Colts at Chargers: How we see it

Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ season opener Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers at Dignity Health Sports Park:

Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.

Broadcast: CBS4

It’s about 7: We understand Chris Ballard’s foundational philosophy that his Colts never will be about one player. Totally understand. And the massive makeover he and his personnel staff have done since the start of 2017 is truly impressive. We’ve insisted for a long time this is the best top-to-bottom roster Indy has had since 2009, when it lost to New Orleans in Super Bowl XLIV.

But until proven otherwise, the Colts’ 2019 season is all about one guy – Jacoby Brissett. There is going to be a drop-off in performance in the transition from Andrew Luck. How could there not be? Luck was one of those rare QBs who could carry his team to a win, regardless the situation. However, the drop-off with Brissett needs to be manageable, not massive. With such a solid supporting staff – offensive line, skill players, defense on the rise, top-tier kicking game – Brissett needs to do his job. That means making the handful of plays when the situation warrants and avoiding a spate of mistakes.

Management and players are universally behind Brissett. He must prove worthy of their support, and that starts Sunday against the Chargers.

It’s about protecting 7: If Frank Reich’s offense is going to thrive with Brissett under center, it’s incumbent on one of the NFL’s best offensive lines to live up to the reputation it established last season when it allowed a league-low 18 sacks. The starting unit did not take a snap as a group in four preseason games, and there were occasional individual struggles during the joint work in training camp with the Cleveland Browns.

That was then, this is now. The Chargers will be without All-Pro safety Derwin James, who’ll miss at least the first half of the season with a foot injury. That’s a huge loss, but the defense still is loaded. And that starts up front with bookend pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, nose tackle Brandon Mebane, outside ‘backer Uchenna Nwosu and rookie tackle Jerry Tillery.

Left tackle Anthony Castonzo and right tackle Braden Smith need to hold up on the edges. The interior of Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly and Mark Glowinski must provide Brissett with room to step up if the pressure comes from the outside.

The last time Brissett was a full-time starter, he was under constant siege. Remember the league-high 52 sacks in 15 starts in ’17? That season was an aberration.

Leaky protection is the surest way to undermine Brissett.

Stepping up on D: James isn’t the only Chargers’ front-liner out. The Philip Rivers-led offense is without feature back Melvin Gordon, left tackle Russell Okung and likely kicker Michael Badgley as well. Imagine the Colts without Marlon Mack, Castonzo and Adam Vinatieri.

Rivers still has ample options at his disposal, most notably the wideout tandem of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Allen is coming off a 97-catch, 1,196-yard season while Williams had a team-high 10 TDs. That group should represent a stiff test for a Colts’ secondary led by Pierre Desir, Kenny Moore II, Quincy Wilson and rookie Rock Ya-Sin. We won’t be surprised if Desir follows Allen around much of the day.

Coverage needs to be enhanced by pressure up front, and that starts with Justin Houston. The former Kansas City Chief brought 78.5 careers sacks to Indy, and 7.5 came against the Chargers.

“My job is to put pressure on the quarterback,’’ Houston said, “so I’m definitely going to be trying to do that when it’s time.’’

Houston is the catalyst, but he should have ample help from Denico Autry and Kemoko Turay.

While the Chargers passing game figures to be vibrant, their running game clearly will miss Gordon. The load falls on Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, who share four career starts and zero 100-yard games. Indy didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher last regular season, and this is no time to start.

Offensive approach: Needless to say, we’re interested to see how – if – the offense changes with Brissett. Reich insisted it’s business as usual. We’ll see.

The strength of the offense rests with a passing skill group led by T.Y. Hilton, Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle, Devin Funchess, Deon Cain and rookie Parris Campbell. If Brissett’s protection holds up, he’s got plenty of options. We’re especially curious how Reich incorporates Campbell, who should flourish out of the slot if he gets single coverage.

No one should be surprised if Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni try to establish Marlon Mack and the run game. Reich wants a top-5 ground game, and that will require a game-long, season-long commitment. It’s worth noting Indy will be attacking a Chargers’ strength. Los Angeles ranked 9th against the run last season.

Better start: Hilton knows the history.

“The years I’ve been here we probably only started off 1-0 one time,’’ he said. “That’s a big thing. Let’s try to get off to a good start and end this week 1-0.’’

The Colts are 1-8 in season openers since 2010 and have lost five straight. That’s tied for the league’s longest active opening-day streak.

Moreover, Indy has gotten off to 0-2 starts in four of the last five seasons, including 1-5 last year. That simply puts too much strain on the team. The Colts overcame the 1-5 start by winning nine of their last 10. But they absolutely had to win nine of 10 to earn a wild-card spot.

And the winner is: Chargers 27, Colts 24. This game is so gettable, but we’re not to the point we’re buying the level of confidence the Colts are showing in Brissett. Until we’ve seen him over a few games – maybe a month – we’re withholding judgment.

Really, really like the team. But it’s all about 7.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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