INDIANAPOLIS — From the moment Jim Irsay first addressed the 2021 edition of the Colts at training camp, the message has been clear.
The franchise’s owner is tired of heading home disappointed after the season opener.
Indianapolis has lost seven consecutive season-opening games, a streak Irsay badly wants to break when the Colts take on the Seattle Seahawks at 1 p.m. Sunday in front of Lucas Oil Stadium’s first full crowd since 2019.
“We all know the opener is a big deal, especially when it’s a home opener, especially when your owner is letting you know it’s a big deal,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “I think we’ve all gotten that message. For sure, I would like to deliver him one of these here before too long.”
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The NFL’s scheduling gurus didn’t exactly make it easy.
Indianapolis opens by hosting a Seattle team that Russell Wilson, one of the league’s best quarterbacks, has led to three consecutive playoff appearances and eight in the last nine seasons. With a team like that on the docket, there will be plenty of chess moves to watch all over the field.
1. The Colts took two direct shots to their most important unit when they were forced to declare cornerback Xavier Rhodes (calf) and defensive end Kemoko Turay (groin) out for the game. The key to beating Seattle is slowing down Wilson, an 8-time Pro Bowler with devastating downfield weapons on the outside in wide receivers D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. A cornerback and a pass rusher were the last two positions Indianapolis could afford to lose.
2. Indianapolis will likely replace Rhodes with T.J. Carrie, and Rock Ya-Sin has been expected to be the team’s third cornerback for a while now — Kenny Moore will start outside when the Colts are in a 4-3 and slide inside when Indianapolis moves to nickel or dime — but in the absence of Rhodes, the Colts defense will likely have to be even more zone-heavy than usual. Allowing Seattle to isolate Ya-Sin and Carrie in man-to-man coverage with little help over the top seems like a recipe for disaster.
3. The Colts must focus on slowing down the top two Seahawks receivers. Metcalf (83 catches, 1,303 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Lockett (100 catches, 1,054 yards, 10 touchdowns) caught 47.1% of Seattle’s completions in 2020, and there is no clear third option. A pair of young players, second-round pick Dee Eskridge and second-year receiver Freddie Swain, back up the big guns.
4. Seattle has high hopes for tight end Gerald Everett to develop into a key target, and there is some precedent. Three tight ends combined for 73 catches last season. Everett will have a tough matchup against the Colts; strong safety Khari Willis and middle linebacker Bobby Okereke are excellent in coverage.
5. Darius Leonard might spend a lot of his day shadowing Wilson, whose mobility and escapability are the stuff of legend. When Leonard’s at his best, though, he’s an excellent, aggressive spy, closing on the quarterback as the play progresses and running him down for sacks.
6. Expect Ben Banogu to move into the lineup on third down with Turay out. Under pressure to take a big step forward this summer, Banogu put together an impressive training camp, and it looks like he’s going to get his chance to shine rushing off the left edge against Seattle right tackle Brandon Shell.
7. Welcome to the NFL, Kwity Paye. The Colts’ first-round pick dominated every tackle he saw during training camp and the preseason, but none of those players came close to the caliber of 36-year-old Seahawks left tackle Duane Brown, a five-time Pro Bowler.
8. DeForest Buckner remains the tip of the spear inside, where Seattle has tried to bolster its line by adding veteran Gabe Jackson, but the Seahawks don’t have a guard on Buckner’s level. The other key matchup to watch inside is nose tackle Grover Stewart vs. new Seattle center Kyle Fuller, an unknown quantity.
9. The offensive debate in Seattle — whether to run the ball or simply Let Russ Cook — might be decided by the Colts on Sunday. The Seahawks have a good running game led by Chris Carson, but Indianapolis has always been strong against the run during the Matt Eberflus era, and Seattle offensive coordinator Shane Waldron would be wise to test a pass defense weakened by injury.
10. That being said, Waldron spent the past couple of seasons learning from Sean McVay in Los Angeles, and that likely means the Seahawks will try to establish some balance, most likely focusing on the outside zone.
11. Finding a way to keep Wilson in the pocket might be the key to the game. Wilson can hurt a team with his legs, but the real danger is the Seattle star buying time for Metcalf and Lockett, then springing a big downfield throw on a secondary forced to cover too long. Indianapolis has to stay in its rush lanes.
12. A Seahawks defense that finished 22nd in the NFL in yards and 15th in scoring is Seattle’s big question mark, particularly a pass defense that is even shakier at the cornerback position than the Colts. Seattle is counting on Tre Herndon to lead the way at cornerback after losing Shaquill Griffin in free agency, and D.J. Reed is the starter on the other side. The backups are all players the Seahawks have acquired in the past two weeks.
13. The Seahawks will likely try to make up for their uncertainty in the secondary by blitzing Carson Wentz, led by strong safety Jamal Adams, who led the team with 9.5 sacks last season. Indianapolis has been good against the blitz during the Reich era, and the smart money is that the Colts spent a good portion of the week preparing for Adams and anybody else Seattle throws their way from the back seven.
14. The other spot the Colts must be concerned about is left tackle. Julién Davenport won a three-man battle for the swing tackle job, but he did have some issues during preseason games. Even though the Seahawks do not have a top-of-the-line edge rusher — Seattle will likely use a committee approach with Carlos Dunlap, L.C. Collier, Benson Mayowa and Alton Robinson — Davenport will have to get some help on the blind side.
15. If the Colts can keep Wentz clean, Michael Pittman Jr. might have a breakout day against Seattle’s cornerbacks. The path is clear for the second-year receiver, a player Indianapolis believes in deeply now that he’s got a year under his belt.
16. Parris Campbell was limited in practice this week with an Achilles injury, but the third-year receiver could play a big role in the passing game. Reich loves receivers he can move all over the formation, and that’s Campbell, whose speed is a problem for opposing defenses.
17. Seattle’s defense was excellent against the run last season; the Seahawks finished fifth in the NFL. On the other hand, the best player in training camp this August was Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, and Indianapolis will likely count on its road-grading offensive line to give Taylor room to overpower the Seahawks and give Wentz some balance.
18. Handicapping how Wentz might play is almost impossible. The Colts’ new starting quarterback has had just five full practices with the team, and Indianapolis is confident he’ll be more like the Wentz that led the Eagles from 2017-19 and less like the Wentz who collapsed last season. Even without a lot of time on the field, expect Wentz to bring two things to the Indianapolis offense that weren’t a big factor a year ago: mobility and the deep ball. Both appeared to be areas of emphasis for the Colts in the few practices Wentz was on the field.
19. Wentz has to avoid the big mistake after tying for the league lead with 15 interceptions in 12 games last year. Seattle might not be great at cornerback, but free safety Quandre Diggs had five picks in 2020, and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is as savvy and as instinctive as he’s ever been.
20. The presence of Wagner and Adams might make life difficult on Nyheim Hines out of the backfield, at least when they’re asked to cover him. If the Seahawks go blitz-happy in an effort to get to Wentz, Hines could have a big day exploiting the holes left in the coverage by blitzers.
21. A pair of rookies could be big-play wild cards in the Colts offense. Tight end Kylen Granson and wide receiver Mike Strachan will likely play small roles in terms of snaps, but they’re both capable of making the big play.
22. If Rodrigo Blankenship kicks the way he did in training camp and the preseason, the Colts should have no worries.
23. Seattle’s kicking game is excellent. Kicker Jason Myers, punter Michael Dickson and long snapper Tyler Ott have all been Pro Bowlers in the past.