Game 13 Preview: Indianapolis

In all likelihood, this will be the most unpleasant game of the season to watch. Myriad factors are combining to create a perfect storm.

1. Indianapolis is really good.

A lot of people are seeing this as an evenly matched game– an 8-4 team playing a 7-5 team at home. It’s only one game difference, and the Browns have home field advantage. The weather should benefit them, since the Colts play in a dome.

The Colts are the #1 offense (31.8 points a game) and the Browns have the #9 defense (20.4 points per game). The question is how many points the Browns #22-ranked offense (averaging 21.0 points a game) will do against the Colts’ #18 defense (23.6 points).

I don’t see it that way. The Colts are a game better– and they’ve played a much tougher schedule than the Browns. Indianapolis’s defense is, I think, much stronger than it would appear. Indianapolis is 8-4, but:

  • In the 8 wins, it has allowed 142 points (17.8 per game).
  • In the 4 losses, it has allowed 154 (38.5).

Normally a split like that would mean the defense is erratic. In this case, it’s just a byproduct of the schedule: The four losses came against:

  • New England (who is currently 9-3), by a 42-20 score, The Patriots are third in the NFL in scoring, averaging 31.5 points per game
  • Philadelphia (also 9-3). by a 30-27 score.  Philly is fourth in the NFL, averaging 31.2 points per game.
  • Denver (also 9-3), by 31-27 count. The Broncos are averaging 30.1 points– good for fifth.
  • Pittsburgh (7-5), by a 51-34 score. The Steelers are averaging 26.7 points, which puts them eighth in the NFL.

So the four losses have come to teams in the top 8 in offense. And two of those losses were by less than a touchdown, meaning the game could have gone either way.

There’s no game where you can say “My god, how could the Colts have lost to them?” The loss that seems the worst to Browns fans is the Steelers– but even they put a lot of points on the board.

You’re surprised that the Steelers rank that high in offense. Here’s the shocker. They’re 21st in defense, allowing 24.8 points a game. Pittsburgh has allowed less than 21 points in only three games: Jacksonville (9), Carolina (19) and the Jets (20).

My take: If they play a team that scores a lot of points, they allow a lot. That’s hardly a huge negative.

In their eight wins, the Colts have allowed 17.8 points. Because the AFC North plays the AFC South this year, six of Indy’s eight wins came against teams the Browns have also played in 2014: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, Jacksonville (twice) and Tennessee.The Browns went 2-3 in those games)

If we build a table of common opponents (including the Steelers, whom the Browns have played twice and Indy has played once), you will see that the Colts have both a better record and a wider margin of victory:

Indianapolis Opponent Cleveland
20-13 Baltimore 21-23
27-0 Cincinnati 24-3 (road)
33-28 (road) Houston 7-23
23-3
44-17
(road)
Jacksonville
6-24
(road)
34-51 (road) Pittsburgh 31-10
27-30 (road)
41-17 Tennessee 29-28 (road)
6-1 3-4

Pittsburgh is the only opponent where the Browns (who beat them once and lost by three points on the road) performed better than the Colts (who lost on the road by 17 points).

Also notice the performance of the defenses. In the seven games, the Colts allowed 129 total points; the Browns allowed 141.

Based on that, I see no reason to believe that the Browns’ defense is better than the Colts. As I pointed out in the Falcons Preview (and Tom Reed mentions in passing in his “Is this a great defense or what?” piece), Cleveland has played some genuinely inept quarterbacks (at least, at this stage of their careers)

That’s not to rag on Reed. He’s progressed rapidly, going from a guy who has never covered football to being the Plain Dealer‘s best football writer. The piece is written in a tone that suggests that Reed knows Cleveland’s defense is not as good as it looks… even if he isn’t willing to come out and say it.

Mary Kay Cabot would simply have called them a great defense.

The Colts’ offense was vastly more effective in those games– it scored 222 points , or 31.7 points a game. The Browns scored 145 points– 20.7 a game.

Even if you remove the extra game against the division opponents (Cleveland’s home game against Pittsburgh, Indy’s home game against Jacksonville), the Colts are still ahead:

  • Indianapolis scored 199 and allowed 126– a +/- of 73 points.
  • Cleveland scored 114 points and allowed 131, a +/- of -17.

Or, to put it another way, The Colts are average 31.8 points a game. The Browns’ average (21.2 points) isn’t close to that.

