1. Attacking a safety situation
Buffalo's passing game has been pretty prolific this season as it ranks sixth best in the league. They also rank sixth in passing touchdowns and are just outside the top 10 in pass plays of 20 yards or more with 33. On Sunday, they'll be facing a Colts defense that has been susceptible to giving up passing touchdowns via the deep ball.
Indianapolis has allowed more passing touchdowns than any other team in football, surrendering 23 in their first 10 games. They're also allowing an opponent completion percentage of almost 67 percent (66.9%) that ranks 21st in the NFL. And opposing quarterbacks have a combined passer rating of almost 100 (99.9) when playing the Colts.
But Bills QB Josh Allen is also mindful of the Colts' ability to take the ball away as they have forced the second-most turnovers in the league behind Buffalo's defense.
"With this team, just being on time and accurate," said Allen of facing the Colts pass defense. "I think that the longer you hold the ball, given their rules, they are flying. They're staring at my eyes, and they are moving with me. So again, that's how they've been able to produce a bunch of turnovers, is quarterbacks looking at one guy, backside corner or safety, seeing that, and just jumping it and going. And again, they're a very aggressive play style, side to side, they move extremely fast. So, we've got to be detailed in our routes, and just especially with me, being on time and accurate."
Indianapolis has made their share of big plays. They've also allowed a passer rating of 113 on passes of 10-plus air yards, which ranks 29th in the league. Josh Allen has 15 passing touchdowns on throws of 10 air yards or more, the most in the league, and just one interception.
The root of the problem for Indianapolis is the loss of their two starting safeties Khari Willis and Julian Blackmon, who are both on injured reserve. Blackmon was lost for the season with a torn Achilles while Willis landed on I-R with calf and knee injuries two weeks ago.
With both young starters absent the Colts have relied upon veterans to fill the void with mixed results. Special teams ace George Odum has started at strong safety while Andrew Sendejo has manned free safety.
Colts head coach Frank Reich is wary of his defense being exposed by Josh Allen.
"He can put the ball anywhere on the field he wants," said Reich of Allen. "He's really turned into not just a great athlete and a great playmaker, but I think he's turned into an accurate passer. I think he's worked at it. I love watching guys develop at the quarterback position. I don't like playing against them, but I have a lot of respect for what he's done, how he's done it."
The inconsistency on the back end isn't limited to their backup safeties. Starting CB Xavier Rhodes has given up big plays deep, allowing a passer rating of 146.8 when targeted on passes of 10 air yards or more. Fellow CB Rock Ya-Sin and nickel CB Kenny Moore haven't been much better allowing a passer rating of more than 95 on such passes.
2. Shuffle up front
With both Star Lotulelei and Spencer Brown placed on the COVID/reserve list in the past week Buffalo will likely need to do some shuffling on their offensive and defensive lines again this weekend. Last Sunday, Harrison Phillips filled in admirably for Lotulelei in a dominant defensive performance against the Jets. Presumably he'll be asked to do the same this week against a formidable offensive front in the Colts.
"He's been very consistent for us," said head coach Sean McDermott of Phillips. "He uses his hands well, he's one of the glue guys for our team that doesn't get mentioned a lot. We've got many of them who are below the surface a little bit there in terms of notoriety, I guess, and we value that. Comfortable, a lot of confidence in him and a lot of confidence in the guys around him at the same time."
Meanwhile, Brown had just returned to the lineup last week and was instrumental in re-establishing Buffalo's ground game as the team scored four rushing touchdowns against the Jets. But with Brown now likely to miss Sunday's game, the Bills may move veteran Daryl Williams back out to right tackle. He has five starts at the position in 2021.
The choice for the starting right guard position will be interesting to see. Cody Ford lined up there the last time the vacancy needed to be filled. Other reserve offensive linemen include Ryan Bates, Jamil Douglas and Tommy Doyle.
Either way if the Bills are down two of the most physical linemen on the roster it won't help against a Colts team that is a major challenge at the line of scrimmage.
3. More than a runner
Indianapolis RB Jonathan Taylor is currently tied for the league lead in rushing (937) and is second in the league among running backs in yards per carry average (5.8). And while Taylor is a dynamic runner, he is much more than that for the Colts offense.
"He's a guy that runs extremely hard," said Jordan Poyer. "That guy runs hard, probably the hardest runner we've seen all season, breaks a lot of tackles. It's going to be a task and we're going to have to play well."
Buffalo didn't have their best day against the Titans in Week 6 with a comparable back in Derrick Henry, who thanks largely to a 76-yard touchdown run that got out finished with 143 yards on 20 carries and three rushing touchdowns.
Poyer believes the added element Taylor has is his breakaway 4.39 speed.
"Derrick Henry's a big, big guy," said Poyer. "Not saying that Jonathan Taylor isn't, but Jonathan Taylor is a little bit faster. I think a little bit more center of gravity. I'd say he breaks a lot of tackles not that Derrick Henry doesn't. They do some things similar, but Jonathan Taylor's still a very good running back and like I said, we're going to have to play well."
