1. Jonathan Taylor's impact may stretch beyond what he does with the ball in his hands.
This may seem like an odd place to start after Taylor set a Colts record with five touchdowns last week against the Buffalo Bills. But Taylor's ability to win his pass protection assignments has been important to the Colts' offense this season, and very well could be even more important against Todd Bowles' Buccaneers defense.
The Buccaneers enter Week 12 sending blitzes at the second highest rate in the NFL (42 percent), per Pro Football Focus. While Tampa Bay is tied for 14th in sacks (24) they're seventh in pressure rate (37 percent), meaning the Buccaneers are getting pressure on a little more than one in every three drop-backs – and frequently that pressure is being generated by a blitz.
"I just think (Bowles is) one of the best defensive coordinators that I've gone up against," head coach Frank Reich said.
Linebacker Devin White has been particularly effective on those blitzes. He has the most pressures (27) among inside linebackers in 2021, and his status for Sunday's game will be important to monitor when inactives come out 90 minutes prior to kickoff, as he's questionable to play with an injury.
"Rare combination of instincts and speed, a really good player," Reich said. "I mean, just flies all over the field, aggressive – a lot of respect for Devin White for sure. Inside, those two linebackers (White and Lavonte David), one of the better combos of two linebackers inside in the league."
The point here is because of Tampa Bay's penchant for blitzing, the Colts may need Taylor to make an impact in pass protection. He was last week against the Bills – facing a third and six in the third quarter, Taylor picked up inside linebacker Matt Milano on a blitz and cleared him out, allowing Carson Wentz just enough time to find T.Y. Hilton for a first down.
"JT in particular has done an incredible job," Wentz said. "As the year has gone, I keep seeing him get better and better. Not just in running the ball but protection and not getting fooled by the blitz either and seeing it and recognizing it. He's done a really good job and that trust has been there from the start, but it keeps getting even better."
2. Still, how the Colts handle facing another strong run defense will be key.
The Buccaneers enter Week 12 allowing an NFL-low 78 rushing yards per game; they're second in yards per carry (3.8) and feature a deep, talented defensive line and those two impressive linebackers in David and White Reich referred to earlier.
Defensive tackle Vita Vea is questionable to play with a knee injury, although coach Bruce Arians intimated earlier in the week the 6-foot-4, 347 pound former first-round pick would be good to go for Sunday.
"They're stout, all those guys are stout up front," Reich said. "I mean, that's why they're the No. 1 run defense. (Vea) certainly anchors it inside. It's a challenge. Obviously, I feel like we're pretty good up front as well. I look at people playing him, I look at us playing him before and he's a great player, but everyone can be moved. Everyone can be moved if we play with good fundamentals and technique and aggressiveness. It's like any other battle. You get good against good and they're going to win some, we're going to win some. So, looking forward to the challenge."
The Buccaneers like to load up the box with defenders, helping their cause in smothering opponents' run games. Only one running back has had a 100-yard game against the Bucs this year – the Chicago Bears' Khalil Herbert, who had exactly 100 in a 35-point loss in Week 7. And only five running backs have had at least 10 attempts against the Bucs this year, with their yards per carry averages:
- Herbert (5.6)
- Sony Michel (3.4)
- Alvin Kamara (3.2)
- Ezekiel Elliott (3.0)
- Antonio Gibson (2.7)
Taylor entered Week 11 averaging 5.8 yards per carry, while the Bills were allowing 3.8 yards per carry – and Taylor averaged 5.8 yards per carry in Buffalo. So the Colts showed they can still lean on their run game no matter what defense is across the line of scrimmage. But the Colts, also, are not a one-dimensional offense.
"When you can win like we did this past week, I mean that's a statement," Reich said. "I just think that's a statement. There's not many teams in the NFL I don't think can win a game in that fashion. So that's a carrying card if you will or whatever the right way to say that is.
"But if that's all you have – as good as Jonathan Taylor is, if that's all we got I mean it's probably not going to be enough. That's just not the way this game is. You have to be able to make plays in the passing game and thankfully I have a lot of confidence in our guys there – in our quarterback and in our skill guys.
"This will likely be a week where we have to do both. This is the No. 1 run defense. We certainly are not planning on abandoning the run, but we also understand that at the end of the day it will be a more balanced game than it was last week."
3. Can the Colts slow down Tom Brady?
Tom Brady has been playing so long that, after his seventh trip to Indianapolis on Sunday, he'll finally have played more games against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium (4) than at the RCA Dome (3).
There's no one sure-fire way, statistically speaking, to beat Brady. Get him to throw multiple interceptions? He beat the Cowboys with two in Week 1. Sack him multiple times? He threw five touchdowns against both the Falcons and Dolphins while being sacked three and two times in those games, respectively.
A semi-encouraging trend is Brady is 2-3 on the road in 2021 with nine touchdowns, five interceptions, seven sacks and a passer rating of 95.0 (at home he has 20 touchdowns, three interceptions, five sacks and a passer rating of 113.8). But more than anything, the Colts will have to play fundamentally flawless football on defense to keep Brady from leaving Lucas Oil Stadium with a win.
"Obviously Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks, if not, the greatest – elite experience," linebacker Bobby Okereke said. "So, we just got to do a great job disguising. He throws deep shots, he throws checkdowns. So, we just have to play traditional, fundamentally sound football because he's going to test your fundamentals."
4. The Colts are going into another game healthy.
This is a quick one, but an important one – the Colts did not rule anyone out on Friday's final practice report, encouraging for a team that's had two of its stars (Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard) fight through injuries all season.
In Tampa, the Buccaneers had 13 players listed on their final practice report and will be without left guard Ali Marpet and wide receiver Antonio Brown on Sunday. Don't discount the impact of a healthy, full roster this late in the season as the 6-5 Colts look to make a playoff push.
5. Robert Mathis will be inducted into the Colts Ring of Honor at halftime.
I talked with Bill Polian, Dwight Freeney, Anthony Castonzo and a few others for a story reflecting on what made Robert Mathis a great player – go check that out here if you haven't already. But Sunday's halftime ceremony inducting Mathis into the Colts Ring of Honor is absolutely something to look forward to, especially after Mathis was also named a Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2022 semifinalist this week.
"I did obviously mention it to our team the other day after practice," Reich said. "Specifically because it was Robert, and Robert had been here, has coached some of these guys and worked with them obviously at his business up – I know he's worked with some of the guys as well.
"Plus, I just think Robert has that unique mindset. Here's a fifth-round draft pick that came in and just earned everything that he ever had, did not take one thing for granted and is everything that we want to be about."