INDIANAPOLIS — They just saw each other 17 days ago, but the Jacksonville Jaguars will look a lot different when they host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at TIAA Bank Field.
The Colts (6-5) will have to adjust their preparation for the Jaguars (3-8), who have benched quarterback Blake Bortles in favor of backup Cody Kessler and replaced fired offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett with quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich.
The Jaguars also will be without their best offensive player in running back Leonard Fournette, who lost his appeal of a one-game NFL suspension for a fighting ejection Sunday at Buffalo. Expect T.J. Yeldon to get the start.
What hasn’t changed in a short amount of time since the Colts’ 29-26 home win over the Jaguars on Nov. 11 is the direction of the two AFC South Division teams. The Colts have won five in a row for the first time since 2014. The Jaguars, one year removed from reaching the AFC title game, have lost seven in a row.
Colts first-year head coach Frank Reich has been around the league long enough to know that player and coaching changes don’t necessarily mean a complete offensive overhaul.
“My experience has been it’s not quite as big a deal as everyone thinks,” Reich said on Wednesday. “But it’s usually not as big of a systematic change as people might think. You nuance a couple of things, you shift a couple of things, but mostly you’re running your system.”
Kessler hasn’t started a game since losing all eight of his previous NFL starts with Cleveland in 2016. A former third-round pick with the Browns, he’s appeared in one game this season, spelling Bortles at Houston in a 20-7 loss. Kessler completed 21 of 30 passes for 156 yards with one TD, one interception, one fumble and he took four sacks.
“He’ll be ready,” Reich said of Kessler. “He’s been running their system and been in it, so we’ll just prepare against what we’ve been seeing on tape.”
Colts defensive tackle Al Woods said it’s imperative for the pass rush to get after Kessler and force mistakes. The Colts are one of only two NFL teams to force a turnover in each game this season. That said, the unit has often struggled to get stops and is just 17th in total yards allowed and 18th in points allowed.
“From what I’ve seen, he’s composed in the pocket and can be dangerous,” Woods said of Kessler. “We’ve got to get him uncomfortable and get him uncomfortable quick.”
The Jaguars are 28th in scoring at 17.9 points per game.
The Colts are two games behind Houston (8-3) for the division lead, but tied with Baltimore in pursuit of the sixth and final AFC playoff spot. The Ravens hold the tiebreaker.
It’s a game the Colts can’t afford to lose, although their mindset is the same as the last time these teams met.
“Honestly, I don’t think anybody in this locker room is looking at it like a streak,” quarterback Andrew Luck said of the Colts’ five-game win streak. “Frank has done a great job of keeping us just focused on the task at hand. Whether we were losing games or winning games, whatever it is, the approach has been the same. So in that department, nothing has really changed.
“We just come in and try to make the most out of each day. I know it sounds cliche, but it’s what is working for us. That’s where our focus needs to stay. I think it is. We’ll fight against letting our focus go elsewhere.”
Luck knows how stingy the Jaguars defense can be. The Colts scored all 29 of their points in the first half of the previous meeting. That an offense which has been clicking for two months failed to score in the second half is a reminder of the challenge ahead.
The Jaguars are fifth in fewest total yards allowed and third in fewest passing yards allowed. The Colts have averaged 33.1 points in their last eight games to boost the season average to 29.5, fourth in the league.
“They have great players all over the field,” Luck said. “They’ve got guys who can cover, guys who can rush the passer, their linebackers are elite. They will make you pay for not being on the Ps and Qs. We know that. We know that very well.”
TV: CBS (Channel 4 in Indianapolis); Steamlive on CBS.com. Announcers Tom McCarthy (play-by-play), Steve Beuerlein (color analyst).
RADIO: WFNI (1070-AM ESPN The Fan, 107.5-FM locally) and WLHK (97.1 HANK FM locally). Radio announcers are Matt Taylor on play-by-play, Jim Sorgi as color analyst and Barry Krauss as sideline reporter.
REFEREE: Alex Kemp (NFL official since 2014, promoted to referee in 2018).
SERIES HISTORY: 36th regular-season meeting. Colts lead series 23-12. The Colts hung on for a 29-26 home win over the Jaguars on Nov. 11 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts scored all of their points in the first half. The Jaguars swept the season series last year. The Jaguars have won four of six. Before that, the Colts won six straight. The Colts are 10-7 at Jacksonville.
