There will be a big showdown in Buffalo on Sunday when the Indianapolis Colts come to town to face the Buffalo Bills. Last season when these two teams met it was in the AFC Wild Card round. This year, however, it seems the matchup will determine who is on the fast track to making the playoffs in 2021. The Bills are battling with the New England Patriots for the division while the Colts are fighting for a Wild Card birth. To preview the game we talked to Chris Blystone from Stampede Blue.
1) Carson Wentz has been up and down this season. How would you rate his play so far with the Colts?
This is a tough question, and the answers you’ll get vary from Colts fan to Colts fan. I will start by confessing that I was not a fan of the move to trade for Carson Wentz, and I still find myself uncomfortable with the loss of a first round pick to obtain him. However, with that aside, there are several things to note.
First, Wentz has some remarkable gifts. His arm strength, mobility, and toughness have absolutely been on display this season. He throws a fantastic deep ball, and has hit some big plays downfield when presented with the opportunity. He and Michael Pittman Jr. have made a real connection, and the Colts are one of the best at drawing pass interference on deep balls as well. There is no doubt that explosive plays are more a reality for this Colts team than they were last season with Philip Rivers under center.
Having said that, there are still some concerns with Wentz. He struggles with the short and intermediate passing game. It is clear that his preference is to throw deep, and when those routes aren’t open, he can struggle. It takes some time to work through his progressions, and he love to hold the ball too long. There have been two very consistent issues that have surfaced in his time with Indy so far. The first is that he often doesn’t reset his feet when moving off his primary read, which can result in sailing the ball over the head of his target. The second is that he will not take a sack. While that sounds like a good thing, it often results in very inadvisable attempts to avoid a sack. He has thrown several shovel passes while essentially in the grasp, and a couple have even been left handed.
Personally, I think Wentz is a slightly above average quarterback at the NFL level. If he has good talent around him, he can help a team win games. The Colts have not fared well against top competition this season, and a big key to know what they’ve got in Wentz is how he plays against the Bills this weekend and the Bucs next weekend. If he wilts against playoff teams, he is likely going to be an overpriced stopgap.
2) A case can be made that Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines are the best 1-2 combo in the league. How do they complement each other so well?
They truly are an incredible duo. Jonathan Taylor has really seen his production go through the roof as the offensive line has gotten healthier and found some cohesion. Once they began hitting their combo blocks, he really started racking up bigtime yards. He has the kind of patience and breakaway speed that you often only see in video games. As running backs coach Scottie Montgomery said on the first episode of Hard Knocks, Taylor is a threat to score a touchdown every time the ball is in his hands, and that isn’t an exaggeration. He is an underrated pass catcher, and some of his most impressive plays have been on dump offs into the flat.
Hines is the guy that often gets forgotten because of all the success of Taylor between the tackles. The reality is that he is such a good counterpunch because he might actually be the faster of the two players, though his speed is more straight line and less lateral. He is a surprisingly tough back who doesn’t shy away from contact, and what makes him the ideal player is that he has great route running and hands. The versatility that Hines offers can really strain defenses because he creates a serious matchup issue.
3) As the playoff race starts to heat up, where would you like to see the team improve on most?
Entering the season, the biggest weakness on the roster was in the secondary. Since that time, they’ve lost both starting safeties to injuries. Khari Willis should be able to return before the season’s end, but promising second year safety Julian Blackmon ruptured his Achilles and is out for the season. In addition, veteran starter Xavier Rhodes has been hurt all season and looked a step slow because of it. With three key pieces in the secondary struggling, it has been a position of liability for them.
With no real prospect of dramatically improving those positions, the area the team most needs to improve is in its pass rush. The Colts rank 28th in adjusted sack rate and are tied for last in hurries. The good news is that they’ve got some developing players in that regard. Rookie defensive end Kwity Paye has turned a corner and begun to generate consistent pressure over the past 3 games, getting home for his first NFL sack last week. Rookie defensive lineman Dayo Odeyingbo made his debut a couple games back after suffering an Achilles tear in December of last year, and notched a sack fumble last week as well. DeForest Buckner leads the team in sacks and QB hits with 4.5 and 11 respectively. If they can get some added pressure from their young players, perhaps they can do enough to lighten the strain on their beaten up secondary.
4) What changes do you expect to be made in this matchup with the Bills following last season’s playoff game?
I expect the Colts to try to pull heavily from the blueprint that kept them in that game. They will attempt to get a fast start and keep the ball in the hands of their offensive playmakers like Michael Pittman Jr. and Jonathan Taylor. On defense they’ll try to eliminate the big play and make the Bills move methodically down the field, which will give them more opportunities to create turnovers, which the Colts have been excellent at, falling behind only the Bills.
Much of this will be contingent upon the performance of the defensive line. If the Colts can get consistent pressure on Josh Allen, perhaps they’ll see a version of the Bills offense that looks more like what Jacksonville was able to force. If, as they have frequently done this season, they are unable to routinely affect the passer, they could be in for a long day.
5) Prediction and difference maker?
This Colts team has been painfully inconsistent in 2021. They’ve drubbed bad teams and hung in with good ones just enough to make the losses to them as painful as possible. They could easily have 6-7 wins instead of their 5, because they were in position to do so. They don’t because when they were faced with top level passers or talented defenses, they could not find the answers needed to pull out wins.
For that reason, I am not optimistic about their chances against the Bills. The Bills are well coached, have a ridiculous talent in Josh Allen, and have been playing excellent defense in 2021. The Colts haven’t proven that they have the necessary talent to take on a team of that caliber for 4 quarters and win. It would not surprise me at all to see them make a game of it, because they have a lot of the pieces in place and Frank Reich is a very good head coach, but I just don’t have confidence that they can play the Bills for a full 60 minutes the way they need to in order to get a win.
If there is a difference maker who could take the game over, it really comes down to two guys. Jonathan Taylor can take over the offense with just a couple plays. In 2021 he has had 13 plays of 20 yards or more, including plays of 76, 78, and 83 yards.
On defense, Darius Leonard is a threat to make a game-changing play at any time. This season Leonard has forced 4 fumbles and gotten 2 interceptions. He has become proficient at punching the ball out, and seems to find ways of doing it at critical times in the game.
Unfortunately, while I am always optimistic that the Colts will prove me wrong, I don’t see them getting out of this game with a win. I think they’ll make it a game, and hopefully it’ll be an entertaining one, but my prediction is a 34-27 Bills win.