Jacoby Brissett and the Colts square off against Matt Ryan and the Falcons in Indianapolis
The Indianapolis Colts (1-1) get to enjoy the friendly confines of Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time this season, as they play host to the Atlanta Falcons (1-1) on Sunday for a pivotal Week 3 cross-conference matchup.
The Colts spent the first two weeks of the post-Andrew Luck era on the road with mixed results against a pair of AFC playoff contenders. Week 1 ended with a heartbreaking 30-24 overtime loss to the Chargers. But thanks in large part to three touchdown passes from Luck’s replacement, Jacoby Brissett, the Colts managed to bounce back with a 19-17 upset win over division rival Tennessee in Nashville this past Sunday. Indianapolis will now look to carry that momentum into Sunday’s home opener against Atlanta.
The Falcons also came away with mixed results after spending the first two weeks of the season playing the role of underdog against a pair of NFC playoff contenders. A Week 1 road trip to Minnesota ended poorly with a lopsided 28-12 loss to the Vikings. But, courtesy of some late-game heroics from Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, the Falcons did manage to rebound with a 24-20 victory over the Eagles in their home opener last Sunday night. The Week 2 win should provide a much-needed boost of momentum, as they get set to hit the road again to play the role of underdog for the third week in a row.
Atlanta at Indianapolis
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 22 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Indianapolis -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Colts slow down Atlanta’s passing game?
It was never going to be easy for the Colts to contain Atlanta’s high-octane passing attack. But that challenge will be far greater without the services of All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, who has been ruled out because of a concussion. Top cornerback Pierre Desir is dealing with a knee injury but he still has a shot of playing on Sunday. Desir’s absence would leave some combination of cornerbacks Kenny Moore (still nursing a broken thumb), Rock Ya-Sin (a rookie), and Quincy Wilson (poor grade of 51.1 from Pro Football Focus) with the unenviable task of contending with star wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. That possibility does not bode well for the Indianapolis pass defense.
However, hope is not completely lost. The Colts can still lean on a formidable pass rush, led by Justin Houston and Denico Autry, to potentially make life difficult for Matt Ryan and company. Indianapolis has already racked up eight sacks and 13 quarterback hits through the first two weeks. And a beat-up Falcons offensive line appears ripe for the picking in Week 3. Consistent pressure will be critical for the Indianapolis defense on Sunday. Matt Ryan has already thrown five interceptions under duress in just two games.
2. Will Devonta Freeman and the Falcons’ run game finally break out?
Falcons running back Devonte Freeman has been the model of consistency through the first two weeks — just not in a good way. The two-time Pro Bowler finished with just 19 rushing yards against the Vikings in Week 1 and only 22 rushing yards against the Eagles. To be fair, Freeman was facing two of the best run defenses in the league in those matchups, and running lanes haven’t exactly been plentiful behind a revamped Atlanta offensive line thus far. But the Falcons will need to get a lot more from Freeman, along with backup Ito Smith, for this offense to reach its full potential moving forward.
The good news is that Week 3 could provide a solution for Atlanta’s woes in the run game. Opposing running backs have averaged 5.5 yards per carry against the generous Indianapolis run defense through two games. And the Falcons’ chances for success on the ground improve with Leonard already being ruled out as well as defensive tackle Jabaal Sheard (knee injury). It will be telling if Freeman and/or Smith cannot take advantage of what appears to be a favorable matchup.
3. The Indianapolis passing game vs. Atlanta’s pass defense
The days of Indianapolis putting up gaudy numbers in the passing game are over. The Colts are now a run-first team that relies on a stout offensive line and running back Marlon Mack to do most of the heavy lifting. That, in part, explains why Indianapolis is currently ranked dead last in the NFL in passing yards per game (147).
The other part of that explanation is that Jacoby Brissett is not Andrew Luck, nor does he attempt to be. That said, he has proven to be a more than serviceable replacement. Despite Brissett’s lackluster yardage totals through the first two weeks, he’s thrown five touchdown passes to just one interception, he’s been nearly flawless in the red zone, and he boasts a passer rating of 107.8. For perspective, Matt Ryan’s passer rating currently sits at 82.8.
So, how do Brissett and the Colts’ passing game stack up against the Falcons? On paper, not well. The Falcons have the No. 1-ranked pass defense in the NFL right now, allowing just 167 yards per game through the air. However, that ranking is a bit misleading due to the Falcons facing just 10 pass attempts in Week 1, and Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz spending most of Week 2 matchup without his top two receivers.
Regardless, Brissett and company could still be in for a serious challenge, particularly if Mack is limited by the calf injury that caused him to miss practice earlier this week. If Mack and fellow running backs Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines are unable to gain much ground against the Falcons, that will force the Colts into the uncomfortable position of going to the air more often than they would like. That also would play right into the hands of an emerging Atlanta pass rush, which routinely overwhelmed a top-flight Eagles offensive line last week and left Carson Wentz on his back more times than I could count. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out.
The Colts are a very resilient football team, led by a great head coach in Frank Reich. And no matter what, they are going to put up a good fight on Sunday with home-field advantage on their side. That said, it’s hard to overlook the injuries. The Colts will be without Darius Leonard, their best defender, and top cornerback Pierre Desir and running back Marlon Mack also are dealing with injuries. No. 1 wide receiver T.Y. Hilton also isn't expected to be at 100 percent on Sunday because of a quad issue. And with all due respect to legendary Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, he can’t be trusted to make an extra point right now, much less kick a 50-yard game-winner. It’s simply too much for the Colts to overcome in a matchup that seems to be setting up nicely for the Falcons.
Prediction: Falcons 27, Colts 21
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.