The Miami Dolphins will kick off this afternoon against the Indianapolis Colts. These former AFC East division rivals are both 5-5 on the year and tied for the sixth position in the postseason race, with the winner moving above .500 and establishing themselves as a contender to claim that final position. The loser will be facing an uphill battle if they want to fight their way into the postseason.
The good news for the Dolphins is the return of the 2012 eighth overall draft picks, quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has missed the last five games with a shoulder injury, and brings with him a hope that the Miami offense will break out of the stagnant rut in which they have been over the last three games. The bad news is, 2012 first overall draft pick, quarterback Andre Luck, is returning to the form that had him seen as a sure-pick before the draft and prior to the injuries that have plagues him the last few years.
1. The Colts offensive line looks like their best unit in a long time. What are their strengths and how would you attack them?
The offensive line’s transformation has been an incredible thing to behold. They’ve finally been built into a unit that can hold up against just about any pass rush. Since week 6 when LT Anthony Castonzo returned from a hamstring injury that had kept him sidelined through the first part of the season, the team hasn’t yielded a single sack of Andrew Luck.
Certainly, the team has been helped by the excellent rookie seasons from LG Quenton Nelson and most surprisingly, Braden Smith, who they drafted to play guard. Smith has found himself a role as the starting right tackle, and made himself invaluable there. C Ryan Kelly has played excellently this season as well (more on him shortly).
Scheme plays a large role in the line’s effectiveness as well. If you watch Luck dropping back, he is getting the ball out consistently almost as soon as he hits the back of his drop. If you can consistently scheme receivers to be open by the time you finish your drop, it is a tall task to ask defensive linemen to get there in time to be disruptive.
The area where there will most likely be an opportunity to disrupt this line will be at the center position this week. Center Ryan Kelly suffered an MCL sprain against the Titans, and is likely to miss a few weeks. In the meantime, Evan Boehm will fill in as the backup. Boehm has done a very admirable job when called to fill in, but he is the backup for a reason and will likely be a step down from Kelly.
The best bet for the Dolphins will be to use stunts and loops as well as giving lots of looks to keep the line off balance. Kelly is the leader on the line and this is a pretty young group. If the Dolphins can get penetration inside and cover those routes over the middle and in the flats, which give Luck the ability to get the ball out quickly, that will be their best bet to end the Colts’ sackless streak.
2. Now that we have talked about the offensive line, it is time to turn to the player who is probably benefiting the most from their play, Andrew Luck. Luck looks more and more like the franchise quarterback the Colts drafted. Is it just a factor of him finally being healthy and the offensive line? What should Dolphins fans expect to see from Luck this weekend?
The answer is yes to both. Luck hasn’t been healthy, truly healthy, since 2015. That’s when he initially hurt his shoulder. He played very well during the 2016 season, but it was in the framework of an offense that called for 5 and 7 step drops and a lot of hits on him. His throwing motion changed as he attempted to correct for the pain and injury issues.
Now he is back to form, and it is clear that the combination of a clean pocket and the brilliant offensive mind of Frank Reich have begun to show just how good Luck is. One of the things that is the most notable change for Luck is that he is not looking to run the ball the same way as he did once. Where early career Luck would often use his legs to get the first down, this new iteration of him scrambles to avoid pressure, provide the threat of the run, and strike downfield.
The evolution of Luck’s game is making him a terrifying quarterback to face for defenses, because he is playing much smarter. Where he once was the player who always went for the shot to the heart, he has now become willing to take what the defense gives.
Dolphins fans should expect to see a Luck who is playing better football than he has his whole career. With an excellent group of tight ends, a strong running back committee, and T.Y. Hilton at his disposal, I expect Luck will do what he has done all season, which is move the ball pretty effectively.
3. The Colts defense seems to be mid-pack this year (20th in total defense, 23rd in pass defense, 14th in rush defense, and 18th in scoring defense), nothing horrible but nothing great either - outside of maybe rookie Darius Leonard. Last week, it looked like the defense decided it was time to turn up the pressure and started blitzing more than I remember them having done in the past, and they were able to get to Marcus Mariota and Blaine Gabbert. Should Miami expect the same type of blitzing defense this week? How can the Miami offense exploit the Colts defense?
This defense is an interesting case. They don’t have a ton of pressure on them, because the offense can pretty routinely score 30+ points per game. Unfortunately, they’ve often needed to. There are a lot of young pieces along the defense, and the defensive line is an underrated unit. However, apart from Darius Leonard and Malik Hooker, the roster doesn’t have any sure things in terms of star talent.
The weakest unit on the roster has been the cornerbacks. Kenny Moore is a solid corner and has had a good season, but over all they have proven to be a unit that largely plays soft coverage and gives up a lot of yards.
The blitzing from DC Matt Eberflus against the Titans was nice to see, but it was the first time they’d done it all season. I don’t know if we can expect that to be a trend going forward, but if the Colts get off to a fast start offensively, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them bringing some heat to try to rattle Ryan Tannehill.
Overall, if the Dolphins do what Tennessee did and attempt to commit to running the ball up the middle, it will likely end poorly. If they can execute the play action, get receivers in space, and make some plays after the catch, and most importantly protect the ball, they’ll likely find success against this young defense.
4. The Chuck Pagano era ended last year, with Frank Reich now the head coach of the Colts. How have the fans reacted to Reich, and how have things changed around the team?
Reich has changed everything in Indianapolis. He has infused a new culture into this young team, added a toughness that wasn’t there, and given them an identity as a team that doesn’t fritter away leads or start games half prepared. This is a team that comes ready to play and has an intensity about them.
Fans love Reich’s style, his calm demeanor, and his ability to put together a cutting-edge offense that doesn’t operate predictably from week-to-week. He has managed to take cast off tight end Eric Ebron and make him the most productive tight end in the NFL, netting 10 touchdowns so far this season.
One of the more interesting nuggets learned from this season is that the whole offense sits in the weekly pass protection meetings under Reich. Every member of the team is involved to understand how they factor in to protections and because of this, the Colts have allowed the fewest sacks in the league. It is safe to say that the Colts are glad to have fallen backward into him after the whole fiasco with McVisor.
5. The Colts are a part of this fun-filled mess of five teams sitting at 5-5 in the AFC, all tied for the final Wildcard spot. What do you expect from Indianapolis the rest of the year and are they in the playoffs when the regular season ends?
This Colts team is getting hot at the right time, getting healthy, and hitting their stride in terms of play calling and scheme. They also have a relatively easy schedule remaining with 3 divisional games still ahead. They are not only alive in the playoff hunt, but also in their own divisional race as well.
My gut tells me this team makes the playoffs. Only the Saints, Chiefs, Rams, and Steelers are averaging more points per game, and that is pretty solid company to find yourself in as an offense. I don’t know what this team can do once they are there, but do think that at the least they end up with a wildcard spot. Regardless of what they accomplish once they’re in, given what expectations were at the beginning of the season, a playoff berth would be a really incredible accomplishment for such a young team.