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Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

GAME PLAN: The Colts would like to avoid just trading scores with the Bengals, but it might come down to who has the ball last. That is, if the Colts can get some defensive stops. Ball possession is key for the home team. The Colts must win time of possession to keep its young, bend-but-don’t-break defense rested and off the field as much as possible. But to secure that advantage, the Colts’ offense has to do more than just rely on Andrew Luck to throw the ball. If the run game is inconsistent, look for an array of short passes to backs out of the backfield to get shifty, young players out in space. The offensive blueprint advertised with Frank Reich’s arrival was predicated on quick-hit plays. The Colts will need a lot of them to have a chance on Sunday.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Bengals LDE Carlos Dunlap, who has 64.5 sacks in eight seasons, vs. whomever the Colts start at right tackle. Seriously, the Colts might handle this by committee because nobody really emerged in preseason. This much is certain, Dunlap can wreck a game. Lest anyone forget, he decided last year’s meeting in Cincinnati with a 16-yard TD interception return. And he’s eager to provide dividends after being rewarded with a three-year, $45 million contract extension last week.

–Bengals WR A.J. Green, selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his seven seasons, vs. Colts CB Pierre Desir, who is on his fourth team in five years. Seriously, the Colts can’t leave Desir out on an island with Green. While double coverage with a safety over top is going to be necessary, Green presents further matchup problems because he moves around to the left side and slot. So defenders will be constantly adjusting to his positioning pre-snap.

–Colts WR T.Y. Hilton, one of the NFL’s elite deep threats with a career 15.8-yard average per catch, vs. Bengals CB William Jackson, a former first-round pick who is looking to become a full-time starter for the first time. Hilton is a four-time Pro Bowl star with 34 career TDs in six seasons, but his numbers dropped without Luck. He’ll be looking to reassert himself against a young cornerback who has been touted as one of the league’s most promising shutdown cover guys.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Andrew Luck. Backup – Jacoby Brissett.

The only question about Luck is whether he will return after a 20-month absence to his previous three-time Pro Bowl form. He was a bit rusty in three preseason appearances, leading the first-team offense to its only TD in its final series of the third game. But he asserts his surgically repaired right shoulder is as strong as before the procedure, and the velocity on his throws supports that. Perhaps timing and accuracy are just a matter of getting enough snaps. Brissett was such a capable fill-in last season, the Colts turned down trade offers for him in the preseason. Should Luck’s injury issues resurface, Brissett did complete 276 of 469 passes for 3,098 yards with 13 TDs and just seven INTs. He also ran for four scores.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter – Marlon Mack. Backups – Jordan Wilkins, Nyheim Hines, Christine Michael, Robert Turbin (SUS).

Turbin will miss the first four games of the regular season as he serves a league-mandated PED suspension. Mack was set to take over in his second season after showing a strong burst in 14 games as a rookie reserve, but he missed much of the preseason with a hamstring injury suffered in the opener. If Mack isn’t ready for Sunday, expect Wilkins to get the starting nod after the rookie rushed for 75 yards in exhibitions. Michael led the team with 83 yards in his return after missing all of last season with a leg injury. Hines has been used primarily as a returner and has been inconsistent at best with some muffed catches and bobbles.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Jack Doyle. Backups – Eric Ebron, Erik Swoope, Ryan Hewitt.

Doyle’s progression earned him his first Pro Bowl nod last season. A former undrafted signee by the Titans in 2013, the Indianapolis native has returned home and become a fixture at the position. Doyle hauled in 80 passes for 690 yards and four touchdowns. The addition of Ebron as a veteran free-agent signing from Detroit should give the Colts offense some much needed flexibility. He will line up at tight end, H-Back and sometimes as a receiver, and is expected to use his athleticism to stretch the field more than Doyle, who is more of a short-range possession option. Swoope is coming off a season-ending knee injury after playing well in 2016.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – T.Y. Hilton, Ryan Grant. Backups – Marcus Johnson, Zach Pascal, Chester Rogers.

Although Hilton’s numbers dropped without Luck last year, the four-time Pro Bowl star is still one of the league’s best big-play receivers. He caught 57 passes for 966 yards and four touchdowns in 2017. Grant, a veteran free-agent addition from Washington, edged Rogers for the No. 2 slot despite registering a lone 17-yard catch in preseason. Rogers had five catches for 71 yards. Both had drops, so expect the Colts to shuffle them interchangeably, hoping one emerges as a definitive No. 2. Johnson was acquired from Seattle last week and is reunited with new Colts head coach Frank Reich, for whom he played sparingly in Philadelphia last season when Reich was offensive coordinator. Pascal, undrafted in 2017 and claimed off waivers in June, had a solid preseason with six catches for 91 yards and two TDs to earn a roster spot.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Matt Slauson, RT Joe Haeg. Backups – G/T Le’Raven Clark, G Mark Glowinski, G/T Denzelle Good, G/T Braden Smith, T J’Marcus Webb.

