Insider: 11 things to watch in Colts-Cowboys matchup on Sunday Night Football

INDIANAPOLIS — The Colts are right back on the big stage.

For the second time in six days, Indianapolis will be on a prime time stage, taking on the Cowboys at 8:15 p.m. at AT&T Stadium in a game televised by WTHR.

The Colts (4-7-1) face a tall task against a Dallas team that has won four of its last five games. For a lot of reasons, the Cowboys (8-3) present a remarkably tough matchup for Indianapolis.

The Colts vs. Micah Parsons

1. Pound for pound, Dallas linebacker Micah Parsons is one of the best players in the NFL, and the way the Cowboys deploy him presents an enormous problem for the Colts’ embattled offensive line. Parsons has 12 sacks and 21 quarterback hits, and Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn makes it hard to identify where Parsons will be attacking, moving him all over the field. The Colts offensive line has struggled to handle blitzes, twists and stunts all season long, and it’s likely that Quinn will build a game plan around giving Parsons chances to rush against rookie left tackle Bernhard Raimann and second-year right guard Will Fries.

2. If Parsons was the only pass-rush threat, the Colts could neutralize the Cowboys pass rush by focusing on Parsons and Parsons alone. The problem is that Quinn has plenty of forces at his disposal. Dallas has racked up 45 sacks, six more than any other team in the NFL. Dorance Armstrong has eight sacks and 12 quarterback hits, Demarcus Lawrence has six sacks and 10 quarterback hits and Dante Fowler has five sacks and seven quarterback hits. The Cowboys’ safeties, Donovan Wilson and Jayron Kearse, have combined for five sacks. Indianapolis, on the other hand, has given up 43 sacks, the most in the NFL.

3. Colts right tackle Braden Smith was coming off of his best game of the season, rendering Pittsburgh star T.J. Watt a moot point in Monday night’s game. But Indianapolis won’t have Smith available on Sunday night; the right tackle came down with an illness Thursday and has already been ruled out for the game. Without Smith in the lineup, Indianapolis will likely turn to Matt Pryor or Dennis Kelly at the position — Colts interim coach Jeff Saturday declined to name a starter in Smith’s place — and that makes blocking the Dallas pass rush even tougher. Smith, of late, had been the Colts’ most consistent lineman; giving up just two sacks this season, according to Sports Info Solutions, the best number of any Indianapolis offensive lineman who has started on a consistent basis.

Matt Ryan vs. turnovers

4. All of that pressure produces mistakes. The Cowboys have 16 takeaways this season, tied for 7th-most in the NFL, and it’s been evenly distributed between interceptions and fumble recoveries. Dallas cornerback Trevon Diggs hasn’t been able to replicate his 11-interception season in 2021, but he has three picks. is always hunting and loves to jump short routes, which make up the vast majority of Matt Ryan’s pass attempts right now. Ryan is averaging just 5.9 yards per pass attempt this season, the lowest in the NFL by a wide margin.

5. Ryan’s early turnover pace has come back to the mean somewhat in the three games since he returned to the lineup, but the Colts offense is still a mark for the Cowboys’ big-play defense. Indianapolis has turned the ball over 21 times this season, tied for the worst mark in the league, and running back Jonathan Taylor has three fumbles on the year, as many as he had in his first two seasons combined. Throw in a botched handoff with Ryan last week — the fumble was officially charged to Ryan — and Taylor’s had a hand in four fumbles this season. Everybody on the Cowboys defense is going for the ball at all times. Dallas has forced 13 fumbles, and 10 different Cowboys have forced at least one fumble, illustrating how hard it is to hold onto the ball against Dallas.

6. Michael Pittman Jr. (74 catches, 739 yards) and Parris Campbell (46 catches, 454 yards) have kept their roles in the offense as the passing game gets shorter and shorter in an effort to keep Ryan clean, but rookie wide receiver Alec Pierce’s role has all but disappeared. Pierce has just four catches in the last four games, and teams seem to be playing a safety over the top of the rookie, eliminating the one-on-one opportunities Pierce exploited in the first half of the season.

7. The Colts’ offensive game plan seems obvious against a Cowboys defense that has given up just 5.7 yards per dropback and 177.7 yards per game, numbers that rank third and first, respectively, in the NFL. With that in mind, Indianapolis will likely feed the ball heavily to Jonathan Taylor, who has 317 yards on 64 carries since returning to the lineup against Las Vegas. Dallas is giving up 4.7 yards per carry (25th in the NFL) and 131.9 yards per game (24th), and the Cowboys have given up more than 200 rushing yards in two of their last four games. The Cowboys will likely respond by stacking the box against Indianapolis, a team that hasn’t shown it can defenses pay by throwing the ball down the field.

Colts pass rush vs. the Cowboys

8. The Colts pass rush is getting defensive end Kwity Paye back in the lineup after he’s missed the past three games, and Yannick Ngakoue has finally come on, piling up 3.5 sacks in the last two games. Pair those two edge rushers with DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart in the middle and the Indianapolis pass rush might be at its best so far this season. The Colts will have to be that good, though, because the Cowboys don’t give up sacks. Dallas has given up just 14 sacks overall, the best mark in the NFL by three full sacks, and the Cowboys haven’t given up a sack in either of their last two games.  

9.  Cornerback Kenny Moore II (ankle) has already been ruled out for the game. Moore II hasn’t been the same player in coverage this season — he’s given up 65% completions, 8.1 yards per attempt and an opposing passer rating of 106.8, according to Sports Info Solutions — but he remains a force as a tackler at the line of scrimmage. Without Moore II in the lineup, the Colts are more vulnerable to blossoming Dallas running back Tony Pollard, who has taken over the lead role from Ezekiel Elliott, by being a big-play machine in open space. Pollard is averaging 5.6 yards per carry (761 rushing yards) and 10.6 yards per catch (244 yards), and Dallas likes to get Pollard out on the edge. Dallas has built its offense around the run game, and the Colts are stout up the middle. Expect the Cowboys to attack on the edge.

10. One Cowboys wide receiver has been the team’s No. 1 target, by far. CeeDee Lamb has 64 catches for 857 yards and five touchdowns this season; no other Dallas target has more than 33 catches this season. What the Cowboys do well is spread the ball around, using a bunch of different positions. Wide receiver Michael Gallup is expected back from illness, tight ends Dalton Schultz and Jake Ferguson have been playmakers and Pollard has been a weapon.

11. Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott has thrown five of his six interceptions in the last four games, but the Colts have just four interceptions this season and haven’t done a good job taking the ball away. Outside of the interceptions, Prescott has been efficient, completing 68.1% of the passes and averaging 7.6 yards per attempt.

This content was originally published here.

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