The Indianapolis Colts are, arguably, the best team in professional football, sitting 5th overall in the NFL standings with wins over three other “Super Bowl contenders.” More to the point, the Colts have owned the NFC West, decisively stomping out the 49ers at Candlestick and dethroning the Seattle Seahawks in Week 5 for the “upset” victory. The St. Louis Rams, on the other hand, are sporting a 3-6 overall record, and current skidding on a three-game losing streaking following the loss of Sam Bradford. So, how could they possibly win on Sunday?
Sometimes we have to sprinkle a little bit of context onto games to fully understand the current situation for both teams. Since Kellen Clemens took over the reins, the St. Louis have lost twice by one touchdown or less, and have been in a position to win each game on their final drive of the fourth quarter. Conversely, the Colts just watched their best offensive skill player fall prey to the injury bug, and needed a 15-point comeback in the fourth quarter to overtake the ailing Houston Texans, who played without Arian Foster in the lineup and are rolling with their third-string quarterback for the rest of the season.
In fact, aside from the Broncos, the Colts’ schedule has been fairly fortuitous. Their other wins have come against Terrelle Pryor in his first “real” NFL start, San Francisco without a plethora of vital starters (Vernon Davis, Aldon Smith, Michael Crabtree, and an injured Patrick Willis), Jacksonville without Justin Blackmon, Seattle on the road (where they magically change from “contender” to average once they step off the plane), and the Houston Texas, again, without Arian Foster and starting a no-name, third-stringer at quarterback. Moreover, Andrew Luck has completed only 41.8% of his passing attempts since Reggie Wayne went out against Denver, connecting on only 18 out of 43 passes. Even last Sunday, the Colts were sitting in a 12-point hole heading into the fourth quarter, Luck had been sacked four times, hit twice while throwing, had one pass batted at the line, and his receivers had dropped six passes. Trent Richardson is averaging 2.9 yards per carry since being traded, and is averaging only 2.5 over the last two games. Some context…
However, the St. Louis Rams are not without their problems. Their pathetic run defense again reared it’s ugly head against the Tennessee Titans, allowing Chris Johnson to springboard back into relevance in the NFL. There offense has been “effective,” with Zac Stacy making a strong, strong case for Offensive Rookie of the Year, averaging 130 yards per games since Kellen Clemens took over as the starter. However, Clemens has turned the ball over three times, with one leading to the opening score for Seattle and the other essentially ending the Rams “final drive” hopes against Tennessee. Worst of all, Greg Zuerlein has missed both of his field goal attempts in the last two games, missing wide-right on a 50- and 44-yarder that both might have changed that outcome of their respective game.
So, getting to the point, how can St. Louis win on Sunday? Well, the game should boil down to a handful of “key” matchups:
1. T.Y. Hilton vs. Janoris Jenkins
With Reggie Wayne gone, Hilton and Coby Fleener are essentially the only weapons left in the Colt’s offensive arsenal. Last week, Hilton had his way with (primarily) Johnathan Joseph, as well as Brice McCain. Joseph allowed 5 catches for 105 yards, including two late touchdowns, leading to a 112.8 pass rating when targeted in coverage. This week, he’ll face-off against Janoris Jenkins, who is, arguable, one of the top man-to-man cover corners in the NFL, especially against non-“star” players. Even against some of the top talent in the league, Jenkins allowed only one reception against Tennessee, no catches for Dez Bryant, 16 yards against Larry Fitzgerald , and 12 yards against Andre Johnson. With no other viable receivers in the Indianapolis corps, Hilton should get mirrored by Jenkins all game.
2. Anthony Castonzo vs. Robert Quinn
As a pass blocker, Castonzo has been hot-and-cold all season, putting on brilliant performances against top-tier defensive lines, like Miami and San Francisco, but getting rolled over by the Broncos, ‘Hawks, and Raiders. Meanwhile, Robert Quinn’s “worst” graded performance of the season came against the San Francisco 49ers… where he still managed one sack, two hurried throws, and two defensive stops against Joe Staley, the 5th-ranked offensive tackle in the NFL this season. Andrew Luck has been sacked, batted, or hit while throwing on 11 different occasions in the last two weeks. If the Colts’ keep their quarterback on his feet, he can obviously do some incredible damage. If not, this Rams’ secondary has proven they can capitalize on mistakes.
3. Trent Richardson vs. Rams’ Run Defense
Speaking of hot-and-cold, the St. Louis Rams run defense has been boiling-or-frozen all season long. DeMarco Murray, Frank Gore, Chris Johnson, Arian Foster have all had “career days” against the Rams this season. However, St. Louis did stone-wall Maurice Jones-Drew through three quarters, held Marshawn Lynch to 23 rushing yards, kept DeAngelo Williams to 2.7 yards per carry, and knocked Steven Jackson and Co. out of the game on the Falcons opening drive.
Trent Richardson, on the other hand, has been pretty “cold” all season, and is currently ranked 46th out of the 51 running backs in the NFL. He has averaged 4.0 yards per carry or better only once since moving to Indianapolis, and has nearly as many fumbles as touchdowns so far this year. If there is no running threat, Tim Walton has shown some willingness to send James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree on blitz packages, especially if the cornerbacks are holding their own on the outside. However, if Richardson can get going, the Rams will likely move more men into the box, which could things up for Andrew Luck in the passing game.
4. Robert Mathis vs. Jake Long
Robert Mathis is currently ranked as the 4th-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL, Jake Long is ranked as the No.2 overall offensive tackle in the NFL; let the battle begin! While Mathis lines up primarily on the right side of the defense (i.e. Jake Long’s side), his position does allot him the chance to move around and create mismatches. However, 70% of Mathis’ sacks and 62% of his total pressures have come over the left side. His opposition, Jake Long, has allowed only 4 sacks, 2 hits on the quarterback, and 18 total pressures through nine games this season, and ranks 14th among all tackles in Pass Blocking Efficiency. Last week, for a majority of the game, the Tennessee Titans were unable to get pressure on Kellen Clemens and force a mistake… until the end of the game. If Zac Stacy continues to dominate, and Kellen Clemens is able to “manage” the game, the St. Louis Rams offense could finally not lose the game.
Obviously, there are other matchups with will matter in the game (Zac Stacy vs. Colts’ Run Defense, Special Teams vs. Special Teams, etc.). However, whoever can a win a majority of the “key” matchups should come out victorious on Sunday. For the Rams, this would be a “trademark” win, giving the young players that motivation they will likely need to continue to progress this season. For the Colts, it is likely just another game on the schedule, as they continue to make their case for the best team in the AFC.