Colts prep for tough road test vs. Eagles

Phillip B. Wilson

INDIANAPOLIS — A second consecutive road trip to play an NFC East team has a different wrinkle for the underdog Indianapolis Colts, considering first-year head coach Frank Reich was offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in February.

   But while Reich answered the numerous expected questions about his Philadelphia connection on Monday and Wednesday, he didn’t say anything to players about his return to Lincoln Financial Field for Sunday’s 1 p.m. kickoff between 1-1 teams.

   “No, he literally hasn’t said a single thing about the Super Bowl, him being there, anything,” rookie running back Nyheim Hines said Wednesday. “He hasn’t said anything to the team about it and he hasn’t made it seem personal at all, but just as a player and knowing where he came from, I know it probably means a lot.”

   That Reich knows the Eagles offense and quarterback Carson Wentz, who is expected to make his season debut, is considered a non-factor because the opponent is so familiar with Reich, too.

   The Colts gained a large measure of confidence in a 21-9 win at Washington, where they were six-point underdogs. It’s the first time the Colts haven’t allowed a touchdown in a game since 2016.

   But the team realizes that playing the reigning Super Bowl champs will be an even greater challenge. And they’re facing the Eagles after they lost 27-21 at Tampa Bay.

   “I just think they have depth,” Reich said. “They are good up front on both sides of the ball. Obviously great play at quarterback, whoever is in there (Nick Foles or Wentz), but they got depth up front on both sides of the ball. That was the key to their success last year and what’s so good about this team. They are an extremely well-coached team. I know from the offense looking at the defense, I think Jim Schwartz is one of the better defensive coordinators in the NFL. The guy is brilliant, smart, really good in-game adjustments. I feel like he has a great feel for the game. I learned a lot coaching with him, watching how he coached the defense and seeing how he prepared his guys.”

   That Wentz is finally back in the lineup after being lost in the 13th game to a knee injury a year ago will also provide an emotional boost. 

   “It’s going to be an electric atmosphere,” Reich said. “Carson is a rising, young superstar in this league. That city has really embraced him, he has embraced the city. So it will be like when (Colts quarterback) Andrew (Luck) ran out here (in Week 1). It will be something like that.”

   Luck, who missed all of last season due to shoulder surgery, has thrived in Reich’s offense. He’s spread the ball around and thrown more short-range passes to move the chains. The Colts have converted a league-best 60.6 percent of third downs.

   “We are anticipating a great crowd,” Luck said. “It’s Philly, ‘The City of Brotherly Love.’ They are going to be really happy and excited. It’s always fun to go on the road and play against a really good team. That’s fun.”

   The Eagles have the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense against the run, so the Colts are sure to throw an array of passes to running backs to get them in open space, especially if the yards are hard to come by on the ground. The Colts have been utilizing three backs in Hines, leading rusher Jordan Wilkins and Marlon Mack.

   “They all have a different flavor or a different flair,” Luck said of his backs. “That certainly goes for everybody in this locker room. Everybody brings a great personality and sort of their piece to the puzzle. Certainly they do some things maybe a little better than others and the accent of their game. So, having all three of them is a fun arsenal.”

   But Tampa Bay’s ability to exploit mismatches with big pass plays against the Eagles also suggests Reich will turn Luck loose at times to throw the ball down the field against the league’s 28th-ranked pass defense. Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight end Eric Ebron, who are the best at stretching the field, have caught touchdown passes in each of the two games.

   What Reich is also mindful and wary of is the Eagles’ offensive penchant for big plays. He knows Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz is one of the game’s best with a team-high 142 yards receiving. Ertz is one of those rare tight ends who, like Ebron, can run deeper patterns and stretch defenses.

   “That guy is a playmaker,” Reich said. “You’ve got to know where he is at all times. We know he is a favorite target of Carson’s and they are going to find ways to single him up, put him on the back side of formations, move him around a little bit, find ways to get him the ball. So the key is he is going to get some catches, I mean he is just too good of a player. You’ve just got to minimize them. I think a big key against this team, against any team really, is just eliminate or minimize the explosive plays. Make them go the long road.”

   SERIES HISTORY: 19th regular-season meeting. Colts lead, 10-8. The Eagles won the previous meeting, 30-27, in 2014 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts lost 26-24 in 2010 in their only other previous trip to Lincoln Financial Field. That defeat snapped a four-game series win streak. The teams have split 10 career games in Philadelphia.