But even if you assume Cleveland will be running at peak efficiency– wit will do as well Sunday as it has in any other game– the Browns still project to lose. Cleveland’s season high in points– 31, in the second game against Pittsburgh– is still lower than the Colts average.

2.  Indianapolis in a young team, still on the way up.

Because the Colts have made the playoffs in 11 of the last 12 years (the only season they’ve missed was 2012, the year Peyton Manning was out with a neck injury), people tend to assume it is the same group of guys who have been going all those years.

It isn’t. The average age of the Colts roster (according to Pro Football Reference, which adjusts for playing time) is 26.3; the team has an average of 3.5 years of experience.

Only two starters on the offense are 30 or older: WR Reggie Wayne (36) and RT Cherilus Gosden (30). Only four defenders are 30 or older: DE Cory Redding (34), SS Mike Adams (33), LB D’Qwell Jackson (31) and FS Laron Landry.

The Browns, as befitting a team that went 4-12 a year ago– are younger. But not by much: 25.7 average age, 2.7 years of experience.

3.  Indianapolis might be on the verge of solving their biggest issue.

The Colts’ biggest problem has been ability to run the ball. Two years ago, they had rookie Vick Ballard and 25-year-old Donald Brown. Ballard missed 15 out of 16 games in 2013, and all of this year Brown has gone down the tubes.

They tried to solve their problems with Trent Richardson, the greatest running back that Mike Holmgren has ever seen (or something). He has led the NFL in excuses, but otherwise been a bust.

During the 2013 season, they acquired Dan Herron from Cincinnati. To say they’ve working him in slowly is an understatement. Last year they gave him 5 carries in 6 games. This year, he got 22 carries in the first 10 games.

But after the 42-20 loss to New England– where Richardson (6 carries for 0, repeat Z-E-R-O yards) and Ahmad Bradshaw (7 carries, 4 yards) combined for 4 yards on 13 carries– they gave Herron a try (Wouldn’t you?)

He’s gotten 20 carries in the last two weeks:

  • 12 carries for 65 yards against Jacksonville (remember how they play run defense?).
  • 8 carries for 88 yards and a score against Washington (not nearly as good, but he averaged 11 yards a carry. Even if you subtract his 49-yard run, he still gained 39 yards on 7 carries (5.6 yards a carry)

Herron also had 7 catches on 7 targets.

He’s facing a defense that is 24th in rushing average (4.4 yards allowed), and is missing a lot of starters. If Herron isn’t a fluke, he could tear up Cleveland.

4.  Cleveland is starting the right quarterback– but not the one the fans want.

There are two excellent reasons to start Brian Hoyer:

A. The team leader– the team’s best player and the one with the longest tenure– said they should. LT Joe Thomas has been here since 2007. He has made the Pro Bowl all 7 seasons– been All-Pro in 4 of the last 5 years. Unless he is found to be killing children and eating their adrenal glands to build his body, he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Thomas has never been suspended for violating league rules (something neither Puff Gordon not Joe Haden can say). He hasn’t missed a snap (putting him one up on Poke Cameron or Alex Mack. He does not sound off about politics or pop culture; he does perform charity work and behave in an entirely admirable way.

And, in the past few years, he’s begun to speak his mind on issues he feels strongly about– exactly what you want a veteran to do. Most of his statements have been opinions, the truth of which can’t be vetted. But his statements of fact have been accurate  Presumably he knows the team well and speaks for many of them

So when Thomas says that starting Johnny Football now sends a message that you’re giving up on the season– which would be bad for the team– a rookie head coach would be crazy not to pay attention to that.

Sometimes a coach should overrule the team leader But not often and not unless he is certain.

B. Indianapolis is likely to win the game Sunday– probably by a lot. The probability that they’ll score 30-40 points– meaning that the Browns will need to score at least four touchdowns to compete– is very high.

There have been quarterbacks who hit the ground running. The best first-game performance is probably Fran Tarkenton, who went 17-23 for 250 yards and 4 TDs (he also ran for a score). in his first start. Bernie Kosar’s first start is more normal– he went 8-19 for 200 yards, a TD and an INT (a 78.4 rating). The Browns won, but there were facing a 5-11 team.

You really want your quarterback of the future to make his first start when:

  • He’s making a start in a playoff race.
  • He’s replacing the quarterback who got you there– has gone 7-5.
  • The quarterback he’d replace is a local boy, and he has a national reputation as a jerk.
  • he’s likely to lose by a blowout score.

I wouldn’t. What happens if he plays a mediocre game and the Colts win 34-10?

