NFL Team Report - Indianapolis Colts - INSIDE SLANT
The 2013 National Football League season has turned into a reunion tour, of sorts, for the Indianapolis Colts.
First it was second-year quarterback Andrew Luck's road trip to San Francisco to face the team led by his former college coach, San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh is also a former Colts player, leading the team to the AFC title game in 1995.
Then it was Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano's meeting with his brother's team, the San Diego Chargers. John Pagano is the Chargers' defensive coordinator.
A week later, former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning made his return to the city that he called home for 13 seasons when Denver visited Lucas Oil Stadium.
This week the tour heads west as Indianapolis travels to University of Phoenix Stadium to face the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona's head coach is former Colts offensive coordinator/interim head coach Bruce Arians.
"Really, it's there, the relationship's there, we all know what happened and what transpired and all that stuff," Pagano said Friday. "But it's about our players. It's about the Colts playing the Cards. It's about two teams trying to get another win. It's playoff football, that's the mindset. Like we said, we'll shake some hands before the game. But then it's about our players. It's about their players. It's about the game. It's about trying to win a football game."
Also on the Cardinals coaching staff is former Indianapolis offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who is Arizona's assistant head coach; offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, the Colts' offensive line coach last season; and outside linebackers coach James Bettcher, Indianapolis' special defensive assistant in 2012.
And then there's former Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers, now with Arizona, and ex-Cardinals cornerback Greg Toler, who is returning from a groin injury and is expected to start for Indianapolis on Sunday.
The Pagano-Arians connection, though, will attract the most attention.
Arizona's first-year head coach earned NFL Coach of the Year honors last season as he filled in for Pagano, who was undergoing treatment for leukemia. The Colts head coach missed most of the year and Arians led the team to a 9-3 record (Indianapolis was 11-5 overall) and a wild-card spot in the AFC playoffs.
It was largely due to the fact that Arians had done such a good job leading the Colts that he wound up as the head coach in Arizona. He was a veteran NFL assistant coach who had come out of a forced retirement after being released by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For both head coaches, Sunday's game in the desert can't come soon enough.
"I think our guys are excited to play the Cardinals," Pagano said. "It's the next game. (But) it's going to be a tough one. (Arians has) got a really good football team, solid in all three phases and well coached. It will be challenge for our team."
Playing a team with a head coach who knows the Colts so well does have its disadvantages. It also might give the Indianapolis coaches a better feel for the Cardinals.
"I think it probably goes both ways. There's probably some things from a communication standpoint more than anything else. Again, system change, new coordinator, things like that," Pagano explained. "I don't know how much intel there is. We've got ours, they've got theirs. We got to play the game on the field."
The Indianapolis head coach and Arians go way back as friends. They were assistants together in Cleveland and Pagano was quick to bring the Cardinals head coach to Indianapolis prior to last season.
Pagano knows what Arians wants to do offensively.
"Run it and throw it down the field as far as you can and complete a lot of them," he said. "He's been doing it a long time. He's a great play caller. We all know that. You see a lot of similarities in there and he's utilizing their talent very well.
"We try to go into (this week's game) saying (Arizona will) throw it down the field. It's just as much an opportunity for us (defensively) as it is them."
The game has playoff implications for Arizona, which is in a tight field for a possible NFC wild-card berth. But Pagano also views Sunday's matchup as having an effect on the Colts' post-season chances.
"It's them and the same thing for us," he said. "So (for) our guys, it's all playoff football right now,"
SERIES HISTORY: 15th regular season meeting. Colts lead series, 8-6. The Colts are 6-4 against the Cardinals in home games and 2-2 on the road. The Cardinals' last win in the series occurred on Dec. 2, 1990 with Arizona posting a 20-17 home-field decision. The Colts have won their last four meetings with the Cardinals (Dec. 20, 1992, 16-13, RCA Dome; Sept. 1, 1996, 20-13, RCA Dome; Jan. 1, 2006, 17-13, RCA Dome; Sept. 27, 2009, 31-10, University of Phoenix Stadium). The overall series between the former St. Louis Cardinals and former Baltimore Colts began in 1961. Sunday's game will be the Colts' third-ever trip to Arizona (1990, 2009, 2013). Former Colts QB Peyton Manning completed 24-of-35 passes for 379 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in the last meeting between the two franchises. In that game, Colts WR Reggie Wayne caught seven passes for 126 yards and a TD and former Colts TE Dallas Clark had seven catches for 62 yards and a TD.
NFL Team Report - Indianapolis Colts - NOTES, QUOTES
--Colts head coach Chuck Pagano half-way joked recently that he isn't going to talk about the team's slow starts anymore. Pagano's humorous view is that the more he talks about the situation, the worse it gets: "I just think it could be one of those deals, the more you talk about it. Again, I don't know if it's like a batter that's in a slump, the harder you press, the harder you swing, things might tend to get worse instead of just sticking to the process. There's some things we can pinpoint in the last three ballgames in the first half that you can put your finger on and say if we get these things corrected."