Taylor is also third on the team in receptions (29) and receiving yards (303). That production in the passing game is a big reason why Taylor is leading the league in total yards from scrimmage with 1,240 yards through 10 games. He's tallied at least 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his last seven outings.
4. Wentz's go-to guy
For years the Colts' number one wideout has been T.Y. Hilton. And though he is expected to return from injury this week, he has been supplanted as the team's top receiver by second-year wideout Michael Pittman Jr. Pittman sits just a single reception and 21 receiving yards behind Stefon Diggs on the season.
And when it comes to third down, Wentz relies upon Pittman heavily. The USC product currently leads the league in third down receptions with 21 and is second only to Minnesota's Justin Jefferson in third down receiving yardage (350 to 331).
"I really liked Michael Pittman as a rookie last year. What Carson Wentz has realized and what has helped Michael Pittman is Carson Wentz is a more aggressive quarterback than Philip Rivers. He has more arm talent and has the aggressive attitude. Pittman has benefitted from that because Pittman is very reliable on the 50-50 balls," said Colts and NFL senior writer for 'The Athletic' Stephen Holder in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. "A lot of his receptions have come when he's well covered. He's won on a lot of contested catches, particularly third down. He has been automatic for Carson Wentz on third down."
Pittman is one of only five receivers in the league with 50 or more receptions, 700 or more receiving yards and five or more receiving touchdowns. He also has four receiving touchdowns in his last four games.
5. No fly zone
Colts QB Carson Wentz ranks in the top 10 in touchdown passes with 17 and has only thrown three interceptions. He also has been great on passes of 10-plus air yards where he's thrown 11 of those touchdown passes with just a single INT. That ranks second-best in the NFL and his passer rating on 10-plus air yard passes is 118.7.
This week however, he's facing a pass defense that has not only given up a league-low six touchdown passes and has a league-high 15 interceptions. Buffalo's defense has allowed a passer rating of just 51.8 to opposing quarterbacks on passes of 10-plus air yards, good for second in the league. On such passes they have one interception and have not allowed a touchdown.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier believes it begins with their safety tandem of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer.
"They're very smart players as well who have a lot of pride and are very committed to getting better," said Frazier. "And when you've got guys that are good athletes that have that type of commitment, you have a chance to see a maturation over time. And as they have become comfortable with this system, they're to the point now where they could stand up and really teach some of the principles of what we want to do on defense. They know the defense that way. And that's part of being together for the last five years, and they feed off each other. And they really give quarterbacks a hard time sometimes with their looks."
If the Bills defense can maintain their simultaneous hold on fewest passing touchdowns allowed and most interceptions in the league this season, they'll become only the fourth team in league history to do so. Two of the other three teams (2003 Patriots, 2002 Buccaneers) won the Super Bowl the season they pulled off the feat.
6. Indy pass rush coming around
The most challenging defensive lineman on the Colts defensive front is DeForest Buckner, who leads the Colts in sacks. But some young players on the edge are rounding into form. Much like Buffalo, the Colts also drafted pass rushers with each of their first two draft choices this past spring. Top pick Kwity Paye and fellow pass rusher Dayo Odeyingbo have been making good progress in affecting opposing quarterbacks of late.
"They're really undermanned in the secondary and so the front end has had to step up," said Holder. "Getting Odeyinbo off the non-football injury list was big. He had a game-clinching forced fumble against Trevor Lawrence to end their threat at the end of the game. And Kwity Paye is growing in confidence with each and every game. They're starting to affect the quarterback and if they can consistently do that it'll help DeForest Buckner because to this point it's been hard to pull attention away from him."
Paye had a sack and three quarterbacks hits last week against Jacksonville. Odeyingbo, who is now recovered from an Achilles injury, had a half sack and a forced fumble to clinch the victory. Rotational nose tackle Taylor Stallworth has also been a factor of late. He has logged three sacks in the Colts last two games and had three quarterback hits last week.
7. Colts' specialists deliver
Last week the Colts special teams units were instrumental in the victory as LB Zaire Franklin blocked a punt that was recovered and returned for a touchdown in a 23-17 win over Jacksonville. LB E.J. Speed, who returned the blocked punt for the score, was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
"They've had a few games where winning in the special teams department has helped them seal a win. The blocked punt for a touchdown on Sunday came in a one-score game," said Holder. "Their return game is pretty good with Isaiah Rodgers on kickoffs and Nyheim Hines on punts. So, you have to strategize whether to kick to Rodgers or Hines knowing they both have breakaway speed."
Indianapolis has also received a boost to their kicking game as kicker Mike Badgley, who was signed in Week 6 due to an injury suffered by Rodrigo Blankenship, has been perfect since he arrived. Badgley has hit all seven of his field goal attempts and all 19 of his point after attempts since being on the roster.