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Colts at Rams: What to watch for Sunday

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Scott Tolzien connects with Donte Moncrief for a 55-yard gain in the Colts first scoring drive vs. Pittsburgh (WXIN August 26, 2017)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday opener with the Rams in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.

Broadcast: CBS4

  •  For starters: The last time the Colts met the Rams in Los Angeles – week 2 of the 1989 season – it was Chris Chandler versus Jim Everett in Anaheim Stadium. The Rams posted a 31-17 victory. The last time the Colts handled the Rams in L.A. – the final game of the 1969 season, for cryin’ out loud – it was John Unitas outdueling Roman Gabriel 13-7.

Now it’s Scott Tolzien versus Jared Goff. The veteran journeyman who entered the NFL in 2011 as an undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin squaring off against the first overall pick in the 2016 draft. Tolzien, Andrew Luck’s temporary stand-in, and Goff, the future of a franchise.

It’s hard to imagine either quarterback lighting it up Sunday.

Tolzien (0-2-1) will be making just his fourth career start and second with the Colts. Offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski insisted he’ll call an aggressive game and rely on Tolzien “make plays’’ and “cut it loose,’’ but we’re expecting a more calculated approach.

Goff (0-7) weathered a rough rookie season, but showed signs of promise during the preseason when he completed 75 percent of his passes and posted a 94.5 rating. The guidance of first-year head coach Sean McVay has been instrumental. So has the offseason addition of free agent wideouts Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods.

Tolzien and Goff are the first opening-day starting QBs who have previously started a game but have yet to win one since the 1970 merger. Something’s got to give.

  • Run by committee?: Chudzinski will undoubtedly attempt to ease Tolzien’s burden by leaning on his running game. While the focus figures to be on Frank Gore, all signs point toward a backs-by-committee approach this season. Gore remains the feature back, but Robert Turbin and rookie Marlon Mack are expected to get more than a little work.

“Those things work themselves out as you go,’’ Chudzinski said. “We’ll figure out a way to disperse that.’’

Like most running backs, Gore needs a certain amount of attempts to find his rhythm. But it’s worth noting he’s never been a pure workhorse during his 12-year career. He’s averaged 16.5 carries per game and had more 25 attempts in just 17 of 180 career games. Not surprisingly, his teams are 16-1 in those games.

“I’m not the coach,’’ Gore said. “If they feel like they want someone (else) to touch the ball, what can I do? I’m just going to try to take care of mine. When I get my opportunities, take advantage of it.

“When I do play, when I can get into a rhythm in a game, I know I can play football. But I’m not the coach. I only can do what the coach wants me to do.’’

Gore, 34, will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. He’s 8th in NFL history with 13,065 yards, but could reach the No. 4 spot. He needs 195 yards to pass Eric Dickerson (7th at 13,259), 598 to pass Jerome Bettis (6th at 13,662), 620 to pass LaDainian Tomlinson (5th at 13,684) and 1,037 to pass Curtis Martin (4th at 14,101).

  • Different, but better?: We know the defense is light years removed from last season’s ineffective unit. The starting lineup includes five players picked up in veteran free agency: nose Al Woods, tackle Johnathan Hankins and linebackers John Simon, Jabaal Sheard and Jon Bostic. Coordinator Ted Monachino will make liberal use of three draft picks: first-round safety Malik Hooker, second-round cornerback Quincy Wilson and fifth-round corner Nate Hairston. Either Wilson or Hairston starts in place of injured Vontae Davis.

“Never been through anything like this before, but this is a good thing,’’ Monachino said of the massive turnover. “I promise this is a good thing . . . (but) better or worse is still to be determined.’’

The Colts’ offseason focused on reinforcing the front seven, which will be tested by the Rams. While Watkins and Woods give Goff threats in the passing game, L.A. still might lean heavily on Todd Gurley. The 10th overall player in the 2015 draft is looking for a bounce-back season. He was named Offensive Rookie of the Year on the strength of 1,106 yards (4.8 per carry) and 10 touchdowns. Last year, Gurley’s performance slipped behind a subpar offensive line: 885 yards, 3.2 yards per attempt.”

“Our goal every game is stop the run,’’ said end Henry Anderson. “We want to make a team one-dimensional.’’

A year ago, the Colts’ run defense ranked 25th in yards per game (120.4) and 30th in yards per attempt (4.7).

  • Special attention: Easily lost in the personnel moves that completely reshaped the defense were a pair that rocked special teams. Gone are punter/holder/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee (retired) and long-snapper Matt Overton (released). In their place are Rigoberto Sanchez and Luke Rhodes. Sanchez is an undrafted rookie who has never held for placements. Rhodes is a former inside linebacker who’ll be long-snapping for the first time.

That has to be more than a little unsettling to Adam Vinatieri. He can’t do what he does until Rhodes and Sanchez do what they do. And he must have complete faith in the snap-hold process.

As long as Luck is out, mistakes will be maximized. Also, every point must be cherished.

  •  And the winner is: Rams 20, Colts 16. We headed into the week ready to predict a 15-9 Colts win. If these guys are going to have a shot at relevancy later on, they’ve got to take advantage of the softer portion of the schedule. That begins with the Rams, who haven’t posted a winning season since 2003 (12-4) and were 4-12 last season.

And we talked ourselves out of it. There is too much uncertainty. Too many questions: Tolzien, more shifting on the offensive line, that new-look defense, missing too many cornerstone players, relying on too many rookies.

We’re bracing for a fourth straight season-opening loss.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.