Let's get to know more about the Indianapolis Colts, the New York Giants' opponent on Monday night at MetLife Stadium. How? With our weekly 'Five Questions' segment, this time feature Josh Wilson of SB Nation's Colts web site, Stampede Blue.
Ed: What is the Indy defense? How do you explain shutting out Cincinnati one week and then giving up 51 points the next week?
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Josh: There's that old adage about how you're never as good as your best game and you're never as bad as your worst game. For the Colts' defense, those two games came in back-to-back weeks. They shut out and completely dominated the Bengals offense and the next week got completely dominated by the Steelers offense as they racked up 51 points and 639 total yards. So what is the Indy defense? It's somewhere in-between those two games. During the team's five game winning streak the defense was a big strength, and a big reason for that was thanks to a surprisingly effective pass rush (surprising after losing Robert Mathis for the year and not having a star rusher). The Colts entered this past Sunday third in the league in sacks, yet on Sunday they couldn't get any pressure - that was the most glaring weakness the defense had against Pittsburgh. Basically, that showed us what we already knew - that the pass rush was manufactured. Head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky did a great job in the five-game win streak at dialing up blitzes that worked, yet on Sunday the Steelers went to max-protect formations and the veteran Ben Roethlisberger had an easier time diagnosing the blitzes than the other quarterbacks the Colts faced during the win-streak. Additionally, the Colts' defense thrives on their cornerbacks, which also compounded to the embarrassment last week when Vontae Davis, who has been playing at a highly elite level this year, went out early in the first quarter with an injury. Ultimately, here's what the Colts defense is: a defense that has overachieved this year and that is capable of playing well enough to win games but that won't do so consistently and against veteran quarterbacks and teams with smart game plans. That's when the pass rush will likely break down and become the ineffective unit we all feared it would be entering the season and that's when the Colts will have trouble defensively. I still think it's the best unit the Colts have had defensively in several years, but it's clearly not great and there are issues.
Ed: We know all about Ahmad Bradshaw's toughness, not to mention his ability. What are your thoughts on Bradshaw? No way the Colts could have expected him to give them this much.
Josh: There's so much to love about Ahmad Bradshaw. He's easily the best running back the Colts have and one of the more important parts of their offense this year. He leads the Colts in rushing yards (371), runs of 20+ yards (3), is tied for the most rushing touchdowns on the team (2), is tied for the most rushing first downs (16), is fourth on the team in receiving yards (264), is third on the team in receptions (31), and is tied for the most receiving touchdowns on the team (6). In fact, the NFL record for most receiving touchdowns in a season by a running back is nine, and Bradshaw is only three away from tying that mark halfway through the season. To say he has been important to the offense is a huge understatement, and he's a dynamic play-maker who is a great fit for the passing offense the Colts should run. He excels in all three areas - running, receiving, and blocking, and I don't think it's a stretch at all to say he's the most complete running back in the league this year (combining all three phases). And you're right about not expecting him to do this much - we saw last year that he was the best running back the Colts had, but right after his best rushing performance of the year (and the best for a Colts back all season long) in week three, Bradshaw was lost for the season with a neck injury. Any time you're dealing with a neck injury it's concerning, and Colts fans know all too well how bad neck injuries can really be. So there was concern and some didn't know whether he'd be able to come back healthy. He has and looks tremendous, and at this point it would be an absolutely crushing blow if he was injured. The Colts are helping keep him fresh with their two running back approach, so hopefully he can play the whole year - because he has become a crucial part of the offense.
Ed: What do you make of Hakeem Nicks? He seems like just about the last guy on the list when it comes to Colts receiving options.
Josh: Put quite simply, I don't think Hakeem Nicks should get much playing time and I do expect his time to decrease as the season goes on. He has been thrown to the third most of any receiver on the team but he's tied for only the sixth most receptions on the team and is eighth on the Colts in receiving yards (though he has caught two touchdown passes). He has two big negatives to his game that make playing him risky and often detrimental to the offense: he struggles to create separation and he has absolutely no timing with Andrew Luck. I'm not going to speculate as to why the latter is, but it's incredibly obvious. Take last week, for example, with Nicks playing as the number two wide receiver with Reggie Wayne out. Andrew Luck threw a pick-six on a play that he deservedly has gotten the blame for, but if you look at the tape he made the right read - he threw the pass anticipating for Nicks to come back and get the football. Nicks didn't, but the corner did. Additionally, the corner, William Gay, read Nicks like a book and didn't really respect the threat Nicks presented to do something like go deep. That's just one play but an easy example of many others that we've seen - that Luck has no timing with Nicks. Last week (and all season) the rookie Donte Moncrief clearly outplayed him and I think the playing time should continue to give Moncrief more snaps. When the Colts signed Nicks to a low-risk one-year deal they were hoping he could get back to the Nicks of old. What we've seen this year has no resemblance to that Nicks whatsoever, and that's unfortunate.
Ed: If you could take one player off the Giants roster and put him in the Indianapolis lineup, who would it be? Why?
Josh: That's a good question. Considering what we saw last week, I'm going to the defensive side of the ball. The Giants run a 4-3 defense while the Colts play a 3-4, which makes for some adjustment, but I'd take Jason Pierre Paul. I think that he's athletic enough that he could make the transition (with some work, of course). Ultimately, that's what the Colts took on in Bjoern Werner as a pass rusher too. JPP is a terrific run defender who has plenty of pass rush skill as well. The Colts desperately need a pass rusher, and furthermore they could sure use help against the run too. JPP would provide a valuable piece for the defense. There's always that risk when going between the two defensive systems, but with JPP I feel like his talent is enough to make him my choice for which Giants player I'd want on the Colts.
Ed: If the Giants are going to pull the upset Monday night, what are the key things they will have to accomplish?
Josh: I'll simplify it down to this one main point: win the battle in the trenches. That's exactly what the Steelers did last week and it worked. Pittsburgh placed a high emphasis on protecting Roethlisberger and allowing their veteran quarterback to beat the defense. Whether it was bringing in additional players to pass protect, etc., the Steelers kept Roethlisberger absolutely clean all day and he picked the Colts apart. The Giants also have a veteran quarterback in Eli Manning who is also capable of playing at a very high level, so for the Giants the biggest thing they need to emphasize is keeping Eli clean and giving him enough time against the Colts' multiple blitzes. As for the other side of the ball, get pressure on Andrew Luck. The Steelers did that as well as anyone in Luck's short career to date, and here's the thing: he still threw for 400 yards and three scores and almost led a comeback, guiding the Colts' offense to 34 points despite getting hit nearly every play. Ultimately, however, that's the best chance you have of stopping the Colts - getting to Luck. If the Giants win this game, it will be because of them winning the battle in the trenches - keeping Eli Manning upright and Andrew Luck on the ground. Both are possible to do with good game plans and good execution.