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Colts-Buccaneers preview: One big thing to watch on offense, defense as AFC playoff push continues

The Colts are 5-5 and sit ninth in the AFC standings entering Week 12. 


The Colts returned from their week off on Monday with a fresh outlook on the AFC playoff race, in which they sit ninth with a 5-5 record entering Week 12.

It was a notable week at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center, though, with Tuesday's news that linebacker Shaquille Leonard was waived. By Wednesday, though, the Colts' focus shifted back to preparing for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that'll provide a few specific challenges at Lucas Oil Stadium – where, by the way, the Colts are just 1-4 this season

With that in mind, here's a look at those specific challenges – ones which, if the Colts can overcome, they can leave downtown Indianapolis with a 6-5 record and boosted odds to make the playoffs.

When the Colts have the ball

Only one team – the Minnesota Vikings – blitzes at a higher rate than Todd Bowles' Buccaneers, who've sent pressure on just under 50 percent of their defensive snaps entering Week 12, per Pro Football Focus. And while Tampa Bay may be predictable in when they blitz, they're not predictable in how they'll blitz. 

Bowles, first as the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator and now as head coach, is known for varying the kind of pressure he'll dial up. Some will be simulated pressure (four pass rushers, but with a blitzing linebacker or defensive back and defensive linemen dropping into coverage), some will be five-man pressures (either a linebacker or defensive back plus four defensive linemen) and some will be with six or more pass rushers. 

While the Buccaneers have faced the 14th-most coverage snaps (407), they've dropped at least one defensive linemen or edge players into coverage 140 times, the fourth-highest total in the NFL. Those can come on simulated pressures or five+ player blitzes – and underscore the you-don't-know-where-it's-coming-from challenge of facing Bowles' aggressive defense. 

"That's the thing — they make you scan all areas of the field," running back Jonathan Taylor said. "Other schemes, you kind of got a sense, okay, you can see rotation, you have little keys and details pre-snap. But with this defense, you never know where it's coming from, so it's kind of like you need to make sure all your senses are heightened, everyone's on the same page with communication so that whatever they may bring, we're able to pick it up and lock it because it's going to be one of those games."

Picking up those blitzes is critical, because if you do, Tampa Bay's defense has struggled at times to defend the pass. Only two teams have allowed a higher passer rating when blitzing than the Buccaneers (113.9), and no team has allowed more passing plays of 15 or more yards when blitzing than Tampa Bay (36), per Pro Football Focus. When the Buccaneers blitz but do not generate pressure, 47 percent of passing plays have resulted in a first down or touchdown, the sixth-highest rate in the NFL – again, for a team that blitzes at the second-highest rate. 

Still, there's nothing easy about facing this defense, which fields league-wide stars like defensive tackle Vita Vea, defensive end Shaquill Barrett, linebacker Devin White and safety Antoine Winfield Jr., among other standouts. (White will be a game-day decision and veteran linebacker Lavonte David will not play Sunday, Bowles revealed Friday.)

"I have a ton of respect for Todd Bowles," head coach Shane Steichen said. "Obviously, being an opposing coach on other teams, going against that style of defense – he does a really good job with his pressure package. They're a good front. Vita Vea is a really good player inside. David and White, the linebackers are really good players. They've got some guys dinged up on the backend. We'll see how that plays out. Winfield Jr., the safety, is a really good player.

"It will be a heck of a challenge. He always has really good defenses – the way he plays it, the way he mixes it up, the structure of things, showing one look and doing something else off it is really good. So, we have to be detailed and we've got to do our best as coaches to put our guys in position this week."

When the Colts are on defense

Here's an interesting stat split, from PFF:

  • Baker Mayfield when under pressure: 93.3 passer rating (24th)
  • Baker Mayfield when not under pressure: 87.3 passer rating (5th)

And here's part of the explanation why:

Table inside Article
Yards per reception when QB is under pressure, min. 10 targets
Player Team YPR
Rashid Shaheed NO 30.0
Calvin Austin III PIT 29.7
Joshua Palmer LAC 29.0
Zay Flowers BAL 25.5
Justin Jefferson MIN 24.8
Mike Evans TB 24.7

The upshot here: Baker Mayfield is one of those quarterbacks against whom getting pressure isn't always enough. His ability to create while keeping his eyes downfield has opened up plenty of opportunities for Mike Evans, who's tracking toward his 10th consecutive 1,000-yard season (he has 780 yards with seven games left). 

"They have some really good receivers, really good weapons for Baker and he's been able to make those deep throws down the field," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "We gotta get there."

Evans, notably, enters Week 12 with his highest overall yards per reception (16.3) since before Tom Brady's three seasons in Tampa Bay. With a quarterback who can create and push the ball downfield, Evans has the second-highest average depth of target (15.2 yards beyond the line of scrimmage) of any receiver in the NFL this season. 

The question for Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley this week will be how he turns the dial of committing players – specifically, safety Julian Blackmon – against the run or the pass. 

"If you can stop the run and some split-safety, that gives you even more flexibility," Bradley said. "Last game, they got some runs on us, but we played a little bit more split-safety so there was give and take."

The Buccaneers enter Week 12 with the lowest yards per carry average (3.1) in the NFL, but the Colts are 26th against the run (4.6 yards/carry) in the four games since defensive tackle Grover Stewart was suspended by the NFL for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances (Stewart will return in Week 14).

So for the Colts' defense, while the Buccaneers have one of the NFL's top wide receiver duos in Evans and Chris Godwin (50 catches, 561 yards), their plan on Sunday will come down to stopping the run. 

"We gotta make sure we take care of the run game first," Buckner said, "and then when we have opportunities, we gotta get to Baker."

View the top photos of the Colts defense on the field at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center preparing to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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