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Identifying the X-factor for the Colts Sunday against the Raiders

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Indianapolis Colts Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Last week it was Dalvin Cook who ripped the Raiders. The week before it was Patrick Mahomes. The week before that it was Josh Jacobs in the Raiders win over the Broncos. I shared with Stamped Blue who I think would have to make a strong contribution for the Raiders to win Sunday. In turn they shared with us which Colts player is the X-factor.

Here’s Chris Blystone with more:

Football is the consummate team game, so pinning down an individual player that is likely to be an “X-Factor” for the team can be tough. In years past this would be a simple exercise. The answer would have been Andrew Luck, and there wouldn’t really be many who would take issue with that.

This season though, the talent level on offense is higher than it has been in a while, and that makes this a tougher question. The easy answer, and usually the correct one, is wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Hilton is the unsung hero of the Colts. Since he entered the league, Hilton has had just two seasons where he had fewer than 1000 yards receiving. His rookie year, and 2017, when Andrew Luck missed with injury.

Last year he tied his career best year with 6 touchdowns. This year he has 4 already. In other words, T.Y. Hilton is capable of being a dominant force on offense, and when he is on the field, he is a big problem for defenses. But he isn’t this team’s X-Factor this week. Why? Last week he re-aggravated a quad injury and left at the half. That injury has lingered, and while we’ve seen him play through injuries, and do so at a high level, I just don’t know that Frank Reich will have a game plan that runs through Hilton given his condition. That’s if he plays at all.

The X-Factor in this game is going to be Marlon Mack. The Colts are beaten up on defense. Their single best position group is on the offensive line, where they are dominant as run blockers behind the trio of Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, Quenton Nelson at left guard, and Ryan Kelly at center. The right side is solid as well, but the majority of the damage will come off that left side or with Quenton Nelson pulling right and getting a hat on defenders downfield. Ask Isaiah Oliver what that looks like—I’m still not sure he has recovered from the fright of seeing Big Q bearing down on him.

When you have an obvious strength like the Colts have in your offensive line, and a weakness on defense due to injury, the clear answer is that you need to have protracted, grinding drives that keep your offense on the field and limit the exposure of your defense. While I’m not going to feed you some old school line about “ground and pound” football, it is true that effectively running the ball and setting up short down and distances makes play calling easier, and helps the offense move more efficiently.

When the Colts offense has looked its best, they have been able to play mistake-free football and get themselves into 3rd and 4 or shorter. They’ve done that by finding success running with Marlon Mack. Mack’s vision, wiggle, and one-cut are impressive, and he has the ability to make that cut and then burst quickly into the sometimes sizable gaps left by his line.

They’ve found real success when the line manages to get off their first block, and if Mack gets a block on a linebacker and gets free, he has the acceleration and speed to leave defenders in the dust and generate big chunk plays. This tends to happen as the game wears on. Mack already has 3 runs of 25+ yards in the second half this season, and as defenses tire, he becomes a greater and greater danger.

If Mack plays well and finds success early, it allows the offense to stay far more balanced and takes pressure off Brissett to have to go out and win the game. He has proven he can very efficiently execute the game plan as Reich draws it up, so that isn’t exactly a worry, but with limited weapons and a defense that may struggle to limit the Raiders due to injury, getting a solid performance out of Mack will be a huge factor in how this game goes for the Colts.