If you’re eager to see Johnny Football start, the best scenario is to (a) let Hoyer start, (b) watch Hoyer get crushed by the Colts for three quarters, (c) put Johnny Football in, (d) watch him score another TD in garbage time and then (e) start him next week in a much more winnable game against Cincinnati, saying “Look, we need a spark.”

Hoyer will still be angry, and he won’t re-sign with you. But everybody except the Hoyerites will say “Hey, you gave him a shot and he blew it. You were falling out of the playoff race, and he’s your #1 pick.

But the fans want to win this year, and they want to see Johnny Football, so giving Brian Hoyer another game will infuriate them. Every mistake he makes– every unsuccessful possession– will be greeted with a torrent of boos.

Hopefully Hoyer won’t get a concussion– I really don’t want to hear the idiots in the stands cheer a player injury again.

The Outcome

As I said in the game review of Houston, in order to beat Cleveland, you need the following things:

In order to beat Cleveland, a team simply needs to have the following:

  • A front seven with 2-3 Pro Bowl players, so it can stack the line to stop the run, overwhelm the right side on passing plays, and pressure journeyman QB Brian Hoyer into unforced errors.
  • A secondary strong enough to jam the undersized receivers and keep them from getting a clean break in the deep zone. (Skill in coverage optional.)
  • Tall receivers who can outfight Cleveland’s miniature Dawgs (none of the starters are taller than 5’11”) for passes.
  • A strong-armed quarterback who can throw deep balls, even if he isn’t all that accurate or mobile.
  • Offensive linemen beefy enough to not get beaten immediately– just long enough to let the play develop.

Surprisingly, the Colts don’t score as well on this profile as other teams:

Front Seven: They don’t have a dominating player– a J.J. Watt or Mario Williams. The leader (journeyman LB Erik Walden) has 5 and D’Qwell Jackson (4) is tied for third.

But they’ve collected 34 sacks– sixth in the NFL— and their sack percentage (sacks divided into attempts) is seventh. On the other hand, they’ve allowed opposing QBs a 91.8 rating and 21 TDs and only 9 INTs. That is mostly the byproduct of the four losses– but it’s still high.

Secondary: It wasn;t a great unit last year and it’s gotten weaker. Adams– who was an iffy starter when he played in Cleveland– is small, and so is  CB Greg Toler. Their best starter (CB Vontae Davis) will miss the game; his probable replacement (Darious Butler) is small and slow.

This should be a game where Puff gets 200 yards– the opponent doesn’t have anyone who can stop him. The question will be whether he goes all out and if catchable balls are thrown his way.

If Puff isn’t playing hard, the Browns should sit him down, because Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin can all beat these backs.

Miles Austin, if he weren’t out for the year, would be able to beat these guys. With him out for the year, the Browns will struggle to fill his split end spot.

Receivers: Both Wayne (who can’t match Marvin Harrison’s stats, but might be a better player), ex-Giant Hakeem Nicks and Donte Moncrief (24-33, 16.3 yards per catch) are tall. Nicks has had enormous trouble getting in sync with QB Andrew Luck   T.Y. Hilton is smaller, but he can fly

Surprisingly, the Colts top me for TDs are their tight ends (Dwayne Allen, 7; Coby Fleener, 6) and RB Ahmad Bradshaw (also 6), so they should have a lot of guys outfighting the Browns for the ball.

Quarterback: I’d take Aaron Ridgers over Anderw Luck— I know that. Both Peyton Manning and Tony Romo have better stats. (Both those guys struggle in the playoffs– but so, to date, has Luck.)

But Luck is extraordinarily accurate, he throws well to receivers, tight ends and backs and he can run. He is the best QB the 2014 Browns will face, and he gives the Colts a huge edge.

Offensive Line: They start two rookies (LG Jack Mewhort was a #2, C Johnatthan Harrison was an undrafted free agent), a #3 pick from 2013 (RG Hugh Thornton)  and a #1 from 2012 (LT Anthony Castonzo). I’ve seen them get beaten– there have been many plays where Luck’s release speed saved a sack.

But Cleveland doesn’t have the the front line to do it.

Prediction: My wife, noting that the Browns usually win the games no one expects, says 24-21.  This team does have a habit of playing up to (or down to) its opponent– and I can imagine a game where the local boy, the drug-addled star and the put-upon defense combine to demand the respect they’re not getting.

But I think she has the digits on both numbers inverted: Colts 42-12.

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