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3 keys to Washington getting a win against the Colts

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The Washington Commanders are looking to extend their win streak to three in a row against the Indianapolis Colts. Here are three keys to Washington securing a victory, presented by KIA.

1. How can the offense find success on the ground against the Colts' defensive front? 

Logan: The Colt's defense in 2022 is helmed by Gus Bradley, who hails from the Pete Carrol Seattle defensive tree. Since the "Legion of Boom," the Cover 3, eight-man box of that Seattle defense has disseminated throughout the NFL. Over that same time frame, the league has adapted to this style, making the defensive structure less and less effective. 

Coordinators like Dan Quinn, who have traditionally promoted the Seattle Cover 3, have since moved away from this. Bradley, however, has held fast to his roots. As a result, the Commanders will see a lot of Cover 3 and eight defenders in the box on first and second down.   

This will be an advantage for Washington because Scott Turner and Taylor Heinicke will understand the windows and spacing in these coverages, leading to one of the most important elements of running the football: converting second and third downs. 

This is critical because it give the Commanders more opportunities to possess the defense and by extension, run the football. Washington was able to run the football 36 times last week in large part because they had such a high play volume. 

With that technicality out of the way, what does it look like when Washington is running the ball against the Colts? The goal of Bradley's defense is to have one more defender than you can block and ensure that every defender has one gap.

The Colts do a great job of executing this philosophy. Linebackers Bobby Okereke and Zaire Franklin absolutely fly to the football. Three technique DeForest Buckner consistently makes plays outside the hashes using his tremendous athleticism to track down ball carries. Rodney McLeod, the Colt's version of Kam Chancellor, is much smaller than Chancellor but is aggressive to fit runs and a good tackler. In my estimation, they are the closest any team has come, outside the 2017 Jaguars, to emulating what Seattle had with the "Legion of Boom."

They're a good defense and have played that way outside of one game in the 2022 season. So, the question remains, "How does Washington run the football on this defense designed to stop the run?"

Motion and challenging the defense's rules is always an option. However, when a defense is as simple as Indianapolis, the mistakes and missed assignments are few and far between. I think the answer is simpler and more brutal than that. Washington must run the ball right at the Colts' defensive front.

Buckner is an outstanding player, but he is tall, long and light. As I already mentioned, he's great on outside runs, but when you run at him, he struggles to keep his pads low against double teams. This creates soft spots in the defense where the back can press and cram the ball for a three- to five-yard gain. Couple this with Yannick Ngakoue, one of the worst run defenders in the NFL, and this creates a match up Washington can take advantage of.

Zach: The Commanders found a winning formula on the ground with Antonio Gibson and Brian Robinson, who combined for 132 rushing yards against the Packers.

While the Colts are 22nd against the run, allowing 123.4 yards per game, do not expect Washington to find much room between the tackles. Indianapolis' defensive tackles very stout against Derrick Henry, who did rush for 128 yards but gained most of his yards attacking the edge.

Instead, Washington will need to pick its spots carefully. As Logan mentioned, Ngakoue struggles against the run, and Buckner is not as effective when he cannot use his athleticism to chase down ball carriers. Both Gibson and Robinson showed they can operate well in space, so there could be some opportunities for both on the perimeter.

2. What can Washington expect from Sam Ehlinger leading the Colts' offense?

Logan: When Frank Reich announced Ehlinger as the starter, everything changed. Jack Del Rio and the Commanders' defense went from knowing their opponent to being uncertain who and what this Colts are with Ehlinger at the helm.

To put it succinctly, Ehlinger is Heinicke. I know Heinicke has become everyone's favorite point of comparison, but this comparison is legitimate. He has good mobility and is a competitive, natural leader who creates off schedule, but he lacks elite arm talent.

The most important difference is that the Commanders will see more Jonathan Taylor. Taylor has been quiet through the first seven games of the season. He has been hampered by injury, a banged up offensive line, but maybe more importantly, he has been used sparingly.

Reich and the Colts coaching staff -- relied heavily on Matt Ryan His 297 pass attempts are third in the league. With Ehlinger starting, the Colts would be foolish to put so much responsibility on the young signal-caller, so expect to see Taylor early and often.

