Heading into 2013, we know the Indianapolis Colts are a team on the rise. They proved that last year, going 11-5 and making the playoffs in Year One of the Andrew Luck era. Still, we know that there are still too many issues that could plague the young team’s chances at a repeat performance in 2013. Here are the top 5 things Colts fans need to keep their eyes on heading into the preseason.
1. Will the reconstructed offensive line be able to protect Andrew Luck?
This is arguably the biggest question for the offense in 2013. The restructured offensive line is likely to feature only 1 player who started all 16 games last – that being starting LT Anthony Castonzo. The remaining spots will be in flux. Free-agent signee Gosder Cherilus will man the RT spot, replacing last year’s man Winston Justice. Donald Thomas, brought in from New England, should feature in one of the starting guard spots – most likely LG. The RG position could be taken by either Mike McGlynn or 2013 4th round draft pick Hugh Thornton. And last year’s starting center, Samson Satele, may not be safe either if rookie Khaled Holmes can make some noise in training camp and pre-season.
Keeping Luck’s jersey clean will be a major factor in how much – if any – the 2013 Colts can improve from the 2012 version. Last year, the Colts o-line gave up 41 sacks and 55 QB hits – something that must NEVER be allowed to happen again if Indy wants Luck around for an extended period of time.
2. Who will the main running backs be?
With the recent news that free-agent signee Ahmad Bradshaw has been placed on the PUP list, the running back position becomes even more crucial. We saw some definite flashes last year from Vick Ballard, finishing 2012 with 814 yards on 211 carries (3.9 average), but he was only able to puncture the end zone twice. By comparison, Luck scored 5 times one the ground. Former first round pick Donald Brown has been a disappointment, and Delone Carter can’t seem to earn favor from the coaches after having fumbling issues the past two seasons. Finally, 7th round draftee Kerwynn Williams will see some playing time, but mainly on special teams.
My initial expectation, especially now that Bradshaw is out for a while, is that Ballard and Brown will continue to split first team reps during training camp and pre-season. If Bradshaw can get healthy in time for the last pre-season game or the first week of regular season play, the Colts will cut ties with Brown for good.
3. How will Andrew Luck play in Pep Hamilton’s offense?
When the Colts hired Pep as their new OC following Bruce Arians’ departure, the initial reports were that his offense would be a version of the West Coast offense, featuring shorter, more accurate throws and a bigger emphasis on the power run game. That scared away some fans, since Andrew Luck led the league last year in passing attempts of 20+ yards. Even though the Colts are running the West Coast as their foundation as Stampede Blue says here, I wouldn’t expect the Colts to reel Luck in too much after all the success he had last year. Remember, a lot of those incompletions last year can be attributed to a combination of a rookie learning curve, poor pass protection, and dropped passes (*cough*Donnie Avery*cough*). With one full year in the NFL done and (hopefully) better protection, we may still see Indy lighting it up deep down the field.
4. Were the upgrades on defense enough?
Rookie OLB Bjoern Werner takes over for Dwight Freeney. LaRon Landry replaces starting safety Tom Zbikowski. Greg Toler will likely replace Jerraud Powers at corner. NT Aubrayo Franklin and DT Ricky Jean Francois should get plenty of time on the defensive line with Antonio Johnson now in Tennessee. That’s a lot of turnover for a unit that ranked at or near the bottom in almost every defensive category last year. I think it’s safe to say that these are all upgrades on the previous players. But, how much of an upgrade? Landry should excel in the defensive backfield as he will be in a system similar to what the Jets ran last year. Toler needs to stay healthy, but would be a definite boost over Cassius Vaughan or Darius Butler. The jury is obviously still out on Werner, but by all reports so far, the coaching staff loves what this guy brings. Franklin and Jean Francois are players at opposite ends of the career spectrum: Franklin is likely nearly done, and Jean Francois is getting his first legitimate chance at regular playing time. The unit will be improved, but don’t expect a stifling, dangerous defense. A lot of these guys wouldn’t be starting on other teams (especially the defensive line), so the Colts still have plenty of work to do. The one X-factor in all of this is last year’s fifth round pick Josh Chapman. He was never able to get on the field last year due to an Achilles’ injury suffered in college (which why the Alabama product lasted until round 5), so we’re not sure what exactly the Colts have in him.
5. How will the Colts respond to a tougher schedule?
First things first: The Strength of Schedule is a poor tool to analyze how difficult a path to the playoffs will be for a team. That’s because so many things change from year to year that basing a team’s playoff chances solely based on how their opponents finished last year is an exercise in idiocy. That being said, though, it’s one of the only things we have to base our opinions on. Last year, the Colts’ opponents had an overall W/L record of 93-115 (.445). That included games against just 4 playoff participants (MIN, GB, NE, and HOU). Those games contained all but one other game against an opponent with a record of .500 or better (the other being Chicago). The Colts split those games evenly, going 3-3. The remaining 10 games were all against teams with a record of .500 or worse, going 8-2. This tells us two things. First, the Colts were able to beat the teams they should have beaten. Second, some of their success from 2012 could be attributed to playing weaker teams.
2013 will be a different story for the Colts, though. Yes, their SOS this season sits at 30th (.461), but that comes with 7 games against teams that were in the playoffs a year ago: San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Houston (twice), and Cincinnati. That also comes with teams who added a lot of firepower or should be greatly improved in 2013: Miami, Tennessee (again, twice), and San Diego. That’s a full 10 games out of 16 that could be a great challenge, and may attribute to a slight decline in win-loss ratio for Indy.
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