— Several Colts, including wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, were quite candid about how Jacksonville’s issues don’t concern them. “It means nothing to us, we just got to go out there and play,” Hilton said. “We know they are going to come out there and they’re going to bring it. It’s a division game, so for us we got to go out there and try to take the crowd out of the game.”
— While Luck is regarded as a top candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year after missing 2017 due to shoulder surgery, Reich thinks his quarterback is worthy of MVP consideration. “Yeah, absolutely,” Reich said. “The string of games he’s put together, playing at a high level, doing everything that you would think an MVP player would do, helping win the kind of games we’ve won and just the level of consistency week in and week out.
— The Colts have resisted the temptation to use Ebron more because they want to keep him fresh. And that’s paid dividends with continual big plays, including 11 TD receptions that’s tied for the league lead. Reich was asked if Ebron will need to play more with tight end Jack Doyle lost for the season due to a kidney injury. “We’ve been very intentional about trying to get him in a rep count that we feel like has worked for him,” Reich said. “It will probably be somewhat increased because of Jack. … It will literally be play by pay, seeing who’s up, and where can we get Eric off the field and give him a break so he’s not getting too much work.”
— Reich gave a positive update on Doyle’s recovery from a procedure while in the hospital. “He did get released, and is doing well,” Reich said of the 2017 Pro Bowl tight end leaving the hospital. “(I’ve) been in contact with him, and I’m encouraged by the results of the procedure and wishing him the best.”
— Rookie weakside linebacker Darius Leonard insists the Colts won’t let down their guard with Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette being absent due to a one-game suspension. “I’m not looking at it saying that Leonard Fournette is not playing so my job is going to be easier,” Leonard said. “I’m not going to say that. I’m going to play the exact same way. I’m still going to be play as hard and try to be the best out there. Everybody is good in the NFL.” Leonard’s league-leading 114 tackles are 17 more than the next players.
— Luck commended the play of backup center Evan Boehm, who started for injured Ryan Kelly in the Colts’ 27-24 home win over Miami. “Evan did a heck of a job,” Luck said. “He really did a nice job. You don’t put up points, you don’t sustain drives without having a center that’s taking command, especially when it gets tough at the end of the game. He really stepped up. I was proud of him and proud of all of those guys.” The Colts rallied from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit.
— Consider Luck the consummate perfectionist. He’s having the best season of his seven-year career, but quickly shifts any question about his stellar play to what he needs to improve upon. “I certainly don’t feel like I’m perfect in this offense, by any means, in the sense that I don’t understand it 100 percent,” Luck said. “There’s always little things that you’ve got to work on. That’s the approach that we’ve taken and that’s the approach that we’ll keep. We’ll keep working to try and achieve perfection.”
BY THE NUMBERS: 102.7 — Passer rating for Luck, the best of his seven-year career. His previous best was 96.5 in 2014. He ranks eighth among regular NFL starters although he’s third in pass attempts at 437. In five consecutive wins, he’s had a pass completion percentage of 70 or better and quarterback rating above 100. The seventh-year pro is tied with Peyton Manning for the second-longest NFL streak with at least three touchdown passes in eight consecutive games. His 32 TD passes rank second in the league.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
— Several Colts starters didn’t practice on Wednesday, although most are resting nagging injuries and expected to play. The players who fit that category are TE Eric Ebron (back), WR T.Y. Hilton (groin), LB Darius Leonard (shoulder/knee), safety Clayton Geathers (knee) and linebacker Anthony Walker (shoulder). All played last week. The DNP uncertainties are RB Marlon Mack (concussion), center Ryan Kelly (knee) and TE Mo Alie-Cox (calf). Mack suffered his concussion on Sunday. Kelly and Alie-Cox didn’t play, the latter missing the last two games.
— If Mack isn’t cleared in the concussion protocol, expect the Colts to rely upon rookie RBs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. Hines likely gets the start. He started against the Jaguars the last time. Hines is second on the team with 69 rushing attempts and has gained 283 yards with one TD. He’s also the team’s third leading receiver with 40 catches for 248 yards and two TDs. But Wilkins could also get the start and would inevitably get his share of snaps. He’s the second-leading rusher with 318 yards on 57 carries with one TD.
— Health concerns about all of their tight ends necessitated Wednesday’s signing of free agent Clive Walford, a former third-round pick who started 10 of 44 games with Oakland the past three seasons. He has 70 career receptions for 768 yards and six TDs, but was among final preseason cuts with the Jets and hasn’t played this season.
