Photos of the Colts' projected starters as listed on the team's depth chart.
On Sunday, the 5-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 5-5 Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. It will be the 13th meeting between the two teams in the regular season but Tampa Bay's first trip to Indianapolis since 2007. The Colts are trying to take sole possession of first place in the AFC South, but both teams come in with serious playoff implications on their minds.
To get their first win in Indy since 1997 and get over .500 before December arrives, the Buccaneers will need to get the Colts to add to their league-leading total of 20 giveaways and see if there is any way to rattle 40-year-old passer Matt Hasselbeck. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when they visit the dome in Indianapolis.
The Chuck Pagano era in Indianapolis, which began in 2012, has known nothing but playoff campaigns. The Colts went 11-5 each of the last three years to make the AFC postseason field each time; Pagano is just the second head coach in NFL history to win 11 games in each of his first three seasons. The Colts would have to win the remainder of the games to make it four in a row, but even at 5-5 they own a share of first in the AFC South and have a good chance to make it four playoff trips in a row.
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The Colts became used to double-digit win seasons under Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell, during Peyton Manning's long run of dominance. After a 2-14 campaign under Caldwell in 2011, Pagano came aboard just as that quarterback mantle was being passed on to Andrew Luck, another first-overall pick in the draft. Pagano and Luck have enjoyed great offensive success together, and last year the Colts advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 2009.
In his first season at the helm, Pagano overcame a curable form of leukemia that forced him into a leave of absence. He returned for the end of the regular season and the playoffs and was an inspiration to his players both during his absence and upon his return.
Pagano's coaching background is on the defensive side of the ball and much of his development came under Butch Davis. After stints at USC, Miami, Boise State, East Carolina and UNLV, Pagano went back to Miami in 1995 to coach the defensive backs and the special teams under Davis. In 2001, Davis became the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Pagano made his first move to the NFL, joining Davis as Cleveland's secondary coach. Pagano was also the defensive coordinator under Davis in the latter's lone year as the head coach at North Carolina in 2007.
The Colts hired Pagano after his four-year run in Baltimore (2008-11) under John Harbaugh. He was promoted to defensive coordinator in that final season and led that Ravens crew to third-place rankings in both points and yards allowed. The Ravens went 12-4 and made it to the AFC Championship Game and then Colts came calling.
The Colts' 18th-ranked attack is an offense in transition. That is essentially unavoidable when a team replaces both its offensive coordinator and its starting quarterback, as Indianapolis has done in recent weeks. The change under center was unavoidable, as Luck has been sidelined by abdominal and kidney injuries that could keep him out for most of the rest of the regular season. The change in play-caller happened during the Colts' Week 10 bye, as Pep Hamilton (who had coached Luck at Stanford) was fired and replaced by Rob Chudzinski (who had been serving as Pagano's associate head coach. Chudzinski had been the offensive coordinator for two years in Carolina before he spent one season as the Browns' head coach in 2013.
The Colts won their first game with this new arrangement, rallying for a 24-21 win in Atlanta on Sunday. Hasselbeck had an up-and-down performance, completing 23 of 32 passes for 213 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Chudzinski kept the play-calling balanced, running 27 times despite the Colts gaining just 2.7 yards per carry against 34 drop-backs by Hasselbeck.
The 40-year-old Hasselbeck is obviously one of the most experienced backup quarterbacks in the NFL. He also started two games earlier this year against Jacksonville and Houston, and Indianapolis won them both. Hasselbeck spent the bulk of his 17-year career as the starter in Seattle, and he has played in 204 career games with 155 starts. In fact, Hasselbeck has thrown the 20th most passes in NFL history and will probably pass Johnny Unitas for the 19th spot on Sunday.
T.Y. Hilton, who went to the Pro Bowl last year and has two consecutive 82-catch seasons on his resume, is the Colts' top target, but Indy quarterbacks have really spread the ball around this year. Hilton has a team-high 45 catches and his explosive playmaking ability is reflected in his 16.1 yards-per catch average. However, WR Donte Moncrief is right behind with 44 catches (albeit for a lot less yardage) and he leads the team with five touchdown catches. Eight different players, including two tight ends and one running back, have at least 10 catches for the Colts so far. Indianapolis added long-time Houston star Andre Johnson to their arsenal this year, and he starts opposite Hilton, but he's had six games with three or fewer receptions already.
