INDIANAPOLIS — One win to snap a four-game losing streak and the Indianapolis Colts are noticeably upbeat as they prepare for a Sunday road trip to California to face the Oakland Raiders.
While neither the Colts (2-5) or Raiders (1-5) have won enough, the Colts were encouraged by a dominant 37-5 home rout of the Buffalo Bills while the Raiders, in their bye week, traded away wide receiver Amari Cooper, a former first-round selection, to Dallas for a first-round pick.
The Colts were also enthused on Wednesday about the return to practice of Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle, who hasn’t played since suffering a hip injury in a Week 2 win at Washington. Rookie defensive end Tyquan Lewis, a second-round pick who has been on injured reserve all season with a toe injury, also practiced this day, which means the team has three weeks to decide on bringing him back.
“I shouldn’t say it boggles my mind, but it really does,” Colts first-year head coach Frank Reich said of how winning boosts the energy level. “This is just an emotional game. Win or lose, the whole building feels it. So after a win, there definitely is more energy, there’s a great vibe in meetings and in the building.
“So really we have to focus on that’s great, let’s feed off that but still keep that same grit and determination that we’re going to fight just as hard even though you have the positive vibe.”
The Colts are road favorites to win a second consecutive game, which would be the first time that’s happened since midway through 2016. A bye week awaits after this game, which means this team needs to sustain positive momentum to get back into the playoff picture in an AFC South Division where the Colts trail the first-place Houston Texans (4-3) by two games.
“Yeah, a little bit,” quarterback Andrew Luck said of the team being more enthused. “I do think with Frank’s leadership, it’s been a steady building. Every week, it’s been, ‘OK, it doesn’t matter what we did last week. We’re now onto a new one-week cycle.’
“Certainly a win and a positive result maybe gives a little more confidence, but today, it’s so what? Who cares? We’re onto the next one. It’s a tough trip to Oakland. Some guys on this team have done it before. Two years ago, we came back with a bad result (33-25 loss). So we know it’s always tough out there. They’re a team that’s hungry. We’re a team that’s hungry. It will be a good match.”
The Colts have reason to be more confident after their 30th-ranked defense in points allowed didn’t surrender an offensive touchdown against the Bills and forced five turnovers. The team also didn’t allow an offensive touchdown in its other victory, 21-9 at Washington in Week 2.
While it’s a given that Luck and the offense can be counted upon to score — the Colts are 10th in points scored at 27 per game — the most noticeable improvement against the Bills was no turnovers. The Colts had three interceptions and a lost fumble the previous week, a 42-34 road loss to the New York Jets.
Luck is coming off a four-TD passing game, the 11th time he’s accomplished that in his career. He’s completed 203 of 311 passes for 1,948 yards with 20 TDs and eight interceptions. The pass attempts are a league high. His TD total is second only to Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes with 22.
It helped that four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton returned to the Colts lineup after missing two games with a hamstring injury. Hilton caught two scoring passes against the Bills.
“We must stay vigilant in all areas,” Luck said.
The Raiders have been surrounded by a cloud of uncertainty since preseason, when they shocked the NFL world by trading one of the league’s best defensive players, linebacker Khalil Mack, to Chicago. The trade of Cooper means one less speedy wide receiver for the Colts to cover. Head coach Jon Gruden, who returned in the offseason to where he coached four seasons through 2001, has endured constant criticism about a franchise that in addition to the trades has alienated fans with its announced move to Las Vegas in 2020.
Oakland was listless to stay the least in its most recent game, a 27-3 loss to Seattle in London. The Raiders are 28th in points scored (18.3 per game) and 29th in points allowed (29.3 per game).
A Colts pass rush that is tied for fourth with 21 sacks will look to get after Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who has been sacked 17 times. A Pro Bowl selection each of the past three years, Carr has struggled largely due to a lack of support around him. Running back Marshawn Lynch was placed on injured reserve this week with a groin injury that will require surgery.
Carr is well aware of what’s being said about the Raiders. He tweeted on Tuesday: “I’m a Raider. It’s not a ‘popular’ thing to be a Raider right now, but I am and I love it. I love the struggle of trying to fight back for our city when not a lot of people believe in us. People can try all they want to tear us apart, but it’s not happening to the real ones. (Skull emoji.)”
Not that any of the Raiders’ issues concern the Colts.
“It’s always a unique experience to go out to ‘The Black Hole,’” Reich said of the famed, end-zone cheering section of rabid Raiders fans. “Great football tradition out there. So we’re looking forward to building off the momentum from last week, but let’s hit the reset button and the goal this week is to be 1-0.”
SERIES HISTORY: 15th regular-season meeting. Raiders lead series, 8-6. The Colts have won four of the past five meetings, although the Raiders prevailed in the most recent game, 33-25 in 2016 at Oakland. The two most memorable games were in the playoffs when the Colts franchise was in Baltimore. Tight end Dave Casper’s “Ghost to the Post” catch in overtime sparked a 37-31 overtime victory in 1977 in Baltimore. The Colts defeated the Raiders 27-17 in the first-ever meeting in an AFC Divisional playoff game in 1971 in Baltimore.