NOTES, QUOTES

   — The Colts lead the league in third-down efficiency by a wide margin, converting 20-of-33 (60.6 percent). The next-closest team is Tampa Bay at 52 percent. The most third downs converted for another team is 14. Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni says it’s all about being in third-and-manageable situations. “I think we had eight third-and-one-to-threes last week,” Sirianni said. “So that speaks to what we were doing on first-and-10 and second down and whatever it was. I think we were eight-of-eight on those down and distances last week. So I just think that what we did on first and second down and being in those manageable situations are obviously the key.”

   — The Colts rank eighth in lowest sacks allowed percentage (3.4) despite attempting the fourth-most passes (84). “They have done a heck of a job,” Luck said of his O-line. “I think Joe (Haeg) playing left (tackle) and then moving to right (tackle) and adjusting did marvelously well. I think Le’Raven (Clark) came in (at left tackle) and really, really played his butt off. Those guys give us a chance to win. When you can run the ball like that and you have pass protection like that, they give us a chance to win. So, I’m proud of them and they are a bunch of hard workers. It’s not just the five that are on the field, in practice there are six, seven, eight, nine guys going at it. I’m proud of them.”

   — Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has a harsh grading system for his players that criticizes them for “loafs.” While the grades improved last week after not allowing a touchdown, there were still too many “loafs.” “Yeah, there was a little bit of a decrease, which is good,” Eberflus said. “I thought that the guys played hard for the most part. There were certainly our share of loafs out there, but they improved on that number and they are doing a good job. They have to practice well. If they want to play well, they’ve got to practice well and that starts (Wednesday).” Rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, who on Wednesday earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week, understands there’s always room for improvement. “There’s a lot more,” he said. “Like, even if I made the tackle, my breaks could have been better. I could have read it a whole lot faster. Just stuff like that.”

   — Jack Doyle’s next reception will surpass Coby Fleener (183) for fifth by a tight end in team history. He doesn’t mind that he’s had fewer touches in an offense that utilizes more pass catchers. Luck completed passes to nine different targets in the opener and eight different players last week. “It's fun,” Doyle said. “The ball is getting spread around and we’re rolling. We’re rolling. Like I said, it makes it fun. It makes it hard to stop, I’m sure. So we just got to keep building on that. We’re a young offense too, in the sense that we’ve only been running this offense for a very short time. It will be fun to see it grow.”

   — Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton ranks third among active NFL receivers in consecutive starts at 40, trailing just Demaryius Thomas and Larry Fitzgerald. And the Colts are moving around the four-time Pro Bowl star this year to try to create more mismatches. “(Reich) doesn’t give the (opposing) team a beat of where I’m going to be at,” Hilton said. “He moves me around and keeps me moving. The defense has got to find me and it’s tough. We have a lot of playmakers and by him moving me around it helps out everybody.”

   BY THE NUMBERS: 27 — Rookie weakside linebacker Darius Leonard’s total tackles in two starts, which leads the NFL. His 21 solos are also a league best. 

   300 — The Colts need one more win to reach that victory total in the Indianapolis era (including postseason games). The Colts are 299-276 since moving from Baltimore in 1984. They would become the 11th team to win 300 games in that span.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER NOTES

   — Left tackle Anthony Castonzo (hamstring) didn’t practice again Wednesday and if he is unable to make his season debut, expect Le’Raven Clark to make his second consecutive start as his replacement while Joe Haeg lines up at right tackle. Neither allowed a sack against the Redskins, whose outside rushers combined for only one quarterback hit. Haeg started at left tackle in the season opener.

   — Defensive end Margus Hunt is tied for the league lead with five tackles for loss. The former Cincinnati Bengals defender is a full-time starter for the first time in his second season with the Colts.

   — Luck has thrown a touchdown pass in 25 consecutive starts, the league’s longest active streak.

   — Kicker Adam Vinatieri needs three field goals to tie Morten Andersen (565) for most in NFL history.

   — The Colts had a league-high five rookie starters in Week 1 and 2.

   — A lengthy injury report with eight players not practicing on Wednesday, in addition to Castonzo, also listed Hilton (quadricep), Doyle (hip), RB Marlon Mack (foot/hamstring), DT/DE Denico Autry (ankle), S Clayton Geathers (knee/elbow), DT Hassan Ridgeway (calf) and CB Quincy Wilson (concussion). OG/OT Denzelle Good (knee/wrist) and CB Chris Milton (concussion) were also limited.

   PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Leonard, the second-round selection who nicknames himself “Maniac,” won AFC Defensive Player of the Week after making 18 total tackles, including 15 solos, with one sack, one forced fumble and one pass breakup in Sunday’s win. He’s just the fourth Colts rookie to ever earn that honor. His tackle total is the most for a Colts rookie since 1994.

   GAME PLAN: The same strategy that worked the week before will be tested against the reigning Super Bowl champions as the Colts will look to start fast with Reich’s quick-hit, scripted playcalling, then rely on a young defense to get enough stops. Luck won for just the fifth time last week when passing for fewer than 180 yards (179), and the quarterback will be required to do more against an Eagles defense that ranks No. 1 against the rush but 28th against the pass.

   Tampa Bay’s Ryan Fitzpatrick exploited matchups in picking apart the Eagles secondary last week, so Luck will try to do the same. But if he’s to duplicate that production, he’ll have to take more shots down the field. So far, Luck has thrown mostly short-range passes, averaging a career-low 5.54 yards per completion. Look for the Colts to test the Eagles deep early and often, especially with speedy wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. The Colts defense will face a similar challenge from the return of Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, who was outstanding in 13 games as a rookie before getting hurt last season, and is a strong-armed passer who likes to stretch the field with deeper throws. The onus is on the Colts’ pass rush to pressure Wentz into taking more underneath shots, as was the case with the Redskins’ Alex Smith, who was sacked three times and unable to lead his team to one touchdown drive.

   QUOTES ON GAME: “It’s something that we’re aware of. He knows obviously our structure offensively, what we try to do, how we attack things and maybe even some of the terminology and verbiage. So, we have to be careful there. At the same time, too, we can’t change everything. It’s not one of those deals because players still have to play the game and I have to coach this team and he has to coach his. There is some similarity, but at the same time we’re aware of it. We are looking forward to seeing him again on Sunday and welcoming him back to Philadelphia.” — Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, on facing Reich, his offensive coordinator the past two years.

   “They’re strong up the spine. They are big guys up front. They all know how to play football. They’re smart and obviously they’re a successful unit – they won a Super Bowl together. It’s a tough, hard-nosed team. I think they were first in the league in run defense last year. I think they are up there, I think maybe first right now in the league in rush defense. We know we have our work cut out for us and I think also, too, our guys are excited for the challenge.” — Luck on facing Eagles defense.

   “Honestly, ‘Flus’ (defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus) and I had a conversation or two, nothing too dramatic, a few things here and there. Not anything that would be over the top. Again, I always say this, my experience is if you try to say too much it just confuses the matter. So you give a few personnel things, a few philosophical things, maybe one or two things to look for and then you let our defense play the way we are playing. Play our game, it’s about what we do and ‘Flus’ knows this. ‘Flus’ knows this (Eagles) offense, I mean he has gone up against it a bunch in the last couple years as well.” — Reich on not micro-managing because of his intimate knowledge of the Eagles offense. Eberflus previously coached with Dallas, an Eagles rival.

   “I say we are like on a roller coaster coming down hill, it’s kind of hard to stop. So I think the defense just kind of wants that snowball effect, just wants to keep stacking up everything and just want to match their effort from last week.” — Leonard on defense following up on win at Washington. 

   MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Colts RT Joe Haeg vs. Eagles LDE Brandon Graham. Haeg, a former fifth-round pick in his third season, was solid at Washington in not allowing a sack against pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan. His next challenge is Graham, who led the Eagles with 9.5 sacks last season but is still looking for his first one this season.

   Eagles TE Zach Ertz vs. Colts linebackers. Whomever has the defensive assignment on any given play will be in for a challenge. Ertz has a team-best 142 receiving yards and his 16 catches are tied with wide receiver Nelson Agholor for the team high. Despite missing two games last season, Ertz still led the Eagles with 74 catches for 824 yards. Eight of the sixth-year pro’s 21 career TDs came last year. Even if facing a linebacker in coverage, expect the Colts to shadow him over the top with a safety, most likely Clayton Geathers, whose physical toughness and coverage ability have been utilized in one-on-one coverage of tight ends. 

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