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All-Pros Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard Set Tone for Colts

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After finally "stacking up" their first consecutive wins of 2019 with successful business trips to Atlanta and Jacksonville, the 5-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers return home in Week 14 to take on the 6-6 Indianapolis Colts at Raymond James Stadium. Indianapolis has cooled off significantly of late, with four losses in the last five weeks, and their home defeat at the hands of Tennessee put a blow in the Colts' playoff hopes. Still, those hopes remain very much alive and Indy, which earlier this year notched a very impressive win at Kansas City will try to even its road record in 2019 to 3-3.

The Colts appeared to receive a massive blow to their 2019 hopes when Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck retired just before the start of the regular season but their belief in Jacoby Brissett's ability to fill Luck's shoes was rewarded with a 5-2 start to the season. And though their recent run has dropped the Colts back to .500, they've certainly remained competitive – three of their last four losses have been by four points or less. In addition, the Indianapolis offense during that stretch has dealt with a long list of injuries, with Brissett, Marlon Mack, T.Y. Hilton, Eric Ebron and Parris Campbell all missing time at various points.

Sunday's matchup will pit strength on strength, as the Colts have run the ball extremely well behind Quenton Nelson and their talented offensive line while the Buccaneers have bottled up one rushing attack after another all season. Indianapolis is fourth in the league with 139.0 rushing yards per game and is averaging 4.5 yards per tote; the Buccaneers' defense is second in the league with 76.3 rushing yards allowed per game and is giving up just 3.4 yards per carry. Brissett has had a fine year with a 93.2 passer rating but he hasn't had a full cast around him for a while. The Buccaneers will try to make it even harder on Brissett with the type of pass rush that in the last two games has produced 11 sacks, 23 quarterback hits and four fumbles by quarterbacks.

The Colts' defense, meanwhile, is a disciplined group that doesn't make a lot of mistakes or give up too many big plays in the passing game. It will contend with a Buccaneer passing game that features the best 1-2 punch at wide receiver in the NFL in Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, and which may be starting to unlock the value of third receiver Breshad Perriman. Jameis Winston saw his streak of six straight 300-yard passing games come to an end in Week 13 but he also had a nearly mistake-free afternoon with no interceptions. Former Chief Justin Houston, who has eight sacks, will try to lead the charge for Indianapolis in an effort to make Winston uncomfortable, too. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter when they welcome the Colts to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday:

COLTS DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

As noted the Colts didn't crater after Luck's retirement because they had Brissett, who had been acquired in a 2017 trade with New England and who had filled in for Luck before. Brissett has completed 64.3% of his passes with a 16-6 TD-INT ratio, but the Colts' attack has been built around the run and their stout O-Line. A hand injury has temporarily derailed what appeared to be a possible Pro Bowl season for Marlon Mack but the Colts still rushed for 175 yards in the first game he missed. Second-year LB Darius Leonard is the key to Indianapolis' 13th-ranked defense. Here are four specific Colts, including Leonard, who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:

1. LB Darius Leonard. Leonard was the second player the Colts drafted in 2018, at pick #36, but at this point he looks like he would have been just as valuable a pick if they took him at #6. (As you'll see below, the Colts also fared very well with that pick.) Leonard hit the ground running as a rookie, leading the NFL with 163 tackles and also picking off two passes, forcing four fumbles and adding seven sacks. Leonard is the prototype for the play-making linebacker in a 4-3 defense, possibly reminding Bucs fans of Derrick Brooks. Leonard makes plays all over the field, including the backfield with 12 sacks in just 24 career games. The reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year can do it all, often in the same game, such as his Week 10 performance against Miami that included 13 tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble. Equally good in coverage, against the run and on the blitz, Leonard is the number-one defender the Buccaneers will need to plan around on offense this Sunday.

