What we need to see from Colts on Sunday

Regardless of result, team in transition led by quarterback Jacoby Brissett must provide encouraging opener at L.A.

It’s only one game, NFL players like to remind, especially if it doesn’t go so well.

That’s the way they are conditioned to look at it, but that’s not how the outside world will view the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday visit to the Los Angeles Chargers.

As much as we’ve grown accustomed to slow starts in Indy, including 1-5 last year, this isn’t just another season opener. Not after the Colts and fans were knocked into LaLa Land by the sudden retirement of quarterback Andrew Luck.

Because of that, many aren’t predicting the Colts to do much, and I get that. The schedule is tougher, they face some of the NFL’s best quarterbacks on the road and quarterback Jacoby Brissett has to take the place of the face of the franchise, a four-time Pro Bowl star who was a proven talent.

Brissett is like the team he’s been asked to lead — an unknown. Yes, he’s played before and has had some seasoning, but this is different. The Colts were expected by many to contend for the Super Bowl with Luck. Now many are just hoping Brissett and the Colts can contend for the AFC South Division title.

If last year reminded us of anything, it’s not to write a season off after one game. But as stated before, and emphasized again, this opener means more. The Colts can’t lay an egg. Yes, they’re 6.5-point underdogs, but the Colts have to show us that all of the talk since Luck’s retirement wasn’t just that. They have to prove they are still capable of winning.

If they lose but play well, that’s promising in my book. If they get blown out and Brissett looks lost, we can expect this 2019 ride to be rather uncomfortable, to say the least.

Here’s a short list of things I hope to see on Sunday:

— Brissett utilizes his many weapons in a decent passing game. He’s got wide receivers T.Y. Hilton, Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell, among others, as well as tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle. They will be open. Make the smart throws and move the chains and the points should follow.

— The Colts have talked all offseason about being a stronger rushing team. Now’s the time to prove it. Marlon Mack will carry much of the load, but it starts in the trenches. Lest anyone forget, the Colts were 20th in rushing offense last year. Before Luck’s departure, the oft-uttered goal was to improve to top five. That’s a reach, but consistency is the key. The Chargers will undoubtedly load up the box to force Brissett to beat him with his arm. If he makes enough clutch passes, that opens up run lanes.

— Newcomer pass rusher Justin Houston reiterated on Thursday what he’s said since signing with the Colts, that he’s got plenty left in the tank. If he’s as good as his statistics suggest, 78.5 sacks in eight seasons, the Colts will have their best pass rusher since Robert Mathis. Question is, will we see the four-time Pro Bowl Houston or the guy who hasn’t earned that honor since 2015? In other words, will he make a play now and then or will he be a dominant force that forces opponents to double team him?

— In a lot of ways, the Colts’ 11th-ranked defense overachieved last season. The pass rush and coverage was spotty, but defenders often made up for weaknesses with effort. Now defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has been given an influx of young talent through the draft in addition to Houston. That pass rush should be stronger. The secondary has been shored up, too. If he’s as smart a coach as has been suggested, he’ll lead a unit that cracks the top 10 and will be far more difficult to face.

— Weakside linebacker Darius “The Maniac” Leonard was by all accounts the team’s most valuable player last year. He led the NFL in tackles as a rookie and did just about everything, be it sacks, forced fumbles or defending the pass. That he was snubbed for the Pro Bowl will keep him hungry. I’m anxious to see this guy in his second season.

— Second-year head coach Frank Reich sold Colts Nation on his leadership in his debut, although it was a rocky start that led to some second-guessing when he showed a penchant for going for it on fourth down, especially in his own end in overtime at home against Houston. But Reich, as he showed in his quarterback playing days, is a steady hand who was a decent play caller. His skills will be put to the test in year two, but more often than not, he makes the smart calls. And push come to shove, I’d rather he go for it than not.

When it gets down to it, these Colts are in similar situation to a year ago: They really have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If they struggle, that’s what many expected. But should they prove what Reich and general manager Chris Ballard have said all along, that the team is bigger than any one player, then the most important summation of this season will be encouraging.

And that is, even without Luck, the Colts are still headed in the right direction.

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