The 10-day break between games felt like an eternity, but the 2-0 Kansas City Chiefs are back — hitting the road to take on the 0-1-1 Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Chiefs go into the weekend as a six-point favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
On the surface, this looks like a light week for a team with matchups against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills coming over the following three weeks. However, the Colts can be more dangerous than they’ve shown, with starting wide receivers Michael Pittman Jr. (quad) and Alec Pierce (concussion) returning from injury. Unfortunately, they’ll still be without star linebacker Shaquille Leonard (back).
It’s the Colts’ first game in front of the home crowd this season, desperate not to start 0-2-1. I have five things to watch in a critical AFC showdown:
1. The Chiefs’ pass game coming alive
When quarterback Patrick Mahomes drops back to pass on Sunday, the structure and play-calling of the defense will look very familiar. That’s because the Colts hired former Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley this offseason.
After some initial success against a young Mahomes, Bradley’s defense has only fared worse each time the quarterback has faced it. Over their last three meetings, Mahomes is averaging 322 passing yards and three touchdowns while only being sacked four total times. Last year, the Chiefs scored 41 or more points in each matchup.
His reliance on coverage with only one deep safety allows the vertical passing game to open up, especially off of play action; his front-loaded scheme gets even easier to find space behind. Last year, Mahomes threw four touchdowns, no interceptions with a 72% completion rate off of play action against the Raiders.
2. Will any pass catcher step up besides Travis Kelce?
To continue from my first point, the opened up pass game will come from head coach Andy Reid designing and calling pass concepts to beat Bradley’s coverage shell — but which pass catcher will benefit the most from that?
There’s a chance it’s once again the obvious answer: tight end Travis Kelce. Last year, Kelce totaled 255 yards and a touchdown on 18 catches against Bradley’s defense, because the seams between the safety and cornerback are vulnerable. That’s where tight ends do most of their work as a receiver.
However, threats like wide receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Mecole Hardman could be the beneficiaries of deeper concepts that take advantage of a safety looking to make a play on Kelce.
The coverage also creates natural one-on-one opportunities outside, where a strong receiver like JuJu Smith-Schuster could win on a smaller cover corner like the Colts’ Kenny Moore when they match up; former All-Pro Stephon Gilmore is a much better matchup with Smith-Schuster’s skill set on the other side for Indianapolis.
3. The stress on Chiefs linebackers
For the Chiefs’ defense, the position that is suddenly feeling shorthanded will likely be the group of players tested the most by this particular offense.
Kansas City’s linebackers will have their work cut out for them defending Colts running back Jonathan Taylor and the play-action pass game off of that. Indianapolis can play it boring with constant inside-duo runs and stretch-zone plays, but they’ll have the well-timed changeups with misdirection handoffs and play action that will specifically target the flow of the Chiefs’ second-level defenders.
With only one career start, Darius Harris is being trusted to fill Gay’s role — who played 92% of the defense’s snaps last week. Harris impressed in the preseason by knowing where to be and reacting quickly, but that’ll be tested for all four quarters on Sunday — and Harris doesn’t have the rare athleticism to make up for misreading a play initially as Gay does.
With an intelligent play caller on the sideline for Indianapolis, it’s a foregone conclusion that they’ll try to take advantage of Gay’s absence.
4. Unleashing the pass rush
Over the first two games, the Chiefs’ pass rush has had to play smarter than it had to play harder; mobile, hard-to-tackle quarterbacks like Justin Herbert and Kyler Murray require a different game plan than simply beating your blocker and flying recklessly toward the passer.
Against the Colts, it might actually be that simple.
Quarterback Matt Ryan is 37 years old, and he moves like it. That doesn’t automatically disqualify a player from being able to avoid the rush — quarterback Tom Brady’s quick and decisive footwork is an example of that — but Ryan has not been able to overcome any level of pressure this year. He has a league-worst 7.8 passer rating when pressured.
Defensive line coach Joe Cullen should be preparing his group to play with their hair on fire more this game, firing off the snap and using their most effective moves to shed a blocker — even if they aren’t as disciplined in their rush lanes as before.
5. Performance of Chiefs’ offensive line
So far this year, the Chiefs’ offensive line is seeing much more variability and blitzing in the defensive fronts they’ve faced compared to last year. It has led to more hits than anyone would like to see on Mahomes.
If those strategies persist, it’ll just be more repetitions for the line to execute their communication and pick it all up correctly — something that didn’t appear to happen on a few occasions against Los Angeles.
Even if the blitzing lightens — Bradley only blitzed on five of Mahomes’ 60 dropbacks last year — the Colts’ defensive line has the talent for a tough challenge. It’s the most likely way the Colts can prevent Mahomes and the passing attack from getting into a rhythm, so the Chiefs’ offensive line needs to prove they are as dominant as their reputation and win this particular battle in the trenches.