By David Anderson – Indianapolis Colts Writer
Heading into their first meeting since November 2015, both the Colts and Falcons seemingly have more questions than answers resulting from their first two games of the 2019 season.
The Colts head into week 3 off a scrappy, but important, 19-17 road win over their division rival Titans in Tennessee, which followed an overtime Week One loss in LA to the Chargers. Although there were clear areas to work on, Colts showed some promise from what is one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, even with 46-year-old Adam Vinatieri bringing up that average significantly (more on him later).
While the Falcons looked fairly flat in their opening day defeat against the Minnesota Vikings, they gave their fans something to cheer with a home win against the imperious Philadelphia Eagles. The Falcons had their share of luck though, with the Eagles injury woes continuing to snowball throughout the game, while Nelson Agholor had the game in his hands in the 4th quarter but dropped what looked a guaranteed touchdown.
As we look to predict the outcome, here are five key factors that will determine the winner of this matchup.
Although last Sunday’s game saw three interceptions for Matt Ryan (five through the first two weeks is rather ominous), it also saw him do what he does best; getting the ball in the hands of his playmakers in space. This was never more apparent than throwing to Julio Jones for the game-defining 4th & 3 play with 2 minutes left in the game. The adjustment at the line of scrimmage to exploit the Eagles having no deep safety allowed Jones to get free on a 54-yard TD from a screen and shows why the Atlanta QB is known as “Matty Ice”. However, Ryan will need to minimize some of the wayward throws seen last Sunday, while still aiming to find the balance between risky throws and looking for those big plays that make the offense so dangerous.
In his first two games since Andrew Luck’s shock retirement back in August, no one can say Jacoby Brissett is near the top of the list of the Colt’s problems. He has had a steady start, and there is a clear improvement from his initial run as starter while Luck missed the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury. Brissett had thrown 167 consecutive passes without an interception before his 2nd quarter pick last weekend, showing an increase in his maturity level as he enters his fourth year in the league.
However, we are yet to see Brissett exploit the Tight Ends the way we used to see Luck do so consistently and effectively. If Brissett can utilize the talents of Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron on a more regular basis, rather than having to solely rely on the enigmatic TY Hilton, this offense could be a real threat to anyone they come up against.
Falcons Receivers vs Colts Defensive Backs
This is a mouth-watering match up. On one side you have the dominant Julio Jones, the youthful exuberance of Calvin Ridley and the reliable hands of Mo Sanu, who will go up against the explosive playmakers of the Colts secondary including Malik Hooker, Kenny Moore, the steadily improving Quincy Wilson and the rookie second-round pick Rock Ya-Sin, who has seen high praise already from coaches and reporters alike.
The Colts’ most experienced cornerback, Pierre Desir, may miss out this week with a knee injury but, having initially thought this may cause Desir to miss multiple weeks, he appears to be moving towards being a game-time decision based on the most recent injury reports. Desir had a stellar 2018 campaign and could be a key man in the secondary with so many weapons at the Falcons’ disposal.
The Colts Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus has made a significant impact with the young group at his disposal since he arrived in early 2018, so much so that he received a Head Coaching interview with the Cleveland Browns in the off-season. His success has been built from a “bend don’t break” philosophy and the Colts will know that they cannot keep such a talented receiver group quiet for the whole game, and so the game may be won and lost on whether the Colts can keep the Falcons’ big plays to a minimum.
Colts Offensive Line vs Falcons Defensive Line
In watching the Falcons’ recent clash with the Eagles, in spite of all the impressive offensive plays from Julio Jones and his supporting cast, there was one player who jumped off the screen; Grady Jarrett. He was wreaking havoc all over the offensive line of Philadelphia, one of the best lines in football, and I can imagine Carson Wentz woke up in a cold sweat on more than one occasion this week following his encounter with Jarrett.
Now he brings his talents to Indiana for another tough test against Quenton Nelson and his gang of beefy comrades, including Left Tackle Anthony Castonzo fresh off his inclusion in the PFF Team of the Week for his performance against the Titans. The Colts offensive line has been utterly transformed under General Manager Chris Ballard, culminating in giving up the least sacks of any team in the 2018 season, an inconceivable thought for Colts’ fans even three years ago.
It could be an all-out war in the trenches this Sunday between these two groups and will be a great watch for those who love the “All-22” coaches film on Gamepass to see how the individual battles are settled. Both groups are coming off dominant performances in Week Two and will be on a high and so we should expect to see some fireworks as, to use an old cliche, the unstoppable force meets the immovable object.
Following another injury-plagued season, Devonta Freeman was hoping to hit the ground running (no pun intended) in 2019 and make himself the Falcons’ undisputed starter. However, in his 19 carries over the first two games, Foreman has managed just 41 yards behind a shaky offensive line which has now lost promising rookie Guard Chris Lindstrom to IR with a foot injury. The early reshuffling of the line has not helped a line that had the same five players line up for the entirety of their 2016 Superbowl run. With Denico Autry coming off a team-leading two sacks, two tackles for loss, four solo tackles and one forced fumble against the Titans, he will be keen to continue that run of form against the Falcons’ interior.
The performance of Marlon Mack in Week One against the LA Chargers earned him NFL Ground Player of the Week as the team racked up a league-best 174 yards. In Week Two, it was 167 total yards against the Titans, although this was more of a committee-based approach with second-year back Jordan Wilkins sharing in the workload. With the burgeoning offensive line and running back depth, Head Coach Frank Reich and Offensive Coordinator Nick Sirianni have really doubled down on the run game, with the total yards for 2019 to date is the third-highest total seen in franchise history through the first two weeks. It will be a real test of the Falcons to keep this young backfield quiet in Lucas Oil Stadium. One point of concern may be Mack’s persistent appearance on the injury report this week but the hope is he will be clear for Sunday.
We need to talk about Adam
Adam Vinatieri’s start to this season has been nothing short of disastrous, leading to strong rumors of his retirement following the win over the Tennessee Titans. With those rumors now firmly put to bed by Frank Reich, as well as Vinatieri himself, the focus now becomes on ensuring the GOAT does not continue to be the liability he has been in recent games.
If you include the 2018 AFC Wildcard game against the Chiefs, Vinatieri has missed three of his last four field goals and, unbelievably, four of his last seven extra points! No matter your status in the history of the sport, those numbers are unsustainable. This week could make or break for the greatest to ever kick a pigskin.
We found out on Friday the Colts will be without reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, Darius Leonard, who found himself in the concussion protocol having developed symptoms in the aftermath of the Titans victory and has not been able to get cleared in time for Sunday. At such a young age, he is already the leader of Matt Eberflus’ defense and will be a real miss for the Colts, and an exploitable opportunity for the Falcons with their multitude of offensive weapons.
With the way these teams have started their respective campaigns, it seems to be a coin-flip game here. However, with home-field advantage and a (slight) tinge of self-interest, I am going with a scrappy win for the Colts to take them to 2-1, leaving the Falcons to look to their next two games, both also against AFC South opponents, to get back on track in an NFC South that is up for grabs in 2019.
Final Score Prediction: Falcons 24, Colts 30