already ruled out defensive tackle Fili Moala due to a knee injury.
Also, don't let the Colts' 3rd-ranked pass defense fool you. They are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 63 percent of their passes and have yielded ten passing touchdowns compared to just two interceptions. Quarterbacks are averaging a 104 QB rating against them. If teams choose to pass the ball against the Colts, they aren't going to be shut down.
#4 - Figuring Out Who Covers Reggie Wayne: You would be wrong to assume that cornerback Joe Haden will shadow wide receiver Reggie Wayne for the entire game this Sunday. The Browns acknowledged that Wayne often moves around in the Colts' system, meaning he works a lot from the slot position. Since Haden isn't going to work against the slot receiver, that means Buster Skrine will be the guy seeing plenty of Wayne.
"You got to be patient with [Wayne]," Skrine said. "He's really crafty. Your technique has to be strong. He makes possession catches, but he also makes big plays. You have to respond to him both ways."
Wayne is having a great year with 41 catches for 593 yards and 2 touchdowns in just five games. 30 of his 41 receptions have gone for first downs, and Andrew Luck has had no issues with targeting the veteran receiver as often as possible. After Wayne, Luck's next most targeted receiver is Donnie Avery, who has 21 catches for 258 yards and 1 touchdown. The other receiver who gets into the mix is rookie T.Y. Hilton (11 catches, 196 yards, 1 touchdown). Tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, second- and third-round picks, respectively, also get some looks.
#5 - Special Teams Overview: The Colts are mediocre when it comes to special teams. They rank 23rd in the league on kick returns and 24th in the league on punt returns. On defense, they rank 9th in the league covering punts and 25th in the league covering kickoffs. Their leading special teams tackler this season has been safety Joe Lefeged. Oddly enough, last season, their punter, Pat McAfee, led the team in special teams tackles. I don't know if there is any carryover to this season on special teams, but that couldn't have been a good sign. Last year, Joshua Cribbs had a 43-yard kickoff return and a 52-yard punt return against the Colts. Both returns eventually led to touchdowns for Cleveland, in what ended up being their highest-scoring game of the season. It was the only game all year in which Cleveland scored more than 20 points (they won 27-19).
Lastly, let's end with something I'd love to see one of our defenders have the opportunity to do this Sunday: