Bringing an end to a long offseason, the Seahawks and Colts will face off in their respective season openers at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday in a matchup between two of last year’s 14 playoff squads.
Playing in their first home regular season game in front of fans in two years, the Colts will break in a new starting quarterback in Carson Wentz, who was acquired from the Eagles this offseason to reunite with coach Frank Reich. Coming off an NFC West division title last season, the Seahawks will have a few new toys to unleash as well, including offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, who will have his first chance to show what he can do with quarterback Russell Wilson executing his offense.
In what should be one of the most appetizing matchups on the NFL’s opening week docket, what must the Seahawks accomplish to start the season with a quality road win in Indianapolis? Here are five keys to a Week 1 victory:
1. Testing his mobility, turn up the pressure on Carson Wentz early and frequently.
While Wentz has found success against most other teams, the former North Dakota State star has stumbled mightily in four past regular season meetings against the Seahawks. On the losing end in each contest, he’s completed 61 percent of his passes for 1,037 yards, six touchdowns, and six interceptions, posting a subpar 74.2 passer rating. At the center of these struggles, he has been under consistent heat by Seattle’s front seven, taking 14 sacks and a whopping 41 quarterback hits in those games.
Barely five weeks removed from foot surgery, Seattle will want to test Wentz’s ability to move early in Sunday’s contest and will benefit from the absence of veteran left tackle Eric Fisher. His replacement, Julie’n Davenport, hasn’t done well in previous starting opportunities with the Texans and Dolphins. Based on past precedent, if they’re able to get heat on Wentz early in the game, particularly with their front four, he has shown a propensity to wither under pressure and uncork errant throws at all levels. Making him hear footsteps could lead to a quick turnover or two and conjure up memories of his prior performances against the Seahawks, which would bode well for the visitor’s chances.
2. Don’t let Jonathan Taylor and the Colts’ backfield take control of the game.
Like the Colts, the Seahawks had one of the best run defenses in the NFL a year ago, but the team no longer has long-time starting defensive tackle Jarran Reed and depth behind starters Poona Ford and Al Woods looks a bit shaky in the interior. They will also be breaking in two new full-time starters at linebacker in Jordyn Brooks and Darrell Taylor, who will be replacing K.J. Wright at the strongside spot.
Considering depth concerns in the trenches and how green the linebacking corps is aside from veteran Bobby Wagner, trying to slow down rising star Jonathan Taylor, do-it-all third down back Nyheim Hines, and Marlon Mack could be a major challenge. The Colts’ stacked running back room benefits from an outstanding offensive line led by All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson and center Ryan Kelly blocking in front of them and all three players are capable receivers as well. Slowing down the bruising, explosive Taylor, who rushed for over 1,100 yards and 600-plus yards after contact as a rookie, will be crucial to Seattle’s chances of escaping with a victory. If Indianapolis can sustain several lengthy scoring drives backed by its ground attack, it could turn into a long afternoon for Ken Norton Jr.’s defense.
3. Lean more heavily on between the tackles run concepts to nullify Indy’s second level speed and athleticism.
Coming from Los Angeles where he was groomed under coach Sean McVay, new Waldron is expected to implement a more zone-oriented run game than the one deployed by his predecessor Brian Schottenheimer. In particular, borrowing a staple from McVay’s offense, he’s expected to utilize wide zone and split zone concepts from under center more often.
In Sunday’s matchup, Waldron would be wise to game plan more inside runs with Chris Carson and a deep stable of backs against an athletic Colts front seven. All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard is a tackling machine who can fly sideline to sideline, while Bobby Okereke is a rising third year linebacker alongside him who also boasts quality athleticism and pursuit skills. Up front, DeForest Buckner isn’t just a top-tier interior pass rusher, as he also produced 30 run stops in 2020 per Pro Football Focus. Perimeter running may not be the most effective way to attack Matt Eberflus’ defense, but getting downhill behind Jackson and Damien Lewis could be the best way to keep Indy honest and help open up opportunities in the play action passing game.
4. Selectively take your deep shots against a battered Indy secondary.
One of the main reasons Pete Carroll hired Waldron was the belief he would be able to help Wilson and the offense become more efficient with their quick passing game, consequently helping limit pressure on the star quarterback and countering the two-deep safety looks that stymied them a year ago. One and three-step drops will be more commonplace than the past to ensure the signal caller gets the ball out of his hands and allows his playmakers to go to work after the catch.
But while the short-to-intermediate passing game will be more emphasized in Waldron’s scheme, Wilson stands out as one of the sport’s premier deep ball passers and the Seahawks boast a dynamic trio of receivers in DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and rookie Dee Eskridge capable of taking the top off of defenses, so the vertical passing game should remain a major aspect of their offensive attack. Although the Colts have one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL in Kenny Moore, they will be without Xavier Rhodes, leaving journeyman T.J. Carrie and Rock Ya-Sin as the starters on the outside. Both players have struggled at times surrendering big plays, and if pass protection holds up, the door will be open for Wilson to air it out a few times when opportunity strikes.
5. Create a game-changing play on special teams.
On paper, having both won at least 11 games a year ago and bringing back the vast majority of their respective rosters, the Colts and Seahawks look to be evenly matched. Both teams have plenty of talent on both sides of the football and have quality coaches running the show. This one should be a dogfight from the opening possession and could be decided on the final possession.
In close games, special teams often serve as the great equalizer and Sunday could be no different in Indianapolis. In the kicking game, the Seahawks could have a slight advantage with Jason Myers over Rodrigo Blankenship, while Michael Dickson has been one of the game’s best punters for the past three years. But the Colts have a few dynamic specialists, including Hines as a punt returner, and one big return could be the difference in what should be a back-and-forth affair. As was the case when these two teams played back in 2013 at Lucas Oil, a blocked punt or kick could change the momentum as well. Look for specialists to play a decisive role in the final outcome.