Jags at Colts: Areas of interest

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

QB returns: Jacoby Brissett is back, and no one should question his importance to the franchise in the aftermath of the ugly, ugly, ugly loss to one-win Miami. The offense lacked anything resembling rhythm or continuity with Brian Hoyer under center. He did more than enough to win at Pittsburgh after Brissett sprained his left MCL in the second quarter, but contributed to the inexcusable loss to the Dolphins with three interceptions, too many errant throws and a 38.8 passer rating.

Brissett’s return should mean a return of a more efficient offense. He’s a 64.8 percent passer with 14 TDs and just three interceptions. He’s more likely to take the check-down throw and keep the chains moving than was the case with Hoyer.

The issue, though, is whether Brissett will have the type of mobility he’ll need in dealing with Jacksonville’s pass rush. He has good movement in the pocket and the strength to shrug off an occasional defender, and needs those traits Sunday.

The bottom line: if Frank Reich didn’t believe Brissett could play the position at an acceptable level, he wouldn’t give his QB the green light.

QB returns, Part 2: The Jaguars signed Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 million free-agent contract in the offseason, and the return has consisted of 11 snaps, eight passes and one TD. He suffered a broken left clavicle in the season-opener, ushering in the Gardner Minshew II era.

Now, Foles returns. The Jaguars are 4-5 and in last place in the AFC South, but he gives them hope for a late push.

“The guys have done a great job,’’ he said. “To be back in a situation where we have an opportunity to make a run, that’s all we can ever ask.’’

Foles’ background is well-documented: MVP of Super Bowl LII when he passed for 373 yards and three TDs – and caught another TD – in leading the Eagles to a 41-33 win over the Patriots; 26-19 as a starter; 2013 Pro Bowler with Philly. No one should dismiss Foles’ competency, even though he hasn’t been under fire in nearly three months.

“He is an explosive playmaker,’’ Reich said.

Reich has first-hand knowledge. He was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator in ’17 and witnessed Foles’ impact after replacing injured Carson Wentz. It also should benefit the Colts to some level that defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus faced the Eagles twice a year while he was on the Dallas Cowboys’ staff.

Still, there is the unknown. How much rust will Foles bring with him into the game?

End Justin Houston admitted there’s an issue of “not knowing how they’re going to attack you and not knowing how they’re going to use him. I think they’re going to protect him very well. He’s fresh off an injury so I think they want to get his feet wet.

“They’re just not going to let him open the whole playbook up. I feel as if they’re going to make sure he’s comfortable in the pocket and make sure he’s able to do what he wants to do.’’

Back to the basics: With Brissett being less than 100 percent – that’s Reich’s expectation – it’s incumbent on the offensive line to step up and lessen his load. That means better pass protection than it’s offered in the last three games, and a more reliable running game.

Here’s where we remind you the Colts have allowed 10 sacks in the last three games after yielding 7 in the first six. Jacksonville’s defense is middle of the road statistically – 16th in yards allowed, tied for 13th in points – but its 30 sacks are tied for the 5th-most in the NFL. Rookie Josh Allen has a team-high 7 followed by Calais Campbell (5.5), Yannick Ngakoue (4) and Dawuane Smoot (4).

As for the running game, it’s hit something of a speed bump. Marlon Mack’s 753 yards are 9th in the league and he’s on pace for 1,300 yards, but the rushing attack has averaged just 109.3 yards per game and 3.8 per attempt over the last four games.

Brissett is going to have to make the required plays in the passing game, but this can’t be a 40-plus attempt afternoon. By the way, Jacksonville’s run defense has been nothing special: 22nd in yards per game (120.2), 29th in yards per attempt (4.9).

Defense uptick: Eberflus’ defense continues to trend in the right direction. Exhibit A: it’s allowed just five TDs in the last four games. Exhibit B: it’s yielded less than 300 total yards in three straight games for the first time since 2009. Exhibit C: it’s allowed third-down conversions at a 32.3 percent (21-of-65) over the last five games; Exhibit D: Darius Leonard once again is playing at an elite level. The Colts have had a player notch an interception, a sack and forced fumble in a game five times since 1990, and Leonard’s done it twice in two seasons, including last week against the Dolphins.

The Jaguars represent the toughest test since week 7 against Houston. Foles brings a strong arm; D.J. Chark (43 catches, 692 yards, 6 TDs), Dede Westbrook (32, 383, 1) and Chris Conley (23, 461, 2) are serious receiving threats; and Leonard Fournette is capable of taking over a game. The 6-0, 228-pound Fournette ranks 6th in the league in rushing (831 yards, 4.8 per attempt) and 3rd in yards from scrimmage (1,126).

Jacksonville has piled up 44 plays of at least 20 yards – 35 receptions, nine rushes – which are tied for 5th-most in the league. Fournette has three runs of at least 60 yards this season, including an 81-yarder at Denver. That day, by the way, he got loose for a career-high 225 yards on 29 carries.

For those keeping track at home, the Colts haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 27 straight regular-season games, the NFL’s second-longest active streak (Saints, 31).

Break the streak?: Let’s get this out of the way because the evidence is overwhelming. The Colts can’t win without T.Y. Hilton. They’re 0-7 when they’re Pro Bowl wideout is sidelined, and a calf injury will force him to miss a third straight game and eighth overall.

So, is it 0-8 or will Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni finally find a way to adequately compensate for the absence of their one true playmaker in the passing game? Someone – Zach Pascal, Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle, Nyheim Hines – needs to be the guy who makes the pivotal play(s) when it matters.

And the winner is: Colts 24, Jaguars 22. Yes, that’s 10 straight games decided by 7 points or fewer. We’re siding with the hometown guys – barely – for the simple fact if they plan on being relevant in December, they can’t afford to lose another game at home. Especially a division game at home. This three-game stretch could set the Colts up nicely for the late push, or sabotage their season altogether. There’s Thursday’s short turnaround trip to Houston, then a Dec. 1 rematch with Tennessee in Indy. Houston (6-3) has the AFC South lead, but it also is heading into a pivotal three-game stretch: at Baltimore Sunday, vs. the Colts Thursday, home with New England Dec. 1.

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