8:20 PM EST, FOX – Line: Colts -10.5, Over/Under: 46.5
As we reach the midway point of the campaign, a pair of teams looking to turn things around before it’s too late meet in the heartland as the Indianapolis Colts play host to the New York Jets, from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. For the third time in the last seven years the Jets (2-5, 3rd in AFC East) are starting over again as they look to finally get out of the doldrums that has been their residence for the better part of a decade now. After five consecutive losing seasons, this is a franchise that has proven to be anything but an easy fix, finishing last in their division in four of the last five years. Indeed, Gang Green has become largely irrelevant in the Big Apple, which is arguably the worst thing that can happen to any of their resident sporting franchises as they haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 2010. Poor coaching hires, high-profile draft busts, and blatant misses in Free Agency have all played a role in their prolonged struggles, though there is tepid optimism that they may finally have the right man in place to lead them out of the proverbial wilderness in the form of (Head Coach) Robert Saleh. After spending the previous four years as the San Francisco 49ers’ Defensive Coordinator, the 42-year old became the first Muslim Head Coach in the history of the National Football League, and with an endless reservoir of energy appears to be well-equipped to change the culture of a franchise in dire need of it. With stints in both Seattle (2011-2013) and San Francisco (2017-2020) under his belt, this guy knows what a winning program looks like, with each of those teams undergoing considerable growth en route to advancing to a Super Bowl during his stay. Make no mistake, that is very much the main priority for Saleh, for this is a roster that remains depleted of both playmakers and quality depth on both sides of the football, though you can already see his vision starting to take shape. The Defense in particular has responded well to his leadership, proving respectable against the run in allowing 115.1 yards per game (18th Overall) on 4.0 yards per carry (7th Overall), while ranking thirteenth on both third down (39.1%) and in the red zone (57.6%), despite yielding 29.4 points (30th Overall) on 390.4 total yards (28th Overall). The pass-rush has improved with the Defense compiling seventeen sacks (17th Overall) along with a solid pressure rate of 25.4% (12th Overall), as (2019 No. 3 Overall Pick) Quinnen Williams (24 TKL, 5 TFL, 9 QBH, 4.5 SK, 1 PD) has really begun to flourish within this new scheme. The only thing really missing from this unit has been takeaways, for they’ve logged only five thus far (29th Overall), which is a direct result of not having the requisite talent on the back end to take advantage of the opportunities created by the front four. Remember, with Saleh in charge this unit is running the Seattle Cover-3/Press-Bail scheme, which while simplistic in it’s nature relies upon some serious talent on that side of the football to execute, which he had in each of his previous stops, and the Jets simply don’t have at the moment. The same can be said on the offensive side of the football, where New York remains well behind the curve, though they hope that they have the pieces in place to grow. Saleh and (General manager) Joe Douglas tabbed Zach Wilson (57.5%, 1,168 YDS, 5.04 NY/A, 4 TD, 9 INT, 25.9 QBR) with the Second Overall Pick in the 2021 NFL Draft to be the Franchise Quarterback that the team has sought for so long. If you recall, (his predecessor) Sam Darnold (chosen 3rd Overall back in 2018) was supposed to be that man, but the previous regime completely failed at developing his talent and building a supporting cast around him, which is something that Saleh and Douglas will do everything in their power to refrain from repeating. However, as was the case with Darnold, Wilson hasn’t had much to work with thus far, and has certainly experienced a rough start to his career; the 22-year old has struggled to complete just 57.4% of his passes on a meager 5.04 net yards per attempt, with nine interceptions and nineteen sacks staining the first six games of his career. In an embarrassing 54-13 drubbing at the hands of the New England Patriots two weeks ago, he was knocked out of the affair with a sprained PCL, which sidelined him for last weekend’s surprising 34-31 victory over the upstart Cincinnati Bengals. And in the long run missing some time may not be the worst thing for the Rookie, who got an opportunity to take a step back and watch his Backup, Mike Whtie (74.0%, 607 YDS, 7.39 NY/A, 4 TD, 4 INT, 53.2 QBR), make some NFL history; all the 26-year old did was complete 37-of-45 passes for 405 yards, which marks the second-highest total ever registered by a Quarterback making his first start, and the most since Cam Newton (422) back in 2011. White rallied the hosts back from double-digit deficits on two occasions last Sunday, tossing two late touchdowns to pull the upset. Indeed, the Jets didn’t look like a team that was 1-5 coming into the contest, as they torched Cincinnati for season-highs of 511 total yards and thirty-two first downs all the while possessing the football for a commanding 36:20. Sure he made his share of mistakes (2 INT), but he and the coaching staff deserve a wealth of credit for coming back after an epic beatdown and putting together a solid game plan that was executed to a tee. With Wilson expected to miss at least another week of action, it’ll be interesting to see if they can build some momentum tonight with such a short turnaround against one of the better defenses in the league. Of course, these two teams met last year at Lucas Oil Stadium, which didn’t go well for the visitors at all; after tying the score at 7-7 in the first quarter, New York was gashed for twenty-nine unanswered points en route to a 36-7 blowout loss. Indianapolis’ Defense outscored the Jets altogether, returning a pair of interceptions for scores, while sacking the aforementioned Darnold in the end zone for a safety. Needless to say, the Gang Green faithful hope that this meeting has a very different ending, for they’re 3-2 against the Colts over the last decade, though have been one of the worst teams on Thursday nights in recent memory; over the last ten years, New York is a dreadful 2-8 (.200) on the short week, riding a three-game losing streak in that regard into tonight’s affair.