— Aside from Ebron, who is nursing a back injury, the other three tight ends on the roster are injured. The Colts had just two tight ends last Sunday, then Doyle got hurt. Erik Swoope, who hasn’t played in four games since suffering a knee injury, was limited in practice on Wednesday. He had a streak of three consecutive games with a TD reception before getting hurt. Ryan Hewitt, who has missed the last three games with an ankle injury, is utilized as a blocker. He doesn’t have a catch this season.
— The Colts haven’t made a decision on whether Kelly, the team’s O-line anchor, will be able to play this week with a sprained left medial collateral ligament. That he didn’t practice on Wednesday suggests the team could stick with Evan Boehm for another week. Boehm isn’t Kelly, but he was reliable in his first start on Sunday. Kelly has said trainers have worked on a knee brace that would enable him to return, hopefully sooner as opposed to later.
— Dontrelle Inman has been a solid free-agency addition as the No. 2 wide receiver with 17 catches for 167 yards and one TD. He’s started four of five games since his arrival. The Colts had signed Ryan Grant in the offseason to be the No. 2 wide receiver, but he missed two starts due to injury and has been a seldom-used reserve the past two games with three catches for 18 yards. It sure seems as if Inman has won that job.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: TE Eric Ebron. The fifth-year pro enjoyed a career game against the Jaguars earlier this month in catching two touchdown passes, including a 53-yard score, as well as a 2-yard TD rush. Ebron’s 11 receiving TDs are tied for the league lead and most for a tight end. The loss of tight end Jack Doyle to a season-ending kidney injury means Ebron will be needed for more plays, especially as a blocker, considering the Colts’ other three tight ends are nursing injuries and their status is in doubt. The 25-year-old Ebron is a coverage mismatch when facing linebackers and his 53-yard TD was a missed assignment by Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey.
GAME PLAN: Perhaps the only time the Colts offense hasn’t been clicking of late was in a point-less second half against the Jaguars. Colts game-planners will undoubtedly zero in on those two quarters and compare that to when the team flourished in the first half. Luck is always the catalyst in the passing game, and expect the Colts to rely upon that even more if RB Marlon Mack (concussion) is unable to play. When the Colts have struggled to run, they’ve isolated running backs in space with short throws. Watch for that early on. The Jaguars concentrated before on taking away Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, so expect the scheme to split the emphasis on limiting Hilton but also trying to stick with tight end Eric Ebron, who had three TDs in the last meeting.
The Jaguars would like to make life easier on quarterback Cody Kessler, who hasn’t started a game since 2016, but he’s going to need to make throws if the run game isn’t producing. The Colts did a decent job of stopping the run in the previous meeting and the Jaguars not having suspended running back Leonard Fournette suggests they will look to throw the ball early and often. The throws might start out as high percentage to help Kessler settle in, but the Jaguars beat the Colts deep in the previous meeting as wide receiver Donte Moncrief victimized his old team with a career-best 80-yard TD reception. The Jaguars have nothing to lose, so Kessler will undoubtedly test the Colts on deeper routes depending upon the coverage. The Colts defense typically plays zone and drops linebackers back into coverage, but expect some early blitzes to try to rattle the quarterback and speed up his internal clock.
MATCHUPS: Colts LT Anthony Castonzo vs. Jaguars RDE Calais Campbell. Although Campbell moves around along the defensive line, he’s often on the edge on the right side, which means the All-Pro pass rusher will run into the Colts’ best blocker in Castonzo. What the Colts must be mindful of is when Campbell stunts inside to test rookie left guard Quenton Nelson. Castonzo and Nelson must be on the same page when this happens. Campbell is tied with defensive end Yannick Ngakoue for the team lead with six sacks and has 77 in his 11-year career. The Colts are tied for the league lead in fewest sacks with just 11 allowed. QB Andrew Luck took one in the last game which ended a “clean” streak of five games and 239 pass attempts.
Colts WR T.Y. Hilton vs. Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey. Hilton has shown in the last two games that leaving him alone against one-on-one coverage can be costly. Since being shadowed with double coverage in the previous meeting against the Jaguars, the four-time Pro Bowl pass catcher has caught 16 passes for 280 yards and two TDs in the past two games. That means Ramsey, a talented third-year cover guy, would draw the most important assignment, that is if he plays. Ramsey is nursing a knee injury and didn’t practice on Wednesday. He hasn’t missed a game this season, so the Colts will still prepare to see him. But if Ramsey doesn’t play, then the Jaguars’ Plan B will be to bracket Hilton as they did in the previous meeting with a cornerback underneath and safety over top.