If there’s any one game on the Saints Pre-Season schedule that I actually was looking forward to, it’s this coming Saturday night’s match-up at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana to face the Colts; which is approximately one hour northeast of my house. These teams are the prohibitive favorites in both of the South divisions from their respective conferences (and both are Super Bowl hopefuls), as they meet in the 3rd pre-season match-up of 2014; historically the one game where the starters from each team will see their most extensive action before the kickoff of the regular season.
I moved up to Indiana in 2010 and married my wife — my former high school sweetheart from Louisiana but who’s lived in Indiana for nearly half of her life — the following year in 2011. As such, I have seen ALOT of Indianapolis Colts football, and I’m pretty familiar with their team as a result. Believe me when I tell you, it’s hard being a Saints fan wearing a Drew Brees jersey on Sundays during the season; when the folks all around you are wearing their #12 Andrew Luck jerseys.
Of course, most Saints fans and the Who Dat Nation are familiar with the Colts as being the team that the Saints defeated 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV, but this squad hardly resembles anything about that team. This is a new team, made up of new players, in a brand new era. The only similarity is that both teams feature elite players at the QB position.
One of them (Brees, who turns 36 in January) is likely just now entering into the twilight of his playing career, while the other (Luck, who will turn 25 next month) is entering into only his 3rd season and will likely be the top QB in the entire League — after the retirements of Brees, Brady, and Peyton Manning in these next few years. Brees will be playing in his first (and probably only action) of the entire pre-season, while Luck is playing in the third consecutive game of what will be his most extensive amount of playing time as well.
Since this is in fact the one pre-season game which teams go at it “full tilt”, I’ll do the very same; and so instead of giving you “5 things to watch” like I normally would for these pre-season games (which essentially are glorified scrimmages), I’ll analyze the 5 Match-Ups to Watch for Saints vs. Colts in the exact same way as I’ll be doing starting in September……
5. Colts defensive line vs. the Saints running game
Through two preseason games, the Colts are allowing 2.8 yards per rush. However, the even more impressive number would be eight — as in 8 yards, the longest run allowed so far by the Colts starting defense. The run defense was a major point of emphasis after 2013, when the Colts ranked among the poorer run defenses in the NFL. Last season, Indianapolis allowed 4.5 yards per carry and 125.1 rushing yards per game.
In the off-season, the Colts went after HUGE defensive lineman Arthur Jones of the Ravens (who played for Colts head coach Chuck Pagano when Pagano was formerly the Ravens’ defensive coordinator), signing him in March to a five-year $33 million contract. Along with former 2012 5th Round pick Josh Chapman out of Alabama, who has slowly developed into one of the League’s best “up and coming” young defensive linemen, the Colts have a reason to be happy with the results so far.
They’ll of course be facing off against a Saints rushing attack bolstered by the resurgent Mark Ingram, who has looked nothing short of spectacular so far. If the Saints can establish that “power” style against Jones and Chapman by battering them with Ingram and then hitting them with the quickness of Khiry Robinson, it will certainly bode well for the Saints to be able to carry this rejuvenated running game into the start of the regular season (against a reeling Falcons squad) on September 7th.
4. Colts LB’s vs. Jimmy Graham
Jerrell Freeman is the Colts’ best LB but hasn’t played due to an injury, leaving veterans Kelvin Sheppard and D’Qwell Jackson to fend for themselves covering Saints All-Pro TE Jimmy Graham, should Pagano elect not to start him. Freeman is now entering into his 3rd year as the Colts’ starting linebacker and excels when playing in space and in coverage.
He’ll definitely be facing a big test in his first week back (should he play as expected) when he likely will be asked to cover Saints All-Pro TE Jimmy Graham. That is going to be a very interesting matchup within the game itself. It’s also one I believe that Freeman is likely going to have a big problem with. I think that Graham is going to light up Freeman up like a star-lit night sky under a full moon. Seriously — it could really get ugly.
3. Saints secondary vs. Colts WR’s
With Keenan Lewis likely to miss this game with a left ankle sprain expected to keep him sidelined until the season opener at Atlanta; the Saints secondary will face a very good test against an outstanding Colts WR corps. Long-time veteran and All-Pro (and NOLA native) Reggie Wayne, coming off a torn ACL in his right knee in a game against the Denver Broncos last October; has said he wants to play in this game, but Colts head coach Chuck Pagano has been hesitant to say whether or not if Wayne will see any action (the idea may be that Pagano wants to keep him fresh for their season opener against the Broncos in Denver on September 7th).
