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Jets vs Colts: Keys To Victory

Some surprising things surface as common elements in beating the Colts over the last year.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Let's take a look at the Colts' losses since the beginning of 2014 and see if we can tease out some common elements to those losses.

The Colts have lost seven games since the start of the 2014 season, including playoffs.  The teams that have beaten them have been the Broncos, the Eagles, the Steelers, the Cowboys, the Patriots (twice), and the Bills.

One of the first and most obvious things people look for in keys to winning are turnovers.  If your offense takes care of the ball and your defense generates multiple turnovers, you'll win the game, right?  Surprisingly, against the Colts turnovers do not seem to have played a huge role for the teams that beat them.  In the Colts seven losses, the Colts turned the ball over three times in two games, twice in three games, and once in two games, for an average of two Colts turnovers per loss.  That average is exactly the same as the two turnovers per game the Colts have had in their 13 wins over this stretch.  And the only two games the Colts turned the ball over four times, the Colts won both games.

On offense, the teams that beat the Colts turned the ball over twice in two games, once in three games and zero times in two games, for an average of one turnover per game.  So they took care of the ball on offense more than the average Colts opponent in Colts wins, who turned the ball over 1.7 times per game.  That difference of 0.7 turnovers per game in turnover differential between Colts wins and Colts losses is not completely insignificant, but it also does not seem to be large enough to be terribly decisive in beating the Colts.  So turnovers, while always nice, have not been a particularly decisive factor in Colts losses.

How about shutting down the Colts' high powered passing attack?  In the seven Colts losses the Colts averaged 259 passing yards per game, significantly less than the 313 yards per game they averaged in wins.  So that would appear to be a major factor on the surface.  But when you look deeper it does not seem to be a common element among Colts conquerors.  The Broncos gave up 354 yards passing. The Steelers gave up 385 yards passing.  The Patriots in one win gave up 303 yards passing.  In three of the seven Colts losses the Colts passing game was far from being shut down.  In the other four losses the opposing defenses did indeed shut down the Colts passing game, limiting the Colts to 172 yards, 228 yards, 126 yards and 240 yards, four of only six times in the 20 games when the Colts were held to 240 yards passing or less.  So it seems shutting the Colts passing game down is one way to beat them, but it isn't particularly necessary.

What about shutting down the running game?  Here we finally come to what seems to be the closest thing to a common element in beating the Colts.  In six out of seven Colts losses, the Colts were held to 83 yards rushing or less.  In five of the games it was 64 yards rushing or less.  The Colts were only held to 83 yards or less rushing seven times, six of which were Colts losses.  Overall, teams that beat the Colts held them to an average of 65 rushing yards per game, just over half the 117 yards rushing the Colts averaged in their 13 wins.  It's surprising, but over the last year+, the most reliable way to beat the Colts on defense has been to shut down the run.  You've been able to beat the Colts with or without shutting down the pass, but shutting down the run has been almost a prerequisite to beating the Colts.

On offense you have needed a decent running game, but nothing really special, to beat the Colts.  The Patriots racked up huge rushing totals of 246 and 177 yards in their two wins, and the Bills put up 147 yards, but the other four winning teams all rushed for between 102 and 127 yards, nothing particularly impressive.  It looks like you need to be able to run the ball reasonably effectively against the Colts to beat them, but a ground and pound approach hasn't necessarily been the road to victory.  How about the opponents' passing games?  In the seven Colts losses the Colts defense was gashed in the passing game.  Five of the seven winning teams put up 250 yards or more in passing. Two put up 330 yards or more.  One, the Steelers, ran up 522 passing yards on the Colts.  The Colts only gave up 250 or more passing yards seven times in 20 games, and five of those games ended in a Colts loss.  Overall, winning teams put up an average of 291 yards passing against the Colts, while losing teams put up an average of 184 yards passing, a whopping 107 yards per game difference.  Every single team that beat the Colts put up more passing yards than the average passing yards put up by teams that lost to the Colts.  In addition, 21 of the 32 total passing touchdowns allowed by the the Colts defense since the start of the 2014 season came in the seven games the Colts lost.  The Colts defense gave up just 11 passing touchdowns in the thirteen games they won.

The upshot of all this?  It seems counter-intuitive, but in general, the key to beating the Colts hasn't been pounding them into submission on the ground and passing just enough to keep the defense honest, thus keeping the ball out of the hands of Andrew Luck and the explosive Colts offense.  On the contrary, the key in general has been to light it up through the air and run just enough to keep the Colts defense honest.  Likewise, contrary to expectations, on defense the key hasn't been shutting down the Colts elite passing game, a very difficult task.  Rather, the key has been completely throttling the Colts running game and just doing enough against Luck in the passing game to keep the Colts from going wild.

Applying this to the Jets, shutting down the Colts running game should be achievable.  However, the second half of the winning formula, lighting it up in the passing offense, seems like a much more formidable challenge.  I would expect the Jets to try to play ball control offense and run it over and over, but this has in general not been a winning strategy against the Colts.  Likewise, if the Jets try to light it up through the air, that has generally not been a Ryan Fitzpatrick strong point.  This is where beating the Colts gets problematic.  If the keys to beating the Colts hold in this game, the Jets will likely need a big effort from Ryan Fitzpatrick.  We'll see tonight whether he is capable of rising to the challenge.