--RB Donald Brown says that he doesn't mind sharing carries with RB Trent Richardson in the Colts' offensive backfield: "That's the way the National Football League has taken shape. There's only a few teams out there that really use one back because the backs take a punishment. You need to even out the load a little bit for productivity purposes and this is a long season. The more weapons you have, the better offense you'll be and the better team you'll be. And that's our goal."
--Without WR Reggie Wayne in the Colts' offensive lineup, the team is averaging 21.7 points per game and are converting just 31.6 of its third-down plays. With Wayne, who is sidelined for the season with a torn ACL, Indianapolis was averaging 26.7 points per game and were converting third downs at a 42.7 clip.
BY THE NUMBERS: 2 -- The Colts will go into the Arizona game with a 2-1 won-loss record against NFC West teams. Indianapolis has posted wins over San Francisco (27-7, Sept. 22) and Seattle (34-28, Oct. 6) and lost to St. Louis (38-8, Nov. 10).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Like I said, you can't put a price tag on it. If I've said it once, I've said it 1,000 times. What he did for not only myself but, more importantly, this organization, our players, our coaches, everything, and it was everybody had a hand in it, the players and the coaches and him leading the charge. Again, very, very grateful obviously." -- Colts head coach Chuck Pagano on his appreciation for the job current Arizona head coach Bruce Arians did as Indianapolis' interim head coach last season. Pagano missed most of the 2012 season as he battled leukemia. Arians was the Colts' offensive coordinator last year.
NFL Team Report - Indianapolis Colts - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Colts waived WR Griff Whalen from the active roster and signed former Pittsburgh Steelers RB/KR Chris Rainey.
Indianapolis also elevated rookie TE Justice Cunningham from the practice squad to the active roster. OLB Erik Walden, meanwhile, has been suspended for the Arizona game by the NFL after an altercation with Tennessee Titans TE Delanie Walker last week.
Walden tore Walker's helmet off and then head-butted the Titans player. While he was flagged for a personal foul, Walden was not ejected from the game. The suspension was appealed but not upheld.
--ILB Kavell Conner (ankle) left Thursday's practice and was ruled out vs. Arizona by coach Chuck Pagano on Friday.
--RB Dan Herron (ankle) was listed as probable Friday.
--RB Trent Richardson (calf) is listed as questionable, but expected to play Sunday at Arizona.
--S LaRon Landry (toe) is listed as questionable. Landry's injury has been described as an "aggravated toe."
--FB Stanley Havili (concussion) was not cleared by Friday and has been ruled out of the Arizona game.
--CB Greg Toler (groin) did not practice Friday and was ruled out against Arizona.
--CB Josh Gordy (groin) was listed as questionable Friday. Gordy has not played since he was hurt in the Oct. 20 home game with Denver.
--S Delano Howell (neck) returned for full practice this week and is listed as probable. Howell has been sidelined since he was hurt in the win over Denver on Oct. 20.
--WR Darius Heyward-Bey (ankle) fully practiced this week and is listed as probable. Heyward-Bey was hurt in the first quarter of last week's game at Tennessee.
--S Antoine Bethea was selected as the Colts' 2013 Man of the Year in recognition of his many off-field charitable contributions in Indianapolis and in his hometown of Newport News, Virginia. Bethea is now a candidate for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.
--PK Adam Vinatieri was named as the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, the 14th time during his NFL career with New England and Indianapolis that he has won the award. Vinatieri had three field goals in the win over Tennessee, including one from 50 yards out. The kick allowed Vinatieri to tie his career-best for 50-yard field goals in a season (four), which was set in 2012.
--OLB Bjoern Werner says that he is ready for his first-ever NFL start. Werner, the Colts' top draft pick last spring, has been working as a backup to starters Erik Walden and Robert Mathis since the start of training camp. With Walden suspended for Sunday's game at Arizona, Werner will get the call to replace him.
--OLB Robert Mathis isn't happy with how NFL game officials are "protecting" the league's quarterbacks. He has been fined "four or five times" during his career with the Colts for illegal hits. "I did not agree with any of them," Mathis said recently. "(It's) definitely not easy. But I guess you've got to play within the rules. You've got to do your job."
GAME PLAN: Start fast. Well, start faster. The Colts have been struggling with sluggish starts on both sides of the ball for the past month. Against a team like Arizona, which is battling for its playoff life, Indianapolis can't afford to drop behind by too much too quickly.
Offensively, the Colts want to be able to get the ball out quickly and keep the Arizona defense off balance. Defensively, Indianapolis has to be able to keep pressure on the Cardinals and try to force turnovers.
One thing is for certain. The Colts have to play smarter and be able to keep their poise in what will be a loud environment.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Colts RBs Trent Richardson/Donald Brown vs. Cardinals run defense -- Brown is coming off his best game of the season in last week's win over Tennessee. He scored a pair of rushing touchdowns and ran for 80 yards in 14 carries. Richardson continues to struggle but it a threat to have a big game. Arizona's run defense ranks second in the league, allowing only 81.4 yards per game.
--Cardinals RBs vs. Colts defensive front -- Arizona has had its own issues in the running game, averaging 85.6 yards per game. That ranks the Cardinals 25th in the league in running the football. Indianapolis' run defense is ranked 28th in the NFL, allowing 126.1 yards per game. Something has to give.