The Colts are certainly going to have one scary group of receivers once they all manage to take the field together. Along with Wayne, the Colts signed former Giants WR Hakeem Nicks during the off-season. During a brief stretch in the Colts’ 27-26 loss to his old team the Giants last Saturday night, he caught fire to the point that it almost appeared as if Luck looked to be force-feeding the ball to Nicks (he likely was, considering the Giants DB’s couldn’t seem to STOP him).
Big play-maker and deep ball threat T.Y. Hilton (a veteran of my Fantasy Football teams in recent years, and whom I jokingly refer to as “Eugene” — his REAL name) returns for what will be his 3rd season. and will truly give this Saints defense a stiff challenge (if Saints fans thought the Titans’ Justin Hunter was fast last week, they haven’t seen anything until Hilton breaks free in the clear). Speedy rookie WR Donte Moncrief out of Ole Miss, who remains raw in some aspects, has turned quite a few heads as well — and may see some action
I’m hoping that Saints prized free-agent and All-Pro free safety Jairus Byrd will finally see the field for some live game action, since he’d get all he can handle with this Colts group of WR’s. They present the PERFECT CHALLENGE to the Saints secondary, to get them prepared for what they’ll be facing a few weeks from now in Julio Jones and Roddy White of the Falcons on September 7th.
2. Drew Brees vs. Colts CB Vontae Davis
Drew Brees returns to the Saints line-up finally after head coach Sean Payton took extensive measures to rest Brees’ strained oblique — a particular annoying injury and one especially for a QB. Brees in his first live game action back will get to face off against one of the AFC’s top CB’s in veteran Vontae Davis of Indianapolis.
Davis signed a big contract in the offseason, and his job is to be the best defensive back on the Colts’ roster (which honestly, he wasn’t at times last year). Brees is certainly going to be a challenge for Davis, and Saints fans (including myself) should pay very close attention to where Davis is on the field — to see if he can take away Brees’ No. 1 option consistently and efficiently.
I’m particularly interested in seeing Davis matched up one-on-one with Saints rookie WR Brandin Cooks, because I honestly don’t think Davis will be ready for the pure amount of speed and quickness that Cooks possesses. Davis is a “gambler” (he lost a few of those bets last year, but always bounced back strong), and I can’t wait to see him and Brees have a battle of wits out on the Lucas Oil Stadium field.
1. Andrew Luck vs. Rob Ryan
Yes, I realize that Rob Ryan doesn’t actually play defense. But he’s the brains behind the complex schemes and looks that will be thrown at Colts QB Andrew Luck on Saturday night. Luck, in my personal opinion, is by far and away the best young QB in the entire NFL. It’s that simple, because he’s that good. Coming into his third season, Luck has been asked to run the Colts offense from Day 1 like few young quarterbacks ever have. This by far is the “juiciest” match-up of the entire game: a strength (Luck and the Colts offense around him) vs. another strength (Ryan’s defense — the unit responsible for helping get the Saints’ ship righted after the forgettable 2o12 “Bountygate” season, and one that’s expected to make them one of the elite teams in the NFC in 2014).
Last year, with an inconsistent rushing attack and a depleted receiver corps because of injuries, Luck threw for 23 touchdowns and nine picks in the regular season and engineered Indy’s amazing comeback over the Chiefs in the wild-card round of the playoffs. After watching him as closely as I have since he arrived in Indianapolis in 2012, I just continue to be more and more impressed by him. For me personally, he reminds me of John Elway —- in that he is SO GOOD that he literally has impacted the way that defenses have to prepare and game-plan on just HOW to stop him from beating you with both his legs and his powerful throwing arm.
There could be no better test in my estimation for the Saints defense (and for Ryan’s play-calling ability) than this one, given all of the unique challenges that Luck presents. The reverse is also true, in that the complexities of looks that Ryan will throw at Luck will include some things that Luck possibly has NEVER SEEN before. It promises to be a great battle, and is “tops” among the 5 Match-Ups to Watch for Saints vs. Colts…….