2. G Quenton Nelson. Leonard remarkably won first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors as a rookie. Even more remarkably, he wasn't the only Colts rookie to do so. With mauling guard Quenton Nelson, the sixth-overall pick in the 2018 draft, also claiming that honor, he and Leonard were the first pair of teammates to accomplish that feat in 53 years. The last one? Just future Hall-of-Famers Dick Butkus and Gayle Sayers for the Bears in 1965. Nelson is widely consider the best guard in the NFL and he is the best finisher of plays that the NFL has seen in quite a while among offensive linemen. He is elite against both the run and the pass, and he's smart and hyper-aware of what's going on, often cleaning up mistakes by teammates. Nelson is a "difference-maker" of the most complete kind, as his approach to the game has created a culture change within the Colts organization and he's essentially replaced Luck as the face of the franchise.

3. CB Kenny Moore. Leonard is one of two players with multiple interceptions for the Colts this year, and Moore is the other one, with two picks and three passes defensed. Moore has been able to impact the game in a variety of ways, as he also has 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hits, and he's third on the team with 61 tackles. This summer, the Colts gave Moore a contract extension heading into just his third year because the team recognized the value the former undrafted free agent was bringing to their defense out of the slot. Last year, Moore had three interceptions, all of them coming on plays where he lined up over the slot receiver, and that was the most picks out of the slot by any defender in the NFL. Moore also has good length and can press, and he has played on the outside as well, but his tackling and pass-rushing skills are valuable closer to the middle of the field.

4. WR Zach Pascal. If they were sure to be healthy and suited up for Sunday's game, this spot would surely go to Marlon Mack or T.Y. Hilton, or perhaps Eric Ebron before he landed on injured reserve. But Pascal has stepped up to help keep the passing game active amid so many injuries. Pascal is a big target at 6-2 and 214 pounds and he's averaging a team-best 15.8 yards per catch. No other Colts player with at least five catches is averaging more than 12.1 yards per reception. Pascal has also moved the chains, with 23 of his 30 catches producing first downs. In last week's loss to the Titans, Pascal rang up a career-best 109 yards on seven catches. He has good hands to catch the ball away from his body and good awareness around the sideline to keep his feet inbounds. Depending upon the health of some of his teammates, Pascal could be the focal point of the Colts' passing attack on Sunday.

View some of the best photos from the Buccaneers' Week 13 matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

STRENGTHS

As noted above, the Colts run the ball well behind that Quenton Nelson-led line, and that has also helped them rank ninth in third-down percentage (44.2%) and fifth in first downs per game (22.2). Moving the chains on the ground means that Indianapolis has been able to possess the ball longer, ranking seventh in the league with an average time of possession of 31:26. On defense, the Colt shave been tough in the red zone, allowing exactly 50% of drives to become touchdowns, tied for eighth-best in the league. They've gotten balanced results, too, ranking ninth against the run and 12th against the pass. Here are some more specific areas in which the Colts have done well through the first three quarters of the season:

·    The Colts may be good in the red zone but they get even better when the ball gets closer to their goal line. Opponents have only converted 52.63% of the drives in which they achieve a first-and-goal into touchdowns, the lowest mark for any defense in the league. It helps that opposing offenses are only picking up 2.2 yards per play inside the red zone against the Colts, the third-lowest average allowed by any defense.

·    Those rushing and third-down strengths have allowed the Indianapolis offense to sustain drives better than most teams this season. The Colts have 21 drives this year that have lasted longer than five minutes of game time; only the Baltimore Ravens and their top-ranked rushing attack have produced more of those. The Colts are also tied for fourth in the league with 26 drives that lasted 10 or more plays, and 13 of those have produced touchdowns.

·    WR Chester Rogers (now on injured reserve) and RB Nyheim Hines have given the Colts a consistent 10 yards on punt returns this year. Even though neither player has a runback longer than 23 yards, they have combined to give Indy an average of 9.9 yards per punt return. That's good for third in the NFL even though that long of 23 ranks 17th.

·    The Buccaneers have been the best team in the league at tacking on points in the final two minutes of both halves this season but that job will be tougher in Week 14 against Indianapolis. The Colts have not allowed a touchdown in those portions of the game so far this year, and their six total points surrendered in two-minute situations is tied for seventh-lowest in the NFL.