In Hasselbeck's last start he targeted running backs Frank Gore and Ahmad Bradshaw and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen on 15 of his 32 throws, and Gore was his leading receiver.
Photos of Buccaneers vs. Colts matchups through the years.
With speedy deep threats like Hilton and rookie first-rounder Phillip Dorsett, it's not surprising that the Colts rank eighth in the NFL with a 101.4 passer rating on balls thrown more than 20 yards in the air. The short game hasn't gone as well, as Indy ranks 27th in the NFL with a 48.7% success rate on first-down passes (gaining four or more yards). First-down runs have been worse; the Colts rank last in success rate in that category, and last in first-down success on all plays combined.
Indy's rushing attack has generated 98.5 yards per game, good for 20th in the league, but is averaging just 3.9 yards per attempt. That's the individual mark for lead back Frank Gore, too; Gore has 633 yards and four touchdowns but has yet to eclipse 100 yards in any game this season. The Colts are still trying to keep the veteran back at the center of their attack, however, as he has logged 64 carries in the last three games despite the fact that he has averaged 2.9 yards per tote in that span. Gore suffered what is widely considered a minor knee injury last week in Atlanta and he's likely to play Sunday, but the Colts have another very experienced back in Ahmad Bradshaw to step in if needed. Bradshaw has 22 of his 27 carries in the Colts' last three games. The absence of Luck actually hurts the Colts' rushing attack, as he is second on the team with 196 yards, which is more than Hasselbeck has had in the last six seasons combined.
Indianapolis ranks 30th in the league in yards per play at 5.12 but that hasn't kept them from sustaining drives. The Colts are the league's ninth-best team at converting third downs, at 42.9%, and they're particularly good on tougher attempts. Indy ranks fourth in third-down success rate from farther than six yards (31.7%) and tied for first once you get to 10 yards or longer (33.3%). That has helped the Colts build 15 five-minute drives, tied for fifth-most in the league, and the average number of plays in their scoring marches has been nearly nine, also fifth in the league.
After starting the season 0-2, the Colts chose to shuffle their offensive line, and they've stuck with the new look ever since. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo, a first-round pick in 2011, stayed at left tackle (though he's dealing with a knee injury this week and might not be able to suit up) and Khaled Holmes remained at center but the rest of the line was reworked. Right tackle Jack Mewhort, a second-round pick in 2014, shifted to left guard and Joe Reitz, a part-time starter the previous four years, moved into right tackle. Hugh Thornton took over at right guard, and all those moves sent Todd Herremans and Lance Louis to the bench. Herremans had been signed during the spring after 10 years in Philadelphia. Jonotthan Harrison stepped in for Holmes in Week Eight after the latter suffered a neck injury and has held onto the job since.
The results have been pretty good for Indianapolis. According to Football Outsiders, the Colts have had the league's eighth-best pass-blocking line and its 19th-best run-blocking front. However, Indy may have to adjust up front again, as Castonzo left the Atlanta game with a knee sprain. After that happened, the Colts moved Reitz over to the left side, put Mewhort back at right tackle and brought Louis back into the starting lineup.
The offense as a whole has been very good in the red zone, ranking fourth in the league with a 64.5% touchdown rate. Unfortunately, the Colts have simply coughed up the football far too often. Indy's 22 giveaways – 14 interceptions and eight lost fumbles – are the most in the entire NFL, and opponents have turned them into 69 points, tied for 29th most in the NFL.
D'Qwell Jackson, the MIKE linebacker in Indy's 3-4 front, turned last Sunday's game in Atlanta around with his six-yard pick-six in the fourth quarter. That tied the game at 21-21 and the Colts won it with a field goal in the final minute.
It was no surprise to see Jackson make the big play the Colts needed in Week 11. He has been doing quite a bit of that since arriving in Indianapolis last year. The Cleveland Browns released Jackson after seven years just before free agency in 2014 and the Colts quickly picked him up and put him right into their starting lineup. He rewarded his new team with a Pro Bowl season and he might be headed back to Hawaii this winter. Jackson leads the NFL with 100 tackles by the NFL's count (131 by Indy coaches' statistics) and also has a sack, seven tackles for loss, an interception, two passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Jackson seems to have a knack for getting to loose balls; he's got 11 fumble recoveries in the last five years.
