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Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Browns in Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium:

  •  Kickoff: 4:25 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4

Biggest test for D

It was a great first-quarter of the season for coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense. By any and every measure, it was the NFL’s best: 1st in points per game, yards per game/play, passing yards per game/play, third-down conversions.

But after yielding just 56 points in the first four games, the Colts face a Cleveland offense that piled up 49 at Dallas last week and has generated 124 on the season. We’re not as concerned with the Browns’ ability to jolt the scoreboard as we are with how they’ve been doing it. They not only feature the NFL’s top-ranked run game (204.5 yards per game, 5.9 per attempt), but have a league-best 11 attempts that have chewed up at least 20 yards. The Colts have one.

The Colts’ D swarms to the football, is a sure-tackling bunch and has limited the gashing plays. The longest run allowed is 16 yards. The longest reception is 33. It’s hardly ideal that All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard is out with a groin injury, but the key to Eberflus’ defense flexing its muscles has been the play of front. Justin Houston, DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart and Denico Autry are playing at a high level, and that has made it somewhat easier on the back end of the unit.

Any lingering questions regarding the authenticity of Eberflus’ defense could be answered Sunday. If it can hold Baker Mayfield, Kareem Hunt, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Austin Hooper in check, even the harshest skeptics should be silenced.

And about that offense

We’ve mentioned this before, but we’re still waiting for Philip Rivers and the offense to get their act together. They haven’t been New York Giants-level bad, but neither have they been hitting on all cylinders. Most concerning to us has been the inefficiencies on third down and in the red zone. They’re 30th in moving the chains (34.6%) and 28th in scoring TDs in the red zone (7-of-15, 46.7%).

It’s one thing to settle for four Rodrigo Blankenship field goals, three to cap red-zone trips, at Chicago. The Bears never were a threat to score much. But keep that up against offensive-minded teams and the Colts will pay dearly for being unable to finish what they start.

Part of the problem has been a run game that still hasn’t found its legs. It’s tied for 15th in yards per game (115.3) but last in yards per attempt (3.5). The run game has been unreliable in short-yardage and a more vibrant attack would boost efficiency in the red zone.

Just to be clear, we’re not blaming rookie Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines or Jordan Wilkins. We’re pointing an accusing finger at the offensive line. It needs to start playing like one of the league’s best units.

Sunday should offer an opportunity to improve both areas. The Browns’ defense ranks 26th in third-down efficiency (49%) and tied-25th in the red zone (12-of-16, 75%).

Next man up

And that brings us to left tackle Anthony Castonzo missing the game with a rib injury. It snaps his personal streak of 33 consecutive starts and the o-line’s league-best streak of 22 straight starts as a group. We’ve always considered Castonzo the Colts’ most indispensable player, and we aren’t budging from that. They’re 2-10 when he’s been out with an injury.

Le’Raven Clark steps in at left tackle and will be making his first start since week 5 of 2018 when Castonzo was out with a hamstring injury. The coaching staff is high on him – they insist the 2016 third-round pick had his best training camp – but Clark has been on the field for just 10 snaps this year after never stepping on the field in 2019.

All Clark has to do is deal with Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett, who’s perhaps the early front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year. Garrett has a league-best 5 sacks and has added a forced fumble in each of the last three games.

Coach Frank Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni will give Clark frequent help at dealing with Garrett, but there will be times they’ll ask Clark to take care of things on his own.

Simply put, the pass protection scheme can’t allow Garrett to be a game-long disruption.

Run vs. run

As we mentioned, the Colts and Browns reside at different ends of the run-game spectrum. But we expect each to do its best at establishing that phase of its offense. Cleveland’s 139 attempts rank 2nd in the league while Indy’s 131 checks in 4th.

Which team is able to do what it prefers to do? The Browns placed leading rusher Nick Chubb on IR with a sprained knee, but still have Hunt (275 yards, 5.5 per attempt) and D’Ernest Johnson (100 yards, 7.1 per attempt). The Colts lost feature back Marlon Mack to a ruptured Achilles in the opener and are going with a backs-by-committee approach with Taylor at the forefront.

It’s imperative for Rivers to have a reliable run game at his disposal, especially with Castonzo out of the mix. A quarterback’s best friend when facing a defense that features Garrett and has a league-best 10 takeaways in four games is a running attack that’s getting more than 3.5 yards per pop.

Again, pick it up, o-line.

And the winner is:

Browns 24, Colts 20. We tried to talk ourselves into a fourth straight Colts win, but couldn’t do it. We’re on board with the strength of the defense, but we don’t have enough trust in Rivers and the offense to hold up their end.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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