Meanwhile, unlike their opponent tonight the Colts (3-5, 2nd in AFC South) did not enter 2021 in rebuilding mode and were absolutely expected to contend within the AFC, though have nonetheless met considerable disappointment. With roughly half of the campaign in the books, Indianapolis couldn’t have envisioned themselves two games under .500 and on the outside looking in at the playoff race. So what has gone wrong in Indy, you ask? Well, let’s take a quick look at how they got here first. Now in his fourth season with the franchise, (Head Coach) Frank Reich had taken his charges to the postseason in two of his three years on the job despite having a proverbial revolving door at the game’s most important position: Quarterback. Upon his hiring back in 2018, Reich rode a resurrected Andrew Luck to a 10-6 finish and a trip to the second round of the playoffs, only for Luck (29-years old at the time) to abruptly retire altogether midway through the following preseason, leaving the Colts to pick up the pieces en route to a 7-9 record with his backup, Jacoby Brissett. Then last season, Indianapolis managed to convince (veteran Quarterback) Philip Rivers NOT to retire, with the eight-time Pro-Bowler guiding them to an 11-5 finish and a trip to the Wild Card before ultimately calling it a career after his seventeenth season. That trend would continue into 2021 with Carson Wentz (62.3%, 1,926 YDS, 6.31 NY/A, 14 TD, 3 INT, 54.1 QBR), who arrived via trade with the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a 2021 Third Round Pick and a conditional selection in 2022. Of course, there was perhaps no player in the NFL that needed a change of scenery more so than Wentz, who had fallen out of favor with the coaching staff, the locker room, the media, and the faithful in Philly over a campaign in which he regressed considerably before eventually being benched for the rest of their run. However, Reich was part of the coaching staff that helped launched the former Pro-Bowler back in 2016, serving as his Offensive Coordinator for the first two years of his career, so there is arguably no better coach to repair a player who looked very much broken a year ago. However, injuries played a major role in his fall from grace in Philadelphia, and threatened to do so immediately in Indianapolis, as the 29-year old missed all of the preseason rehabbing from foot surgery, and spent much of the first few weeks of the campaign playing on not one, but TWO, sprained ankles. To his credit, Wentz has performed much better as he’s gotten healthier, posting figures that were a sizable improvement on than anything he had managed over the last few years, with better protection serving as the catalyst to his success; Wentz was sacked a league-high FIFTY times in 2020 (10.3%), and thus far has been dropped for a loss on just sixteen occasions (5.6%). A punishing ground game has certainly eased his transition, with the Colts averaging 122.0 rushing yards (12th Overall) on a healthy 4.6 yards per carry (7th Overall) thus far, led by (Sophomore Tailback) Jonathan Taylor (121 CAR, 649 YDS, 5.4 Y/A, 6 TD), who ranks second in the league in rushing at 649 yards. Taylor came on strong towards the end of last season, churning out 741 yards over the final six games, with his side winning all but one of those outings. This season Reich has utilized him far more in the passing game, with the 22-year old on pace to shatter the numbers that he posted as a Rookie, reeling in twenty-one receptions for 265 yards and a score thus far. With all that said, why is this team a mediocre 3-5? Well, thanks to a number of early injuries (including Wentz), the Colts’ Offense started slowly, averaging 18.6 points on just 318.3 total yards en route to losing their first three games. However, Wentz & Co would turn things around in short order, scoring 28.8 points per game on 370.4 total yards over the course of the following five contests, surpassing the 30-point threshold in each of their last three games. Unfortunately, they’ve twice come up short in overtime, including heartbreaking losses to the Baltimore Ravens (25-31), whom they led by as many as nineteen points in the fourth quarter, and most recently the Tennessee Titans (31-34), which is perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow. Reich’s troops opened last weekend’s affair on fire, racing out to an early 14-0 lead only for the visitors to rally back and square things away before a field goal right before the half returned them the lead going into intermission. From there the combatants would trade blows until Wentz, who looking to avoid a sack in his own end zone, attempted an ill-fated pass that was intercepted by Tennessee, who took a 31-24 lead with just 1:26 left in the fourth. Rather than sulk in defeat, Wentz would engineer a furious 8-play, 75-yard drive aided by a crucial 42-yard pass interference on the visiting side in the end zone, allowing the aforementioned Taylor to punch it in from the 1-yard line and send the affair into overtime. Both teams would possess the football twice, with Wentz tossing his second interception of the afternoon towards midfield, turning it back over to their division rivals, who eventually kicked the game-winning field goal from forty-four yards out. Needless to say, this was a debilitating loss for the Colts, who had already fallen to the Titans once this season and essentially trail them by FOUR games within the division, which is a deficit that seems insurmountable even in a seventeen-game regular season. The loss was also the continuation of an alarming trend for Indy, who have struggled to close out games of late; Sunday’s defeat marked the third time in which they lost when leading in the fourth quarter (most in the NFL), while being outscored by twenty-seven points in the fourth quarter and overtime despite besting their opponents by forty-four points through the first three quarters of play. Now on a short week, they’ll be looking to refrain from suffering that same fate against the Jets, who as we stated earlier were utterly DEMOLISHED in their trip to Lucas Oil Stadium a year ago; while the Defense accounted for fourteen of their thirty-six points on the afternoon, Taylor would rush for fifty-nine yards and the first touchdown of his professional career, while (veteran Receiver) T.Y. Hilton (6 REC, 96 YDS, 16.0 Y/R, 0 TD) would total fifty-two yards on three catches, one of eight different Colts to log a reception. Unfortunately, the oft-injured Hilton will miss tonight’s contest after suffering a concussion last weekend against Tennessee, while (three-time All-Pro Guard) Quenton Nelson is a game-time decision after missing practice throughout the short week with an ailing toe. Indianapolis are 6-4 on Thursday night over the last decade, though after winning five straight contests from 2011 to 2015 managed to snap a four-game losing streak in that regard last season with a 34-17 victory at Tennessee.