INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Washington Commanders at Lucas Oil Stadium.
*Kickoff: 4:25 p.m.
*Spread: Colts by 3.
*History lesson, Part I: Sam Ehlinger hopes to go where only Chris Chandler has gone in the Indy era. Ehlinger makes his first NFL start, and can join Chandler as the only Colts QB to win his first start. Chandler enjoyed a successful debut in 1988 (15-13 against Miami in week 4, although he passed for just 110 yards). To further drive home the task at hand, consider Chandler is the only Colts QB to win his first start since 1966. That group is 1-15 and includes Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Jeff George, Jack Trudeau, Art Schlichter, Mike Pagel and Bert Jones.
*History lesson, Part II: Considering all of the unexpected subplots, we’re not certain this has much, if any, relevance. Even so, the Colts lead the overall series 21-10, have won four straight and five of the last six. The last meeting was in 2018 when it was Andrew Luck versus Alex Smith. Luck passed for 179 yards and touchdowns to Eric Ebron and T.Y. Hilton.
The significance of the game: It was emergence of Shaquille Leonard. In his second NFL start, the second-round draft pick piled up 19 tackles, including 15 solos. Both remain career highs. Leonard added 1 sack, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble.
But of course he did.
*Help Sam: When the decision was made to bench Matt Ryan – a Grade 2 separation to his right shoulder probably would have kept him out this week anyway – and turn to Ehlinger for the remainder of the season, Reich began prepping the 2021 sixth-round pick for his coming-out party. One of the first things he told Ehlinger: don’t be a hero, just do your job.
While all eyes will focus on No. 4, Ehlinger’s success hinges on whether his supporting cast offers better assistance than it did to Ryan. That means better protection in passing situations (the 24 sacks allowed are tied-2nd most in the league) and better production in the run game (30th).
The deficiencies in both areas resulted in Ryan attempting 297 passes, 3rd-most in the league. He was on pace to attempt 721, which would have obliterated Manning’s franchise record (679) and been the 2nd-most in NFL history.
We’re expecting Reich to get Ehlinger on the perimeter with roll-outs and bootlegs, but there will be times he’ll have to stand his ground and throw out of the pocket. The Commanders are strong up front and have piled up 19 sacks, 57 pressures and 34 tackles for loss. The pass rush has been a collective effort as five players have at least 3. Tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne each have 3.5.
Ehlinger’s mobility is a plus, but the offensive line must get its act together.
*Help Sam, Part II: Ehlinger’s best friend will be a reliable run game. The game plan is expected to reflect balance – there absolutely has to be a threat in the passing game, which includes taking a few shots down the field – but Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines must be game-long forces. And let’s not discount Ehlinger’s ability to contribute with his legs.
Over the last six weeks, the run game has managed just 65 yards per game and 3.2 per attempt. But we saw glimpses of Taylor regaining form last Sunday at Tennessee with 58 yards on 10 attempts. He’s dealt with turf toe and a sprained right ankle, but might be ready to resume a heavier, more impactful workload against Washington’s 16th-ranked run defense.
*Any chunk plays?: Among things missing in the offense have been explosive plays. The Colts are averaging 4.97 yards per play, 27th in the league, and 16.1 points, 30th. The lack of chunk plays, especially considering the presence of Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr., has been alarming.
There’s been just one completion of at least 40 yards (Ryan’s 44-yarder to rookie Alec Pierce against the Titans in week 4), and two rushes of at least 20 (a pair of Taylor 21-yarders in week 2 at Jacksonville). It’s too difficult in this league to sustain long drives without an occasional deep shot or gashing run.
Remember Taylor’s record-setting 2021? He led the league in 20-plus (14) and 40-plus (five) runs.
*Who’s Heinicke?: Everyone anticipated a return to Indy for Carson Wentz. A fractured finger canceled that. Instead, the Colts face Taylor Heinicke, who entered the league as an undrafted rookie with the Minnesota Vikings in 2015. He’s in his third season with the Commanders and might have found a home. Heinicke is 8-8 as a starter with Washington, including a 23-21 upset of Green Bay last Sunday at FedExField.
He made the necessary plays against the Packers, completing 20-of-33 passes for 201 yards with two TDs and one interception.
*Homecoming for McLaurin: Terry McLaurin is familiar with the Lucas Oil Stadium layout. The Commanders’ leading receiver is a Cathedral H.S. standout who was part of two state championships with the Irish at Lucas Oil and a pair of Big Ten titles with Ohio State.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s kind of cool to go back to where I grew up,’’ McLaurin said this week. “I was a Colts fan, sitting in Section 540 with my dad.’’
Washington selected McLaurin in the third round of the 2019 draft and quickly exceeded expectations. He’s looking for a third straight 1,000-yard season, and would become the franchise’s first to do so since Henry Ellard from 1994-96.
Here’s where we remind you the Colts selected Parris Campbell, another Ohio State standout wideout, in round 2 of 2019.
*And the winner is: Colts 17, Commanders 16: They’ll find a way. We’re anticipating an initial boost from Ehlinger, and we’re anticipating fewer debilitating mistakes. Maybe the return of Shaq Leonard, even on a pitch count, will result in a takeaway for the defense. We’re not on board with turning the season over to a QB who’s yet to throw a pass, but we’re curious to see how this unfolds.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.