Dave Choate: With Andrew Luck out and talented statue Matt Hasselbeck in, how does the Colts offense change, and how do you expect them to attack Atlanta?
Josh Wilson: Even though the opponent is different and the offensive coordinator has changed as well, I think a good model of what to expect from Matt Hasselbeck's offense is seen in the two games he started earlier this year, against the Jaguars and Texans. The Colts ran more of a West Coast type of offense that Hasselbeck is used to and focused on short, quick passes to let the quarterback get the ball out quickly (something Hasselbeck excels at doing). This in turn helps the offensive line and focuses on not asking too much out of Hasselbeck but also giving him the chance to succeed by hitting short passes (often in the middle of the field) that can help the Colts move down the field.
The deep ball is nowhere near as dangerous with Hasselbeck in the lineup as it is with Luck in there, but the Colts seem to understand that and move away from it somewhat with their backup quarterback in there. I'd expect to see more of Frank Gore as well, as the running back is having a good season this year and the Colts could be inclined to get him more work to help Hasselbeck. So ultimately, I don't expect the Colts to change offenses entirely, but with Hasselbeck under center, I'd expect to see Colts utilize short drop backs, quick passes, and the running game. It might not be the quick-strike offense that the Colts can have at times with Andrew Luck, but it should still be effective enough to keep the Colts in games and win some of them too.
Dave Choate: Your receivers scare me more than anything else. What can we expect from them, and how much does T.Y. Hilton in particular move around the formation?
Josh Wilson: The Colts don't really commit to keeping their receivers in one spot or situation, and they'll play the matchups. T.Y. Hilton is still a dangerous player - and that's with him not playing at 100% for much of this year. The hope is that the bye week helped him get healthy, and if that's the case we could see even more from him. I wouldn't expect the deep ball to be as efficient with Matt Hasselbeck in the lineup, but Hilton isn't limited to being a deep threat only and can beat you in multiple different ways. I expect him to continue to play a major part of the offense on Sunday and be the team's top receiving threat. After him, though, Donte Moncrief has had a surprising season and has produced, and he has started to steal some snaps away from Andre Johnson, who has been largely invisible. Even Griff Whalen has begun to steal some snaps from Johnson and has taken advantage of them. And then, of course, we can't forget about the tight ends in the receiving game, as particularly Coby Fleener provides a threat. The most Fleener has been involved in a game this year was with Hasselbeck under center against the Jaguars, and it seems that Fleener is a reliable target for the veteran quarterback, so we can't ignore him either. To sum it up, the Colts have plenty of players who can beat you in the passing game, but a big part of it is getting them in the right situations and then getting the football to them.
Dave Choate: h If you're Atlanta's kind of shaky offense, how would you go after Indianapolis? Where are the big weaknesses?
Josh Wilson: The Colts' defense is a whole lot of average. Their inside linebackers are average. Their defensive line is average. Their cornerback position this year has been average. The safeties have been above average this year, but then the pass rush has been awful. So overall, that's probably the best word to describe this Colts' defense: Average.
If I'm the Falcons, though, there are a few matchups that I would want to test early and often. Firstly, Julio Jones can torch defenses deep, and I'd absolutely look for the Falcons to try to do that against the Colts. Greg Toler, the Colts' number two corner, has given up several deep passes this year, as has Darius Butler, their number three. I'd expect Vontae Davis to shadow Julio Jones, but even Davis isn't impossible to beat deep. The Colts will surely look to keep Jones from beating them downfield, but if I'm the Falcons, I'm testing that. Either way, the Colts likely won't be able to generate enough consistent pressure to disrupt Matt Ryan, so that will give him time to find open receivers. Secondly, I would look to get Devonta Freeman going and not give up on that. The Colts have been better this year at stopping the run, but they're still not great - and they'll be playing without standout rookie defensive end Henry Anderson for the first time too, as he's out for the season with a torn ACL and was the team's best run defender. So I would realize that there will probably be some runs in which Freeman doesn't gain much, but keep pounding the football and not giving up on the run game and you'll likely break a few and have an overall solid day on the ground.
Dave Choate: I don't think this season has gone as anyone expected, and I know I've been surprised by Indy's performance to this point. What's going on, and will they bounce back to make a deep playoff run?
Josh Wilson: Well, there's a whole lot that has gone wrong for the Colts this year, and it starts first and foremost with Andrew Luck. It has been a disastrous year for the quarterback who was a popular preseason MVP pick. Of course, the injuries have piled up: Luck has dealt with a shoulder that kept him out two games, was reported to have fractured several ribs, was listed on the injury report with an ankle, and now is out for an extended period with a lacerated kidney and a torn abdominal muscle. Those injuries have kept him from getting any rhythm going, but it goes beyond that to the fact that Luck just hasn't played well. He's missed throws, made stupid decisions, turned the football over, and for much of the season looked like a player who had no confidence in himself or his arm. Against the Broncos, Luck played his best game of the season and looked like the Andrew Luck we're used to, but then again he can't get in a rhythm now because of an injury.
So the problems start with Luck, but they don't end there. There is a lot of front office and coaching turmoil that has taken its toll on this team, as the players can't help but hear the talk that their head coach is likely gone after the year - and the offensive coordinator already is. Then the wide receivers have struggled to get separation, and the defense has been put in a bad spot often due to turnovers and therefore has struggled at times. The pass rush is nonexistent, and several of the free agent signings haven't worked out (Trent Cole, Andre Johnson, etc.). That's not to say it's all bad, but this is a team that is nowhere near as good as many thought. To be honest, it's not that far away from what should have been expected, with one key difference: Andrew Luck was expected to be great. The Colts built everything around that assumption, but so far this year that hasn't been the case besides for glimpses here or there.
So, to answer the second part of your question, the Colts will go as far as Andrew Luck takes them in the playoffs. That's not where they wanted to be this year, as that was the same situation they were in when facing the Patriots last year, but that's the reality. The problem that the Colts have encountered this year is that Luck hasn't played well, but if he can replicate his performance against the Broncos and carry that over in the playoffs, then the Colts could make some noise and make a run. But at this point in time, with Luck unlikely to return until near the end of the regular season and with him having played only one full game of high-level football, it doesn't seem likely even though it's a possibility.
Dave Choate: Oh, and to follow that up, score prediction for Sunday and a prediction for the rest of your season?
Josh Wilson: I expect the Colts to be able to keep the game this Sunday close. I think that Matt Hasselbeck can play smart, safe football and avoid some stupid mistakes and turnovers, and Frank Gore has had success this year. If the offense isn't putting the defense in a bad spot with turnovers, the defense actually hasn't been too bad, and the Colts' special teams have been very good once again thanks to Pat McAfee and Adam Vinatieri. I don't expect this team to just roll over and give up because they have their backup quarterback in there, and I think we'll see a close game on Sunday.
With that said, I just don't see a way that the Matt Hasselbeck-led offense puts up quite enough points to outscore the Matt Ryan-led offense (with Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones) on the road, so I'll take the Falcons in a close one, 28-24. When it comes to the rest of the season, I think it's perfectly reasonable to think the Colts could get to 9-7 on the year. The Falcons and the Steelers are the only remaining opponents with a winning record currently, and Hasselbeck has shown that he can do enough to help the Colts be a good enough team. There are plenty of winnable games left on the schedule for Indy.