5 Players to Watch: Cowboys @ Colts
With a win over the Colts on Sunday afternoon, the Cowboys could board the team charter for the return flight from Indianapolis to DFW as the NFC East Champions.
But the Colts are led by quarterback Andrew Luck whose 34 TD passes are the second most in the NFL this season. And Colts dynamic rookie linebacker, Darius Leonard, is having a better season statistically than Leighton Vander Esch. And here’s the bottom line for the Colts: they need a win on Sunday to keep pace in the AFC playoff hunt.
Because the Colts are an AFC team which the Cowboys play only once every four years, their roster may be unfamiliar to many Cowboys’ fans. So, in this week’s “Players/Matchups to Watch”, we’ll focus a little more on difference-makers for the Colts.
Let’s start with the aforementioned linebacker because the linebacker corps for both teams have been in the news this week with the return of Cowboys’ team captain Sean Lee to the practice field after he’s missed the past 5 games with a hamstring injury. Leonard, the new star linebacker for the Colts, plays the same position as Lee and Vander Esch.
Matt Patterson via AP
Colts OLB Darius Leonard (#53)
Learn this guy’s name and number quickly: Darius Leonard. He has a good shot at beating-out Leighton Vander Esch and Chargers Safety Derwin James for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
You know how great Vander Esch has been this year, right? Leonard has even more tackles: 135 in 12 games (he missed Week 5 with an ankle injury).
Leonard’s 135 tackles are the most tackles by a rookie in his first 12 career games since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. He is leading all NFL players in tackles in 2018. All players…not just rookies! He also has 7 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recovers, and 11 tackles-for-loss.
Leonard was the Colts’ 2nd round pick and he’s from a small college program: South Carolina State.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said the Cowboys liked Leonard a lot and interviewed him during the pre-draft process. Garett says Leonard is “a heck of a good kid, an impressive athlete with long arms and good speed who covers all of the field.”
Garrett also said, “we weren’t surprised Flus went after him in the NFL Draft.”
Who is “Flus”? “Flus” is Matt Eberflus (EE-buhr-floos), the long-time Cowboys linebackers coach who left last January to take over as the Colts defensive coordinator. Even though Flus isn’t playing in the game, he’s definitely making our list…
Michael Conroy via AP
Colts Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus
You will see lots of cutaway shots of Matt Eberflus on the Colts’ sideline when you watch Sunday’s broadcast on FOX. He is a terrific coach and the Cowboys were sorry to lose him from their staff, but the opportunity to climb the coaching ladder and move up to defensive coordinator was too great an opportunity for him to pass up. That’s why he’s on Indy’s sideline instead of the Cowboys’ this Sunday.
Eberflus knows the Cowboys’ offense and personnel very well because he had to go against Dak, Zeke, Beasley and the offensive line every day in practice when Eberflus was coaching the Cowboys’ linebackers.
The Colts defense is going to look a lot like the Cowboys defense, in terms of scheme and style.
“There are some things we’re familiar with from a scheme standpoint, but there are some nuances he has specifically since joining the Colts and with their personnel that we’re not familiar with,” admits Coach Garrett.
Colts QB Andrew Luck (#12)
Andrew Luck missed all of last season because of a shoulder injury, but he looks like he’s back to being one of the elite quarterbacks of his era. His 34 touchdown passes are the second-most in the NFL this season behind the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes.
It’s hard to sack Andrew Luck so this is a tough test for the Cowboys’ pass rush. Luck has been sacked only 16 times, that’s the second fewest amount of sacks allowed in the league.
“He gets the ball out of his hand, knows what to do, and gets rid of the ball quickly,” Coach Garrett says of Luck. “That’s why they are so efficient on offense.”
Matt Patterson via AP
Luck’s long-time target in the passing game is a really fine receiver who goes by the initials “T.Y.”
Darron Cummings via AP
Colts WR T.Y. Hilton (#13)
T.Y. Hilton needs only 14 yards on Sunday to reach 1,000 receiving yards on the season. He’s a veteran playmaker who has a really good average-per-catch (15.9) and leads the Colts in receptions (62).
Hilton’s assets are his quickness, speed, and explosiveness. He can make big catches downfield, that’s for sure. But he also has good run-after-catch ability. Luck will often throw the ball short to Hilton, then let him use his speed to rack up yards after the catch.
Luck has a great rapport with Hilton and he’s the main go-to guy when the Colts need a big play or to move the chains.
Hilton has been nagged by injuries this year and he missed practice time this week with a sore ankle. But he’s expected to play Sunday and he is the biggest threat in the Colts’ passing game.
A new threat, however, has emerged for the Colts when they get to the Red Zone (inside the opponents’ 20-yard line). It’s a guy who plays tight end.
Eric Christian Smith via AP
Colts TE Eric Ebron (#86)
Ebron has been Luck’s go-to guy in the Red Zone this year. Ebron has 12 touchdown catches this year, 9 of which have come in the red zone. In fact, he has only 9 catches total in the red zone; each of those 9 has resulted in a touchdown.
His 12 touchdowns are tied for the most in the NFL this season.
Ebron is a former Detroit Lion; this is his first season with the Colts. He had only 11 touchdowns during his first 4 seasons with the Lions; now he has a team-leading 12 touchdowns for the Colts.
During the Colts-Texans game last Sunday, CBS analyst Rich Gannon pointed out that the Colts sometimes stacked Ebron and T.Y. Hilton together in the slot on the same side of the field. It will be interesting to see if they do the same thing against the Cowboys this Sunday in an attempt to shake one of them free in coverage.
Colts K Adam Vinatieri (#4)
Earlier this year, Adam Vinatieri became the all-time leading scorer in NFL history.
Think about that for a second…in the history of the league, no one has scored more points than the guy you’re going to see play on Sunday! He’s scored 2,576 points in his illustrious career which has included game-winning kicks in multiple Super Bowls dating back to his years with the Patriots.
And just because Vinatieri is 45 years old and playing in his 23rd NFL season, don’t think he’s lost anything due to age.
Matt Patterson via AP
In Sunday’s win at Houston he nailed a season-long 54-yard field goal on the final play of the first half. Vinatieri is 18 of 22 on field goal attempts this season. He has missed two extra points (35 of 37).
Vinatieri’s first appearance in an NFL game was in September 1996. It was 8 months after the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXX. Three Cowboys that are playing in today’s game: Leighton Vander Esch, Connor Williams, and Dorance Armstrong were not born when Vinatieri made his NFL regular season debut. Tight End Dalton Schultz was a month old. A couple of one-year olds, Ezekiel Elliott and Noah Brown, were still in diapers.
*Sunday’s Cowboys-Colts game at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis is an early kickoff: 12pm central. The game will be broadcast on FOX. You can also hear the game on the Dallas Cowboys Radio Network.