WEAKNESSES

Indy's passing game has not been particularly prolific in 2019, ranking 26th with 204.8 yards per game, though that is surely due in part to how good the rushing attack has been. On dense, the Colts are allowing 4.41 yards per carry and a third-down conversion rate of 40.1%, both of which rank 20th in the NFL. In addition:

·    The Colts have had serious place-kicking woes this season, which is a surprising thing to say about a team that employs Adam Vinatieri. The Colts still trust Vinatieri, who has gathered nicknames like 'Automatic Adam' and 'Iceman,' but he has career lows this year in field goal percentage (68.0%) and extra point success rate (78.6%), making 17 of 25 of the former and 22 of 28 of the latter. Field goal percentage is down across the league in 2019 but the Colts rank 29th in that category. He had made four in a row before missing three of four last Sunday against Tennessee.

·    The Colts haven't attempted to throw the ball downfield much this year, and they've had little success when they have given it a try. Indianapolis QBs have thrown 29 passes that have traveled more than 20 yards downfield in the air, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL. Of those 29 passes, eight have been completed and three have been intercepted, and the Colts' passer rating on such plays is a league-worst 33.9.

·    Indy's defense has been good in 2019 but it hasn't always been able to get off the field quickly. The Colts have only forced three-and-outs on 17.2% of their opponents' drives, which is 10th-worst in the league. They've also allowed 18 drives of five-plus minutes, tied for 11th-worst.

·    Even with Darius Leonard patrolling the field, the Buccaneers' passing attack might want to try some short passes over the middle. On 88 such attempts this year, Indianapolis opponents have completed 76.1% of their passes and picked up an average of 8.3 yards. The Colts' defense ranks 27th in the NFL in both categories.

NEW FACES IN 2019

After emerging as contenders in 2018, the Colts weren't particularly adventurous in free agency last spring despite having a significant amount of cap space as the offseason began. Indianapolis chose to focus on locking down some of its own homegrown talent to longer deals. However, they did pick up an important piece for their pass rush. In the draft, the Colts ended up with four picks in the second and third rounds after several trades down and used much of it to address the secondary.

1. DE Justin Houston. Houston played his first eight seasons in Kansas City and was one of the league's best pass-rushers in that span with 78.5 sacks, including 22 in 2014 and nine last year. But the Chiefs released him just before free agency in a cap move and the Colts gladly scooped him up 11 days later with a two-year deal. Houston leads the Colts with 8.0 sacks this year; nobody else has more than 5.0 and no down lineman has more than 3.5.

2. CB Rock Ya-Sin. Even before their draft-weekend trades to acquire more picks in April, the Colts already had an extra second-rounder, the 34th-overall pick, as the result of a 2018 trade with the Jets. They used it on Temple's Ya-Sin, who was just the third cornerback off the board after Deandre Baker and Byron Murphy. Ya-Sin has played in 11 games with nine starts and has recorded 41 tackles, one interception and three passes defensed.

3. QB Bobby Hoyer. The Colts appeared to be set at quarterback leading up to the 2019 season with Pro Bowler Andrew Luck and strong reserve Jacoby Brissett in place. However, Luck elected to retire on August 24, which made Brissett the starter but left the team thin behind that. The solution was found when the Patriots' released Hoyer in the final round of cuts, giving the Colts a chance to sign him two days later. Hoyer started the Colts' Week 10 game against Miami while Brissett was out with a knee injury.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. TE Eric Ebron. For much of the last two seasons, the Colts' offense has featured a very productive tight end duo in Ebron and Jack Doyle. However, Ebron had been playing through ankle injuries since Week Nine and on November 25 he was placed on injured reserve, with surgery up ahead for both ankles.

2. WR Devin Funchess. Other than Houston, the Colts' main acquisition in free agency in 2019 was Funchess, the former Carolina receiver. The Colts envisioned Funchess being their number-two receiver behind T.Y. Hilton, but a clavicle injury in Week One sent him to injured reserve. Funchess has been designated to return from IR and has been on the field during a 21-day window for the Colts to decide what to do next. However, the team acknowledged this week that Funchess is not going to return to action in 2019. Hilton is also a question mark with a calf injury.

3. RB Marlon Mack. The former USF star is the Colts' leading rusher with 862 yards and four touchdowns, but he's missed the last two games after suffering a fractured right hand in Week 11 against Tennessee. He could play with a splint on the hand when he returns but it's not yet clear if that will be in Tampa in Week 14.

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