Colts at Saints: Areas of interest

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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett, No. 7, prepares to take the field prior to a football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Dec. 8, 2019, in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the New Orleans Saints Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

  • Kickoff: 8:15 p.m.
  • Broadcast: ESPN
  • Finish, don’t fade:

The Colts are caught in a death spiral largely of their own making. They’ve lost five of their last six, including three straight, and they’ve barely got a playoff pulse. There are numerous reasons, but it all comes down to their inability to close. They’ve had fourth-quarter leads in four of the five losses and continually been unable to protect or extend them. They’ve been outscored 31-0 in the fourth quarter during the three-game losing streak.

It’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll be in position to flip the script against the Saints. That requires doing enough in the first three quarters, and it’s worth reminding everyone New Orleans won’t be lacking in motivation. The 10-3 Saints have clinched the NFC South and have a very real shot at earning one of the conference’s top 2 seeds.

  • Finish, offense:

As we mentioned, there’s plenty of blame to go around for this late-season swoon. Remember Adam Vinatieri’s go-ahead 46-yard field goal attempt against Tennessee that turned into a kick-6? How about Chase McLaughlin’s 47-yarder at Tampa that could have resulted in overtime but glanced off the right upright?

The defense also has been too obliging late, but we’re more concerned with an offense that has been a fourth-quarter no-show. Over the past three games, the Jacoby Brissett-led unit has failed to get much done. Not only has it failed to score on its last nine fourth-quarter possessions, three have ended with turnovers – a Brissett interception, lost fumbles by Nyheim Hines and Ross Travis. Brissett’s passing during that stretch: 15-of-28, 158 yards, one interception, no touchdowns, a 55.4 rating.

It’s worth noting the fourth quarter has been Brissett’s bane all season. His 75.5 rating ranks 30th.

  • Control the game:

Again, this is on the offense. Tonight’s challenge reminds us of the week 5 trip to Kansas City. Hostile, raucous environment. Facing a high-powered offense (Saints are averaging 26.5 points, 5th in the NFL) and an elite quarterback (Drew Brees).

Against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Arrowhead, Frank Reich leaned on his offensive line and running game, and a stubborn defense. The Colts ran for 180 yards, got enough from Brissett (151 yards) and his kicking game (four Vinatieri field goals) en route to the 19-13 upset. They dominated time of possession (37:15-22:45).

Do it again, and hope that’s enough.

There will be times Brissett absolutely must make plays in the passing game, but the game plan needs to feature Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins and that offensive line. The Saints’ defense ranks 5th against the run (94.2 yards per game), but that’s a reflection of facing the second-fewest attempts in the league. A more telling stat: it ranks 18th in yards per attempt allowed (4.3).

The Saints haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 35 straight games, the NFL’s longest active streak. We’re not predicting it ends tonight, but Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni need to stick with their run game and pound away, primarily with Mack. He entered the weekend 11th in rushing with 900 yards and is on the verge of joining Frank Gore (2016) and Joe Addai (2006-07) as the only Colts to crack the 1,000-yard since Edgerrin James’ departure in ’05.

Even if T.Y. Hilton’s calf allows him to play after missing five of the last six games, an effective running game is a must. We’re guessing Reich and Sirianni noticed the Saints placed defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport on IR this week.

  • Contain Brees:

And good luck with that. The most effective way to disrupt a QB is to get in his face, speed up his internal clock and make him do things before he wants to do them. That’s easier said than done against Drew Brees. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus noted Brees gets rid of the football with 2.4 seconds.

“He reads it quick and he gets it out quick,’’ he said. “They do a good job protecting him. But mostly it’s time. He’s getting the ball out really fast and I think he’s second or first in the league right now in that regard.’’

Brees has been sacked just nine times in eight games, and 6 came in a stunning loss to Atlanta. He’s decisive and quick. That’s reflective in his league-best 73.6 completion rate. Brees still will take an occasional shot down the field, but he’s a surgeon at dicing up defenses with short and intermediate throws.

And that brings us to Michael Thomas. The fourth-year wideout leads the NFL with 121 receptions and 1,424 yards. He’s had at least 10 receptions in seven of 13 games and is on pace for 148 on the year. That would eclipse Marvin Harrison’s single-season record of 143 set in 2002.

While the Saints are Thomas-centric, they also boast a game-breaker in Alvin Kamara, their leading rusher (612 yards) and second-leading receiver (68 for 462).

The Colts will be less than 100 percent. Their top DB, nickel Kenny Moore II, is out with an ankle injury. Pierre Desir has been bothered by a hamstring injury that has contributed to an uneven season.

  • And the winner is:

Saints 34, Colts 24. Maybe Indy will be effective at keeping Brees on the sideline long enough to limit his productivity. Maybe Brissett and the offense finally will get their act together in the fourth quarter. And maybe not.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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