1) Canal Street Chronicles: Coming into the season, Indianapolis was thought by many to be the main rival to New England for the AFC crown. Now the Colts are sitting at 3-3, with their three wins coming against teams with a combined 4-13 record in the Titans, Jags and Texans. What exactly is ailing Indianapolis right now?
Josh Wilson: I think there have been quite a few things that have gone wrong that have added up to result in the disappointing 3-3 start that we've seen from the Colts. First and foremost, we have to point the finger at Andrew Luck. The reality of the situation that the Colts find themselves in is that they have built entirely and completely around Luck. That is, all of the moves that they have made are with the intention that Luck will continue to be a total game-changer and dynamic playmaker. The team is built to complement Luck, so while we saw they could pull out a couple of wins against bad teams without Luck (give them a lot of credit for that), they can't be nearly as effective as they were expected to be. So, since Luck has struggled often this season, the Colts' struggles are magnified. The flip side of that is that there's reason to think that there could be improvement, since we know that Luck is capable of getting it going at any point (like he did in the fourth quarter of the Titans game or the first half of the Patriots game).
It's not just Luck, however, as we've seen a lot of other issues with this team. The offensive line has not been great, allowing too many hits on Luck and being flagged for holding way too often. Some of the big free agent signings, like Andre Johnson and Trent Cole, have been close to invisible. The secondary has dealt with a number of injuries and hasn't played like they are capable of playing. The pass rush has been totally inconsistent and very ineffective. So there are a lot of issues with the Colts, but I think that the biggest one has been the play of Andrew Luck - but mainly because they are counting on him to play at such a high level that, when he doesn't, things look much, much worse.
2) CSC: Not so long ago the whole world was ready to give the keys to the NFL kingdom to Andrew Luck. Now a lot of the same observers are having second thoughts. What are the main causes for Luck's rough start to the 2015 season?
JW: It's hard to pin-point exactly why Andrew Luck has struggled so far, but I think there are a couple of realistic possibilities. Firstly, we have to acknowledge that he has been injured. That doesn't excuse some of his poor decisions, but he missed two games with a shoulder injury and many wonder whether he was playing injured before that as well. And then in the game against the Patriots, some raised questions about whether the injury is still ailing him a bit because of a number of passes sailing high. I think that the injury (or injuries) absolutely has played a part in his struggles, and if I had to speculate, I'd say that is the biggest factor. But we have also seen Luck force some throws early in the season and commit a lot of turnovers, making some poor decisions with the football. Is he trying to do too much? Maybe. But regardless, his decision-making hasn't been great, either. So I'm inclined to attribute a lot of it to the injury, but that hasn't been the only thing. And if his play doesn't have to do with the injury, then I'd begin to question how this coaching staff is helping him progress on things like making his reads, etc. But for now, while I don't want to use the injury as an excuse, I think that's the most probable explanation for some of the struggles.
3) CSC: I'm sorry, but you know I have to ask this: what happened on that brutal trick play on fourth down last Sunday night? In your opinion, will that loss to the Pats coupled with such a public gaffe cost Pagano his job?
JW: That play was a total mess. Basically, here's what I've learned this week: the football was never supposed to be snapped. The Colts have a play in their playbook in which they do hike the football, but when they brought the play back last week in practice, that wasn't their goal. Instead, they were planning to not snap the football but hoping that the Patriots would be confused. It was intended to look like the punt team was hurrying off the field like they were hurrying their offense back on, so either the Patriots would run their defense out (12 men on the field), line up incorrectly (which, ironically, the Colts did), or have to call a timeout they might need later. If none of that happened (and it didn't), then the plan was simply to take a delay of game penalty, take the five yards, and then punt the ball. That was how it was supposed to work, but the problem came because of an injury. Safety Clayton Geathers was supposed to be the center on the play, but he went out with a knee injury earlier in the game. Wide receiver Griff Whalen took his place, but all he knew was the play that was in the playbook - that is, actually snapping the ball. When the team put in the different version last week, Whalen (who is one of the more versatile players on the team) was fielding punts and not a part of the discussion. So, in other words, it was a huge miscommunication - the ball was never supposed to be snapped, but Griff Whalen didn't know that because he wasn't even supposed to be in there. That makes Chuck Pagano's play call even more inexplicable: why would you call that play if one of the key players in it is not out there? It was a stupid, unnecessary move that essentially sealed the Patriots' victory, but it was one huge, ugly miscommunication.
4) CSC: This is one of my go-to when doing these "Five Questions" pieces: If you were Saints' defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, how would you go about stopping the Colts offense? And on the other side of the ball, if you were Sean Payton, how would you attack the Colts' defense?
JW: For the Saints' defense, get pressure on Andrew Luck. The Colts' offensive line is not that great, while Luck has a tendency to hold on to the football slightly longer than he should. Getting pressure does a couple of things: it limits the deep ball for the Colts, it causes Luck to force some throws while under duress, and it can destroy drives (whether by a sack or a holding penalty). I don't think that New Orleans has the talent at cornerback to match up with the Colts' wide receivers, so they need to do something to try to help them out - which is pressuring Luck and throwing off the rhythm of the offense. Lastly, while you can't focus on Frank Gore like you might otherwise without Andrew Luck, Gore has had a good season and you have to be ready for the Colts to run the football. If they fall behind the Colts have a tendency to abandon the run game, but until then, Gore could pose a threat. You can't focus in on the run game (because the passing game could pick you apart then), but you have to have your defensive linemen and linebackers ready to play against the run.
For the Saints' offense, go at the Colts in the middle of the field through the passing game. Benjamin Watson could be a key, as the Colts don't exactly have the personnel to guard good receiving tight ends without completely focusing on them. Using inside route combinations is the best bet against the Colts, both with tight ends and wide receivers. Furthermore, look Greg Toler's way. Vontae Davis will be on one side of the field, so simply look the other way and test Toler, who has struggled this year. The Colts' strength defensively this year has come in the run defense, so the Saints should pass to set up the run (something they tend to do anyway). Lastly, I'd dare the Colts to beat me through the air. If they do, you can reevaluate, but I have doubts they'd be able to. If you take to the air with Drew Brees and that offensive attack, dare the Colts to be able to pressure Brees (which I don't think they can do consistently) and to be able to hold their own in coverage (which I have doubts about). In short, dare the Colts to beat your passing game, while keying in on some inside combinations for maximum effectiveness.
5) CSC: Prediction time, Mister Wilson: Who wins this game and more importantly: why?
JW: I expect this to be a game with quite a bit of offense in it, to be sure. I don't have confidence in the Colts' defense shutting down Drew Brees and the Saints' offense, while if the Colts' offense can't get things going this week there will be even more questions. Ultimately, I do think that the Colts will find a way to pull this one out, though I expect it to be close. The Colts have played very well following losses, as they have just two back-to-back losses since the start of the 2012 season. The Colts will be hungry for a win after losing last week (and, while they can't think this way, their upcoming slate of games is very tough), and I think we saw a lot of good signs from the offense last week. The second half wasn't as good, but Andrew Luck, Frank Gore, and the rest of the offense took several steps forward overall, giving hope that they're starting to figure things out. The defense has improved against the run this year and has the talent against the pass to at least slow down an offense somewhat. So while I think it will be close, I think the Colts' offense will continue their improvement this week and do enough to pull out a home win against the Saints.
My thanks to Josh for taking the time to answer these questions: for more Saints-Colts coverage with a Midwest flavor, check out Stampede Blue.