The other big name in the Colts' linebacking corps is edge rusher Robert Mathis. Mathis had a career-high 19.5 sacks just two seasons ago and has 115 in his spectacular career but he missed all of 2014 thanks to an Achilles tendon injury he suffered while working out during a four-game suspension. This year, Mathis has played in nine games with four starts and leads the team with four sacks. The Colts can spell Mathis without difficulty after signing long-time Eagle Trent Cole in the offseason; in fact, though Cole has yet to log his first sack for Indy he played more snaps last week than Mathis did. Indianapolis has just 14 sacks on the season and they rank 30th in sacks per pass play. DE Kendall Langford is second on the team with three QB takedowns but nobody else has more than one. Still, the Colts have utilized the blitz well, as opposing QBs have a 78.6 passer rating on blitz plays compared to a league average of 90.6.
The Colts' pass defense is giving up 278.9 yards per game, which ranks 29th in the league, but the secondary is loaded with experienced veterans capable of making big plays. The stars of the group are cornerback Vontae Davis and safety Mike Adams, both of whom went to the Pro Bowl for the first time last year. Davis had four interceptions last year and Adams had five, and Adams has already matched that total in 2015. He's tied for the NFL lead in that category and Davis has added two picks and 12 passes defensed. No player in the league has more interceptions since the start of the 2014 season than Adams. However, Adams missed the last game with an ankle injury and might not be ready for the Buccaneers' visit. If not, the Colts' secondary may not suffer because rookie fourth-rounder Clayton Geathers had a very impressive debut start in Atlanta, with a number of hard hits and tipped passes.
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Overall, the Colts' defense has been fairly good at taking the ball away, with 16 turnovers forced to rank 13th in the NFL, and that has helped balance the offense's propensity for giving it away and kept Indianapolis at the top of its division. The Colts' secondary has done a good job on first-down plays, allowing a passer rating of 78.0 that ranks fifth in the league. However, it has also allowed 43 completions of 20 or more yards, second-highest in the NFL.
Indy's three-man defensive line is anchored by a rookie, Stanford's David Parry, who slipped to the fifth round but has become an instant starter on the NFL level. The 6-2, 310-pound Parry has one sack and three tackles for loss but he's more essential to the run defense, occupying blockers in the middle of the defense. Overall, the Colts' run defense rank 21st in yards allowed per game and 15th in yards allowed per carry, with 113.4 and 4.0, respectively.
Colts opponents are converting 3.2% of their third downs this year, which is right in the middle of the NFL pack. It has been difficult to convert short third downs (1-3 yards) against them; they rank fourth in the league at 48.4% allowed. Weirdly, just like the Colts' offense, Indy opponents have been very good at converting long third downs; the Colts rank last in the league with a 36.4% mark in that category. Indianapolis has not had as much success as it would like in the red zone on defense, allowing 63.6% of such drives to reach the end zone, tied for 26th in the league.
The Colts have a 42-year-old kicker to go with their 40-year-old quarterback, and Adam Vinatieri has been as dependable as ever in his 20th season. After making 30 of 31 field goal tries last year to lead the league with a 96.8% success rate, he is 12 of 14 this year, with only one miss from inside 50 yards. He's also made 24 of 25 extra point tries from the new 33-yard distance. In his long and distinguished career, Vinatieri has connected on 83.8% of his field goals (86.0% in his 10 years as a Colt) and drilled 26 three-pointers of 50 or more yards. Whenever his playing days finally wrap up, Vinatieri will probably be best remembered for his clutch kicking, which has extended to multiple Super Bowls. He has made 26 game-winning field goals in the final minute of regulation or overtime.
Meanwhile, punter Pat McAfee might be the most valuable kicker in the entire league. Not only does he rank first in the NFL in gross punting average (48.9) and second in net average (43.8) but he has also handled the Colts kickoffs and essentially shut down opposing return games. McAfee has hit 39 touchbacks on 45 kickoffs, an 86.7% rate that is second in the NFL to Baltimore's Justin Tucker. It's no surprise that Indy's opponents have started at an average of their own 20.2-yard line after kickoffs this year, fifth-best in the NFL. The Colts have only had to face seven kickoff returns all season.
In terms of the return game, the Colts have gotten a lot more out of their kickoff return unit than their punt return squad. For some reason, opposing kickers haven't had as much touchback success and Indy has returned 26 kickoffs at a clip of 25.6 yards per try despite none being longer than 50. Griff Whalen handled the job at midseason but Quan Bray has taken over in the last three weeks and really given the return game a spark.