On paper, the Colts could have their best offensive line group since the Jeff Saturday-led group from the mid-2000s. Castonzo, Nelson, and Kelly were all first-round draft choices. Castonzo missed the preseason with a hamstring injury, but is confident he will be ready for Week 1. Slauson was a veteran free-agent addition from the Chargers. Who starts at right tackle is the question. Haeg got a long look and is versatile, capable of playing all three offensive line positions although he’s a natural guard. Good was thought to be an option, but suffered a knee injury in the third preseason game and is listed as week-to-week, which means he’ll need time. Smith, a second-round pick, also got his share of snaps in trying to convert from his natural guard position.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LDE Kemoko Turay, NT Al Woods, DT Denico Autry, RDE Jabaal Sheard. Backups – DE Tarell Basham, DE Margus Hunt, DE Al-Quadin Muhammad, T Hassan Ridgeway, T Grover Stewart, DE Tyquan Lewis (IR/could return later in season).

Sheard converts from a 3-4 outside linebacker, where he had a team-high 5.5 sacks. Woods returns for his second season but will be counted upon more as a run stuffer since Johnathan Hankins was released because he didn’t fit the scheme. Autry, signed as a free agent to a three-year, $17.8 million contract, had 10.5 sacks in four seasons with Oakland, including five last year. The rookie Turay, a second-round pick, is raw but expected to start. That said, expect to see the veteran Hunt get snaps outside. Ridgeway led the team with four sacks in preseason. Lewis, another second-round pick selected for his pass-rushing skills, has a toe injury and it remains to be seen if the Colts will be able to bring him back from IR after eight weeks. Basham, a third-round pick in 2017, was underwhelming at times in preseason and like Turay still has a lot to learn.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – OLB Najee Goode, MLB Anthony Walker, OLB Darius Leonard. Backups – OLB Matthew Adams, OLB Zaire Franklin, MLB Skai Moore.

Goode and Walker are the only linebackers with starting experience and will set the tone for the younger players. Goode played 16 games with three starts in winning a Super Bowl ring with the Eagles last year. Walker, a fifth-round pick in 2017, appeared in 10 games with two starts as a rookie. But he’s been slowed by a groin injury. The coaches are high on Leonard, a second-round pick who has shown promising skills in playing fast and running to the ball. The undrafted Moore also impressed enough to earn a roster spot. Franklin, a seventh-round pick, also figures to get his share of snaps as the Colts look to play young players and hopefully speed up the learning curve.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – CB Pierre Desir, S Malik Hooker, S Clayton Geathers, CB Kenny Moore II. Backups – S Matthias Farley, CB Nate Hairston, CB Chris Milton, S Corey Moore, CB Quincy Wilson, S George Odum.

Desir started four games last season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. That’s a consistent theme here, considering both Hooker and Geathers had knee injuries, too. Hooker, a first-round pick, stands out as a playmaker on a unit in need of more. Kenny Moore got most of the snaps at cornerback on the other side, but expect Wilson, Milton and Hairston to get snaps, too. Farley started 15 games and made 98 tackles last season. He will rotate in for Hooker and Geathers. Odum made the team as an undrafted free agent. Corey Moore, claimed off waivers on Sunday, started 11 games in three seasons with Houston.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Adam Vinatieri, P Rigoberto Sanchez, LS Luke Rhodes, KR Nyheim Hines, PR Chester Rogers.

Vinatieri remains one of the most prolific kickers in league history. He connected on 29-of-34 field-goal attempts last season, including going 5-of-6 from 50 yards. The NFL’s oldest player at 45 signed a one-year contract to return. Sanchez had a strong rookie season, averaging 44.8 yards on 84 punts. He also capably handled kickoff duties with 46 touchbacks. If Hines continues to have issues catching the ball, expect Rogers to handle both. Rogers averaged 8.0 yards per punt return on 10 chances in 2017.

PRACTICE SQUAD: TE Mo Alie-Cox, G Jamil Douglas, WR Reece Fountain, WR Steve Ishmael, RB Jeremy McNichols, DE Carroll Phillips, QB Phillip Walker, LB Ahmad Thomas, DT Jihad Ward, CB D.J. White.