— The Colts worked out kickers Kai Forbath, Cairo Santos and Taylor Bertolet on Monday in case injured Adam Vinatieri can’t play Sunday due to a right groin injury. The NFL’s all-time field goal leader, who is five points away from becoming the league’s No. 1 career scorer, missed two extra points on Sunday. “No new update,” head coach Frank Reich said. “Just continue to monitor that situation as the week goes on and continue to talk to him and make the best decision later in the week.”
— Safety Mike Mitchell considered being named AFC Defensive Player of the Week a “meaningless” honor. The 10th-year pro, who was signed just two weeks ago and had not played this season, made seven solo tackles with one interception, one forced fumble and two passes defended. “To be totally honest, it doesn’t mean much,” Mitchell said of the award. “Obviously I’m grateful because I think it’s something that’s voted on. I need to have a good performance repeatedly. The most important thing to me is we won the football game.”
— Running back Marlon Mack’s career-high 126 rushing yards marked just the fourth time in Luck’s 77-game, regular-season career that the Colts have had a 100-yard rusher. Frank Gore did it twice last season, the first time since Vick Ballard topped the century mark in 2012. “Oh wow, I didn’t know that,” said Mack, a second-year pro. “That’s crazy.”
— Rookie defensive end Tyquan Lewis is hoping to show enough in practice to be re-activated from injured reserve after the second-round selection out of Ohio State was lost in preseason to a toe injury. “I don’t miss a beat,” he said of being ready to practice after staying focused in meetings during his rehab. “Get back on the field and let’s do it.”
— Continual shuffling of the offensive line means new starting right guard Mark Glowinski was a bit of an unknown when thrust into the lineup the past two games as a result of Matt Slauson being placed on injured reserve. A fourth-round pick for Seattle in 2015, Glowinski was claimed off waivers in 2017 but didn’t play a game. Two games into his Colts stint, he earned high praise from the Colts’ most established offensive lineman, left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who told Kevin Bowen of 1070AM-The Fan, “If everyone had a chance to watch him in the weight room, they would be incredibly impressed with (Glowinski). He’s a physical specimen and has the ability to physically move people out of the way, which is a huge thing for a guard.”
— The Colts were strong enough up front to be named the NFL’s “Offensive Line of the Week” by retired lineman Shaun O’Hara, now an analyst for NFL.com. “The unit helped the team amass 220 rushing yards, the most in a game by the Colts in the last 10 seasons,” O’Hara said. “Playing in just his third game of the season after dealing with hamstring issues, Marlon Mack recorded the first 100-yard rushing game of his career, finishing with 126 yards and a rushing touchdown on 19 carries (he also added a receiving TD). Thanks to major help from the O-line, Indy's running backs led the NFL with 114 yards before contact, per Pro Football Focus. What a day for this rushing attack.”
— Longtime NFL insider Ian Rapoport of NFL Network and NFL.com was joined by Colts rookie weakside linebacker Darius Leonard, who has a league-high 79 total tackles, in Wednesday’s “RapSheet and Friends” podcast. Leonard said he knew after the Week 2 win at Washington that he was capable of having an impact as a pro. “I just go out there and play each game like it’s my last,” Leonard said. Rapoport is touting Leonard, a second-round selection out of South Carolina State, as a strong candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. “It would mean a lot, man,” Leonard said of possibly winning that honor, “especially coming from a small town, being overlooked in high school, coming from a small college and just doing all the little things right. I know how hard I worked. My family knows how hard I worked. If I did win that award, it would mean a lot just not for me but for my family, for my university and for my hometown (Lake View, S.C.), just letting people know that it doesn’t matter where you come from and no matter how big the school you went to, there’s still a possible way for you to be great.” Rapoport said many NFL teams had suggested the Colts “reached” in choosing Leonard in the second round with the 36th overall selection. Leonard was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for September.
BY THE NUMBERS: 125 — Consecutive snaps in which Colts quarterback Andrew Luck hasn’t been sacked. It’s the longest stretch of his seven-year NFL career. Despite using 10 different linemen and five combinations in seven games, the Colts have allowed just 10 sacks while Luck has attempted a league-high 311 passes.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
— Marlon Mack is the first Colts running back to run for a touchdown and catch a scoring pass in the same game since Josef Addai in 2008. Expect the Colts to rely more on Mack, although rookie backups Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines will still spell him to keep the back fresh.
— Weakside linebacker Darius Leonard has at least eight tackles in each of his six starts. His 79 tackles are 12 more than the next player, Budda Baker of Arizona.
— Tight ends Eric Ebron and Erik Swoope have combined for nine TD receptions. Ebron leads all NFL tight ends in scoring catches. Swoope has caught a TD pass in each of the past three games, but suffered a knee injury against Buffalo. The former University of Miami basketball player, who didn’t play football in college, missed all of 2017 after undergoing knee surgery. If Jack Doyle can return, the roster spot is overloaded and will necessitate a move, either with Swoope if his injury is serious or possibly waiving Mo Alie-Cox, another college basketball player who didn’t play football in college. He’s bounced between the active roster and practice squad since being signed in 2017. Alie-Cox has caught a pass in each of the past three games for a combined 58 yards.
