Interim head coach Antonio Pierce expects nothing less in the Week 17 road matchup in Lucas Oil Stadium.
“A physical football team,” Pierce said when asked his thoughts on the Colts during his early-week press conference. “They came in here last year and got after us pretty well. We’re going to expect their best football obviously. They’re good up front. Both sides, right. O-line, D-line we got to deal with. Big running back, we saw that last year. It wasn’t pretty for us.”
The Colts dropped the Raiders 25-20 last season in interim head coach Jeff Saturday’s lone win of the year. And it was a tilt that saw running back Jonathan Taylor gallop at Allegiant Stadium for 147 yards on 22 carries — including a 66-yard scoring scamper.
This year’s rendition of the horsemen are a balanced group led by head coach and offensive play caller Shane Steichen. His attack features Taylor and Zack Moss at tailback as the duo has a combined 1,221 yards and 10 touchdowns between them — Moss has 764 yards on 177 carries; Taylor 457 on 118 totes. Moss was declared out for Sunday’s game, however.
The aerial attack is paced by quarterback Gardner Minshew (who took over as starter when promising rookie Anthony Richardson went down with a season-ending injury) who has thrown for 2,940 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 11 starts. Minshew’s favorite target is big wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. who has 99 catches for 1,062 yards and four touchdowns on the season.
“And quarterback, we got to be careful with this guy. He’s tricky, and he’s tricky good,” Pierce said of Minshew. “And he’s done a really good job for them really just coming in, and you can’t even tell, like is he a backup? You wouldn’t know. I would think he was the starter since day one, the way he’s playing, the way the team plays around him.”
“Looks good,” Pierce added about Indianapolis’ offense. “When their running back is back there running, that’s different. We saw last year firsthand, so we know exactly what we’re dealing with. They’re getting healthy. We have to deal with (Michael) Pittman, have to deal with a physical offensive line. It’s a scary group because they can have a bad week and then they explode one week, so we have to be ready for the best and obviously they’re fighting for a lot as well.”
The Colts are looking to bounce back at home after a lopsided 29-10 road loss to the Atlanta Falcons. And getting the ground and pound run game going as well as getting the 6-foot-4, 223-pound Pittman involved through the air is going to be key. The Raiders need to have another impressive performance in the trenches — both sides of the ball — and the confident secondary must be stingy in coverage.
What a Rush
The Colts defense boasts four defensive linemen who have over five sacks showcasing the effectiveness of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s scheme. The former Raiders play caller has Samson Ebukam leading the way with 9.5 sacks and he’s followed by Kwity Paye (8.5), Dayo Adeyingbo (8) and DeForest Buckner (6.0).
The secondary is led by all-around cornerback Kenny Moore who has 91 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, and three interceptions (two returned for touchdowns). Despite the loss of safety Julian Blackmon (88 total tackles and team-high four interceptions), Bradley’s unit is ranked 14th in yards allowed, second in touchdowns yielded (17) and second in interceptions (15).
“Obviously, their defensive staff knows our players very well and they run a very good scheme for their team. It’s going to be a physical game,” Pierce noted.
The Raiders defense, on the other hand, is playing bully ball too. Paced by Maxx Crosby (82 total tackles and 13.5 sacks), Patrick Graham’s unit is creating takeaways and scoring points. Malcolm Koonce (seven sacks) emerged as a legit pass rusher opposite Crosby and late-addition Jack Jones is making his mark at cornerback with a pair of pick sixes (one in the Raiders last two games).
The physical style is a byproduct of what Pierce wanted when he was promoted to interim boss.
“Remember day one when I first stood here, I said my goal and what my challenge was, match Maxx’s energy. Well, now, I think you’ve seen our defense match Maxx’s energy and effort and now production, and you’re seeing that,” Pierce said. “At first it was Robert Spillane, okay, now it’s a couple other guys. Now you’re seeing 11 bad boys hunting each and every play. Now it’s a race to the ball, right? I call it roll calling the ball, get 11 hats to the ball, everybody get in the family picture.
“So, for me it’s very satisfying to see them buy into that of what we talked about the effort and matching your best players. Maxx’s job is to bring all those guys along and keep striving to stay in front, that’s what we want. And when we get that, you get the product that you got on the field.”
What also makes the Colts inherently dangerous is the postseason is within their reach. Indianapolis is one of three teams tied for first place in the AFC South — the Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Houston Texans are all 8-7 with two more regular season games left. Jacksonville likely holds several tiebreakers as it swept Indianapolis this season.
In order to keep pace, Indianapolis needs to beat the Raiders this Sunday and the Texans in the regular season finale.
The Raiders (7-8), meanwhile, have a miniscule chance at a postseason spot. The win over the Kansas City Chiefs breathed life into the playoff hopes and winning the last two games of the year would be grand, but the team needs plenty of help elsewhere to even land a wildcard spot.
Pierce noted the team isn’t looking ahead and it’s one game at a time.
“Yeah, I think when you get to this point of the year everybody’s fighting and been playing football for a long time, and so I think it’s going to be a really good challenge for us,” Raiders quarterback Aidan O’Connell said during his mid-week press conference regarding a playoff spot. “Another back-to-back road game, so we’re going to have to deal with the noise and all that stuff. Obviously coming off a short week, it’s going to take a good week of practice, walk throughs and getting good mental reps throughout the week.”