The Road Ahead: Indianapolis Colts

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into their bye week with a 2-4 record and a third-place spot in the NFC South. There are 12 teams ahead of the Buccaneers in the overall conference standings, but the majority of the season still lies ahead. Despite taking a two-game losing skid into the bye, the Buccaneers are still eyeing a playoff run.

When the Buccaneers come out of their midseason break they will have 10 games remaining, against nine different opponents. They will likely need to win at least seven of those games to have a shot at the playoffs. Now that a third of the season has been played and teams around the league have revealed some of their strengths and weaknesses, let's take a look at how Tampa Bay matches up with each of its upcoming opponents, continuing with the Indianapolis Colts in Week 14.

Opponent: Indianapolis Colts

Dates, Locations: Week 14, December 8, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida

Top Offensive Performer: QB Jacoby Brissett…1,062 passing yards, 64.7% completion rate, 10 touchdowns (t-9th in the NFL), 3 interceptions, 94.9 passer rating, 66 rushing yards and one touchdown

Top Defensive Performer: LB Darius Leonard…(in two games, missed the last three due to concussion) 18 tackles, 1.0 sack, one pass defensed

Notable Strength: After years of trouble in this area during Andrew Luck's prime, the Colts have put together one of the top-performing offensive lines in the NFL, led by left guard Quenton Nelson, a first-team Associated Press All-Pro as a rookie in 2018. Like Nelson, who was picked sixth overall in the '18 draft, left tackle Anthony Castonzo and center Ryan Kelly are also former first-round picks and right tackle Braden Smith was nabbed in the second round right after Nelson. Nelson sets the tone in the run game with his beastly blocks, and the Colts rank fourth in the NFL with 142.0 rushing yards per game. Marlon Mack, the former USF standout, leads the way with 470 yards but Jordan Wilkins is a good complement with 125 yards and 6.6 yards per carry while Nyheim Hines is a good pass-catcher out of the backfield. Nelson and company have also given Jacoby Brissett good protection. The quarterback who has stepped in more than ably for the retired Luck has been sacked just six times and the Colts' offense is fourth in the NFL with a 3.59% sacks-per-pass-play rate.

Notable Weakness: The Colts' defense lands right in the middle of the pack so far, giving up 355.2 yards per game to rank 16th. There are a few specific signs of trouble, though. Indianapolis has been susceptible to the run, allowing 5.10 yards per carry to rank third-to-last in the NFL. Indy has given up 5.2 yards per carry on first downs (27th in the NFL) and 5.9 on second down (29th), and so it is not terribly surprising that opponents are converting on 45.5% of their third-down tries, which has the Colts defense tied for 26th in that category. That trouble stopping the run has likely also contributed to opponents turning exactly two-thirds of their red zone trips into touchdowns, tied for the fourth-worst mark in the league.

How the Bucs Match Up:

The best matchup of units in this game should be Nelson and company against the Bucs' nearly impenetrable run defense, especially up the middle. Tampa Bay ranks first in both rushing yards allowed per game (68.0) and yards allowed per carry (2.89), and it's been no product of an easy schedule. The Bucs have already faced some of the league's best running backs and stoutest offensive lines. Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh and Will Gholston have clogged up the lanes between the tackles and eaten up blockers to free up their linebackers to make tackles. The Colts might be best served to send Mack to the edges, as they rank first in the NFL in yards per carry when running over left tackle (16.80) and fifth when going around right end (6.45). However, the Bucs' outside linebackers are good run-stoppers, too, and that will be even more true assuming Jason Pierre-Paul is back in the mix.

Brissett has definitely been steady but the Colts' aerial attack hasn't produced a lot of yards. Indianapolis ranks 27th in passing yards per game and 28th in yards per pass play, and the Colts are tied for last with just nine completions of 20 or more yards. However, given the lopsided bent of the Bucs' defense through the first six games – first against the run, last against the pass – Indianapolis could come into Tampa with a different game plan. They still have T.Y. Hilton, who has been a big-play threat throughout his career. That hasn't shown up yet in 2019; after averaging between 15.9 and 16.4 yards per catch in each of the last five seasons, and 15.7 for his career, Hilton is surprisingly getting just 9.7 yards per grab this year. The Colts also don't have a particularly frightening partner for Hilton at wideout, as their next two top pass-catchers are Hines and tight end Jack Doyle. The next-leading receiver is second-round rookie Parris Campbell, with just 10 catches for 62 yards.

The Colts and their opponents have played relatively clean games so far, with Indianapolis committing just five turnovers but also taking the ball away only five times. The Buccaneers went from +4 to -2 on the turnover ratio chart in just one game with their seven-turnover disaster in London. Tampa Bay's games have featured far more turnovers in both directions, with 11 takeaways and 13 giveaways. The Bucs would probably prefer one of those Colt-like clean games, as turnovers are the only thing that has truly slowed down their offense most Sundays. Jameis Winston has thrown for 1,771 yards and two touchdowns already, but eight of his 10 interceptions have come in two games, losses to San Francisco in Week One and Carolina in Week Six. Carolina's starting cornerbacks, Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore, are both former waiver claims and they have combined for one pass defensed and no interceptions so far. Second-round rookie Rock Ya-Sin is the nickel back and has 17 tackles and one pass defensed. Those cornerbacks may have difficulty dealing with the NFL's leading wideout due of Chris Godwin and Mike Evans.

As noted above, however, the Colts have had some difficulty against the run, and the Bucs might try to exploit that in their efforts to reduce turnovers and give Winston more bite in his play-action game. Winston has thrown the deep ball more effectively this season but needs time to make that happen. Led by defensive tackle Denico Autry, an unrestricted free agent addition from Oakland who has 2.5 sacks, the Colts' defense is ranked third in the NFL in sacks produced per pass play 7.83%, which could make it difficult for the Buccaneers' blockers. As for the run defense, it should get an immediate boost in Week Seven with the expected return of linebacker Darius Leonard, who was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year last season.

Thanks to Brissett's steady hand, the Colts have gotten off to a 3-2 start in a season some feared would be lost when Luck stunned the league with his retirement in August. Indianapolis is very much in the playoff hunt, both in the AFC overall and in the unpredictable AFC South, which is currently led by the 4-2 Houston Texans. The Bucs hope to be in the NFC hunt by Week 14 when the Colts come to town, making this a more important matchup. It won't be an easy one, but the Bucs could exploit a couple Indianapolis weaknesses to find success on offense.

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