— Defensive end Margus Hunt leads the AFC with 10 tackles for loss.
— Defensive tackle Denico Autry, who spent his first four pro seasons with the Raiders, returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury. Autry also missed two games with an ankle injury this season. When he’s been able to play, Autry has been a solid starter with 13 total tackles and two sacks.
— Backup defensive tackle Jihad Ward suffered a serious left ankle injury against the Bills that will likely land him on injured reserve. He said after the game that the injury involved damage to both “bones and ligaments.” Ward was a bright spot with three sacks in his six games as a reserve.
— Safety Clayton Geathers (neck) was a full-practice participant on Wednesday, but the Colts won’t rush him back, especially considering newcomer Mike Mitchell’s solid play in two starts. Mitchell was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week on Wednesday.
— The Colts inactive players for Wednesday practice were kicker Adam Vinatieri (groin), wide receiver Ryan Grant (ankle), safety Mailk Hooker (hip), tight end Erik Swoope (knee), running back Robert Turbin (shoulder) and defensive tackle Jihad Ward (ankle). Hooker’s absence is expected to be just rest, but all of the other players are uncertain for Sunday. Grant and Turbin didn’t play last week.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: DE Jabaal Sheard. The eighth-year pro has been the Colts’ steadiest defensive lineman with 22 total tackles and four sacks. The sack total ties Darius Leonard and Margus Hunt for the team lead. Sheard has had at least a half sack in five of seven starts. He’s amassed 45.5 in his career. His 22 tackles are the most for Colts defensive linemen. While most are aware of Sheard’s pass-rushing skills, which is why he was a second-round pick by Cleveland in 2011 and later won a Super Bowl ring with New England in the 2016 postseason, the 29-year-old defender has proven he can be counted upon against the run.
GAME PLAN: Opposing defenses scheme first for trying to limit QB Andrew Luck and the passing game, but the Colts are making strides in establishing balance behind the rushing of second-year back Marlon Mack. Luck, who has the NFL’s longest active streak with a touchdown pass in 30 consecutive games, is still the catalyst for attacking a Raiders defense that is near the bottom in most categories. But head coach Frank Reich preaches the importance of balance. Expect another heavy workload for Mack, who showed burst in his last two starts after missing three games with a nagging hamstring injury. In those two most recent starts, Mack has rushed for 215 yards on 31 carries with one TD and has caught three passes for 37 yards with one score.
The Raiders are admittedly one-dimensional on offense in relying upon three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Carr. They’re 10th in passing offense (281 yards per game) and 25th in rushing offense (92 yards per game). Not having traded wide receiver Amari Cooper means more work for tight end Jared Cook, who has a team-leading 32 receptions for 400 yards and two TDs. Free-agent addition Jordy Nelson is also a matchup problem for a Colts defense that struggles in man-to-man coverage and plays a lot of zone. Nelson, who has 22 receptions for 323 yards and three TDs, has a knack for finding open spaces and Carr is smart enough to know where those will be, too. The Colts’ blueprint is to pressure Carr and create turnovers. The Raiders are minus-5 in turnover ratio with 11 giveaways. Carr has taken 17 sacks and has been intercepted eight times. The Colts are tied for 25th in points allowed (26.4) and 21st in total yards allowed (374.9 per game), so the Raiders should be able to move the ball. That’s why turnovers and sacks are key for a bend-and-sometimes-breaking Colts defense to get stops.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Colts S Mike Mitchell vs. Raiders TE Jared Cook — Defending the Raiders’ No. 1 pass catcher will likely involve Mitchell as well as free safety Malik Hooker, who will be positioned over the top with linebackers underneath. While Colts linebackers are athletic, it will be difficult to keep Cook from stretching the field, which means the safeties must be in the correct spots. Cook is a big target at 6-5 and 254, but he has 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash. Expect Carr to test that Colts secondary early and often to exploit mismatches. If the Colts do bracket Cook to try to take him away, that means Carr must be careful on when to throw his way. That would also mean more opportunities for other Raiders pass catchers against Colts cover guys who give plenty of cushion in trying to just keep opponents in front of them.
Colts RDE Margus Hunt vs. Raiders LT Kolton Miller — Hunt has been one of the Colts’ biggest surprises as a full-time starter for the first time with an AFC-best 10 tackles for loss and four sacks, which ties for the team lead. After five seasons as mostly a backup, he’s entrenched on the Colts’ defensive line. The 31-year-old veteran is going up against a 23-year-old rookie in Miller, who was the 15th overall player drafted last spring. Miller has been playing with a partial ligament tear in his right knee, which is blamed for alarming recent struggles in allowing six sacks and eight quarterback hurries in the last two games. While the bye week was undoubtedly a welcomed opportunity to rest, will Miller be strong enough to contend with Hunt?