If the Buffalo Bills have, once and for all, found their running game, the Indianapolis Colts could be in serious trouble today.
The Colts have one of the worst run-stopping defenses in the NFL. The Bills produced 176 rushing yards, including a career-best 130 by Antowain Smith, in their 31-24 victory in Indianapolis on Oct. 11.
Last week, against the league's third-best run defense, they pounded out 213 yards on the way to a 13-10 home triumph over New England.
Having shaken its early season struggles, the Bills' offensive line is beginning to show signs of dominance, which is a crucial asset for this time of year. Smith continually runs with greater authority, and veteran Thurman Thomas continues to resemble a kid in his ever-expanding reserve role.
On the other hand, the Colts' defense looks every bit as soft in the middle now as it did a month ago. It might even be softer with LT Tony McCoy out for the next two weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a detached retina.
Rookie QB Peyton Manning, the top overall pick of the draft, is making good strides, but can still be victimized by his inexperience. He also won't feel any sense of comfort today, playing in one of the NFL's most hostile environments for a visiting team, even with about 30,000 of the stadium's 80,000 seats expected to be empty.
The Colts shocked the New York Jets last Sunday, but the outcome was more a case of the Jets' losing than the Colts' winning. Indianapolis' 2-8 record is not an accident. The team has some distance to travel before it can be regarded as competitive.
The Colts' only involvement in the postseason picture is to serve as the foot that can trip up daydreaming playoff contenders such as the Jets and Bills.
When the Bills have the ball
Doug Flutie's NFL coming-out party highlighted the teams' first meeting. Taking over after Rob Johnson suffered a freak rib injury three plays into the game, Flutie went on to complete 23 of 28 passes for 213 yards and two TDs. He's been the starter ever since.
The Colts have tried to make some lineup changes to put some life into their defense. Steve Morrison has moved from SLB to MLB in place of aging Jeff Herrod, who has been bothered by knee trouble in recent weeks. Because of his slow feet and grinding style, Morrison is better suited to play the middle. New SLB Andre Royal, acquired during the season in a trade from New Orleans, is athletic and quick, but is trying to learn the Colts' defense on the fly. WLB Elijah Alexander remains the Colts' biggest defensive playmaker.
Overall, though, the Colts' defense is among the NFL's slowest. That means Flutie should again be able to find great success throwing into the wide-open flat to Thomas and FB Sam Gash, each of whom had five catches in the October game.
With McCoy out, Bernard Whittington moves from LE to LT, his more natural spot, while Al Fontenot takes over at LE. At 248 pounds, RE Bertrand Berry is relatively small to play on the line, and that should make things easier for LT John Fina in his first game back from an abdominal injury. RT Ellis Johnson has played well, but Smith owns this team, with 301 rushing yards and five TDs in three games.
Jason Belser moved from FS to SS to replace Robert Blackmon, who doesn't consistently finish plays. Belser provides greater run support than he could from FS. Tim Hauck, an overachiever who has made only four starts in 125 career NFL games, is at FS.
The Colts' lack of a pass rush has helped make life miserable for LCB Jeff Burris, a former Bill, and RCB Tyrone Poole. But when Burris and Poole have been in position to make plays, they have simply failed to do so. Because of the Colts' continued fear of giving up big plays, the CBs tend to play far off the line, making them ripe to be beaten on hitch routes.
When the Colts have the ball
His NFL-leading 20 INTs notwithstanding, Manning is throwing the ball better and making wiser decisions than he was earlier in the season.
Through maximum protection, the Colts have kept him mostly upright. He has been sacked only 13 times and merely twice in the last six games, although one came on a QB draw where he was trapped at the line for no gain and the other was on a fumble when the ball slipped out of his hand on a pass attempt.
WR Marvin Harrison is having a good year, but has failed to make some plays that would make it a great season. After a strong start, rookie WR Jerome Pathon has leveled off recently, dropping several passes. Sure-handed No. 3 WR Torrance Small has a knack for getting open over the middle, where the Bills often struggle in coverage on third down.
The only lineup change on offense since the teams last met is at RG, where former Bill Tom Myslinski is filling in for injured Tony Mandarich. Myslinski lost the starting LG job in training camp to rookie Steve McKinney, who has been solid for most of the season.
RB Marshall Faulk has had an outstanding season despite the fact the Colts' offensive line doesn't block anywhere near as well for the run as it does for the pass. He is on pace to produce 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving, which has happened only once in NFL history -- by the Niners' Roger Craig in 1985.
The Colts often use two-TE formations, with Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard. Although it helps augment the poor blocking of the line, it has been highly constrictive to the offense and minimizes the TEs' receiving. Dilger is a greater pass-catching threat, but the Colts are utilizing him more as a blocker and featuring Pollard as a receiver.
Forty-nine of the Bills' last 55 points have been scored by K Steve Christie (31) or TE Jay Riemersma. . . . Colts have scored a TD on 10 of last 11 trips into the red zone.
After four victories by a TD or less and a one-point loss, Bills should have their first comfortable win at home, 27-10.
Keys To The Contest
For the Bills:
--Don't be lulled to sleep by the Colts' record.
--Find a way to beat Manning's maximum protection.
--Smith pounds out another strong game vs. soft middle of Colts' defense.
--Flutie moves chains with hitch routes and passes to Thomas, Gash in the flat.
For the Colts:
--Manning exploits Bills' third-down coverage lapses with big passes to Harrison, Small.
--Faulk overcomes poor blocking to do damage as runner and receiver.
--Whittington, Morrison, Belser combine to shut down the run.
--Burris, Poole avoid being scorched deep.