However, teams can't run the football 60 times per game. So, how does Ehlinger supplement Taylor? The most obvious answer is with his legs. In the preseason, the Colts ran multiple zones reads with Ehlinger.

The defensive end is usually the contain player for the defense. If the defensive end chases the run the quarterback can pull the ball and "break contain," leaving him unaccounted for. Part of the Giants' recent success is from plays like this, stealing first downs and extending the offensive possession.

This concept provides a huge advantage. It limits the creativity of the defense and puts the offensive line in good positions to attack the double teams and get off to the linebacker level. Couple this with a more expansive RPO and play action pass concepts, and the new look of the Colts' offense becomes a challenge to game plan for.

Do I think these wrinkles turn the Colts into the Chiefs? No, but I think it could cause the Commanders' defense enough uncertainty that the Colts could steal first downs and manufacture a handful of big plays. That might be enough for the Colts to squeak out a win.

Zach: I'll drive home that Logan made about Taylor. I fervently believe the Colts are going to put more of the workload on Taylor's shoulders. Of course, that means the Colts are going to use more RPOs, which Ehlinger ran well in the preseason, but it also means there will be times when the Colts will use Taylor to beat Washington on the outside.

Do not mistake Taylor's lack of production distract from the fact that he is still a potent weapon. On top of leading the NFL in rushing yards, he was also the third most efficient running back in the league with a DVOA of 25.3%. That talent did not just disappear.

I am not worried about Daron Payne or Jonathan Allen. Both have been exceptional this season and are playing like two of the best defensive tackles in the league. I do believe the defensive ends will need to have a good game to corral Taylor if he tries to bounce run outside. Luckily, the Commanders have the second best run stopper among edge defenders in Montez Sweat, according to Pro Football Focus, so they should be up to the task.

The Washington Commanders have finished their week of preparation for the Week 8 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts. Check out the top photos from Friday morning. Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders

3. What are some matchups to watch on Sunday?

Logan: With the announcement of Ehlinger as the starter, a lot of the analysis is focused on what he brings to the game. The focus is warranted, but it is also important to note that the Colts have a stable of young playmakers on the outside and at tight end that could significantly impact the game.

The wide receiver group is led by Michael Pitman Jr. The third-year man out of USC is the embodiment of a possession receiver in this offense. He has great size, great route running nuance and toughness at the catch point. He lacks top end speed but has the lowest drop rate in the NFL, recording one drop on 61 targets. He has predominantly worked underneath in tight throwing windows, but don't be surprised if his average depth of target takes a spike this game.

Much like last week with Packers receiver Allen Lazard, the obvious matchup seems like Benjamin St-Juste on Pittman. However, the Colts present a unique problem. The receiver on the other side is rookie receiver Alec Pierce, who stands at 6-foot-3 and weighs 211 pounds.

However, unlike Pittman, his explosive measurables at the combine were off the charts. In recent weeks, his explosiveness has started to show up. Pierce is a nice complement to what Pittman has shown underneath. He is still growing as a receiver, but he has a big play ability that makes defenses nervous. The Commanders are going to have to be diligent in their zone coverages to make sure they don't give up a big play, because in a game like this, one big play could make all the difference.

Zach: As I mentioned above, I have been impressed with what I have seen from the Colts' defensive line, and I believe how Washington's offensive line handles this group will go a long way towards deciding the outcome on Sunday.

For starters, Indianapolis' defensive tackles are difficult to run against. Grover Stewart has been a stalwart all season, but particularly last week against the Tennessee Titans. Stewart led the team with 12 tackles as an interior player, which is difficult to do when players like Zaire Franklin are leading the unit.

What's more, as Logan mentioned, Buckner excels at stopping outside runs with his speed and quickness.

The Colts also boast a highly disruptive pass rush that is anchored by Buckner and Stewart. Having Heinicke's elusiveness did seem to help Washington last week, but the offensive line will have an even more difficult task in Indianapolis.

Washington's offense showed against the Packers that it can have some consistency, but it needs to stay on the field to do so. Containing the Colts' defensive line should allow the unit to do that.

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